Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi's Corner

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHAVUOS

It was a couple of years ago, on the first day of Shavuos. I was deep in conversation with another rabbi when he abruptly shifted gears. “Nu,” he asked with a smile, “What did you darshen about in Shule today?”

 

I responded with a laugh, “First day Shavuos? No Drosho! I never have and I don’t think I ever will. With all the kids – it’s a tough crowd, a really tough crowd.” Puckering his brow, he responded, “Hmm, that’s what I should have done. My Drosho was a challenge – to put it mildly – because of the kids.”

 

Whether or not anyone will miss a Drosho this year I don’t know. However, I will certainly miss the din and chatter of our cherubic clan at Shule. They are always brimming with such enthusiasm to receive the Torah… and some ice-cream!

 

But what is it about bringing the children to Shule? How many of them understand the Aseres Hadibros anyway? For what purpose was the Rebbe’s directive?

 

We have all heard countless times the Midrash which states that Hashem agreed to give the Torah only once the children were offered as guarantors. What is the practical message of the Midrash? What outcome is it driving at? Is the Midrash expecting anything from the adults too, or is it purely about the children?

 

An instinctive answer might be that the Midrash is encouraging the children to learn and the adults to teach. However, in truth, this can’t be the extent of it. Were that the case, it would have been far more apt for our older teenagers to serve as the guarantors, because the Gemoro in Kiddushin establishes 16-24 as the most productive years of learning. As such, it cannot be said that the uniqueness of children is purely about their learning ability or their information gathering.

 

Rather, explains the Rebbe, it is much more about how impressionable and enthusiastic our children are. We can all relate to this by evoking our own vivid memories of the past, the days of our childhood. The enchanting images of our youth touch us in a deep way, and our minds hold dear the things that captivated us as a bright-eyed and pure child. Experiences are embedded in this way only when we are young. With age comes cynicism and disinterest, and events or experiences do not leave quite the same mark or have the same lasting impact.

 

So, returning to the question: “Does the Midrash require anything from the adults?” The Rebbe explains that it sure does. Children are capable of incredible encounters, but someone needs to facilitate it for them. As parents, educators or older family-members, we need to create those moments, ones that will have an enduring impression. And since we can never know which experiences will be the ones that resonate with our children forever, we must generate as many such moments as possible. Even in the simple things, be it the bedtime Shema, the morning Modeh Ani, or the way the Shabbos table is conducted. And that, says the Rebbe, is exactly the reason we bring the children to Shule, with such fanfare, on the first day of Shavuos.

 

This year, we will all miss the din and chatter of our cherubic clan at Shule. But we should still strive to make them brim with enthusiasm to receive the Torah… and some ice-cream! Let us create a magical Shavuos for them, an experience they will remember and cherish for many years to come.

 

Wishing you a Good Yom Tov and Kabolas Hatorah B’Simcha ub”Pnimiyus


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BAMIDBAR

My mind is cast back to Shabbos Bamidbar seven years ago. For those who don’t remember, it was the very first Shabbos of Young Yeshivah, back in the days of the foyer. My older children occasionally remind me of a conversation that transpired on the way to Shule. They were younger children back then, perhaps still under the innocent impression that daddies have prophetic ability, and they wanted to know whether this new institution would be a success. I responded, “Who knows? Shule will certainly be full this week because everyone always wants in on the latest action. But time will tell if this is just a passing fad or something deeper. We should know in three or four weeks.”

 

We all know the answer by now. This Shabbos marks seven years since the date of our inception, and we thank Hashem that Young Yeshivah is such a vibrant and caring community. Every anniversary is special, but there is something particularly meaningful about our seventh – Kol Hashvi’in Chavivin. All the same, one thing we surely did not foresee, even as recently as three months ago, is that our seventh anniversary would occur during the continued closure of our Shule, the hub and heart of our community.

 

And this takes us right to this week’s Parsha, which details the camping arrangements of the Jewish Nation. Rashi explains that the Jews camped just within the Techum of the Mishkan, so that they could attend even on Shabbos. The Rebbe sees a momentous problem here. Rashi chose to explain why the Jews did not camp any further away, but shouldn’t he have been explaining the exact opposite – why the Jews did not live any closer? What could be better than living right next to the Mishkan, literally at its doorstep?

 

The Rebbe explains that there are indeed two distinct issues here. The first is why the Jews did not live any closer. However, the solution to that is so obvious that Rashi did not even see a need to explain it. As much as the Jews wanted to live as closely as possible, there was a clear danger – anyone who conducted himself inappropriately in the vicinity of the Mishkan would forfeit his life, as clearly set forth in this week’s Parsha. Thus, it is of little wonder that the Jews kept their distance, for their own safety and wellbeing.

 

If anything, the real question is the one that Rashi addresses: If the Jews were so concerned about their safety and wellbeing, why didn’t they camp at an ever-greater distance? That is the question which Rashi addresses. He explains that the Jews were trying to maintain a balance – even if they could not live too close, for their own safety and protection, they still regarded the Mishkan as the nucleus of their lives, to the point that they desired constant connection, even on Shabbos.

 

This speaks a little to the times we find ourselves in. On the one hand, we find ourselves at figurative distance from our Mikdash Me’at – our Shules and centres of learning – in order to guard public health. On the other hand, our Shules and centres of learning continue to remain the focal point of our lives, at least in thought if not in practice. Our deepest desire is to resume access as before. “Where a person’s desire is, that is where he is actually to be found.” May Hashem speedily facilitate our return – not just immediately, but also in the fullest sense possible, in the Beis Hamikdash Hashlishi.

 

Wishing you a good Shabbos, a good Chodesh and Kabolas Hatorah B’Simcha ub”Pnimiyus
 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BEHAR BECHUKOSAI

One of the foundations of Western society, if not its very cornerstone, is the fundamental right to freedom and the protection of civil liberties. This week’s Parsha has something to say about freedom: “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom for slaves throughout the land … and you shall return, each man to his property.” The Hebrew word for freedom is Dror. Chazal explain its etymology by linking it with the word Dirah, which refers to a place of dwelling. Thus, the word Dror literally means, “One who dwells in the dwelling of his choice.”

 

The Rebbe asks: Why is this word used to capture the essence of freedom? Is the only important difference between freedom and slavery that you can build your house where you want? What about the freedom to eat what you want, to sleep when you want, to earn and spend money as you wish, to wear the clothing you want, and to enjoy life as a whole?

 

Another issue: Elsewhere in Tanach, a bird’s freedom is also called Dror. However, in that context, Chazal explain that the bird is free precisely for the opposite reason – because it doesn’t need a home! How do we explain this dichotomy; that the freedom of man is expressed in attaching himself to a home, whereas the freedom of a bird is expressed in its lack of a home?

 

The Rebbe explains that freedom can be applied in two ways. One person might channel his freedom in the right to indulge, i.e. he is a “taker”. Another person might channel his freedom in the right to achieve, i.e. he is a “giver”. The first type of freedom involves throwing off the shackles of restraint and self-discipline, and adopting an “I’ll do what I want” mentality. The second type of freedom requires one to embrace restraint and self-control so that he can focus his energy on realising his achievement.

 

The Torah is telling us that the first type of freedom is suitable in the animal kingdom. However, for a human, the freedom to indulge is not true freedom. Man was created to achieve, and if he squanders his right of freedom in indulging himself, he will eventually feel trapped in the realisation that he has no purpose. True freedom is when man channels it to build a home – his own personal and permanent achievement.

 

Wishing you a good Shabbos,
 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS EMOR

According to the weather forecast, the Lag B’omer parade of 5750 (1990) was supposed to be completely washed out. And rain it did – just about everywhere else in the tristate area. Even in most of Brooklyn it rained. But in Crown Heights, the overcast skies cleared shortly before 10am. The weather remained perfect throughout the parade, and you can even hear the commentators discuss it on the video of that year’s parade. It only began to get cloudy and drizzle at 2:00pm, when the parade was scheduled to end. There was only one problem – the parade was running a little late, and it wasn’t quite over when the rain came at 2:00pm.

 

The event organiser, Rabbi Sholom Ber Baumgarten of Tzivos Hashem, panicked. He called over to Rabbi JJ Hecht, who was standing near the Rebbe, “Quick, tell the Rebbe its raining! Ask for a Brocho!” Rabbi Hecht may not have realized that his microphone was still on as he called back, “Trust me, the Rebbe knows it raining. He's standing in it!” About 10 minutes later, the parade was over. The Rebbe went into 770, and the heavens burst open as the drizzle turned into a torrential shower.

 

This amusing anecdote is actually reminiscent of a Zohar which tells how the world once needed rain, and Rashbi’s students came to him for help. Rashbi recited a Torah teaching and the rains fell. The Rebbe asks: Why did Rashbi wait for his students to come and ask for rain? Didn’t he already know that the world needed rain? The Rebbe answers with the well-known Chassidic precept regarding the additional power vested in the Mashpia (giver) when the Mekabel (recipient) draws himself close. Similarly, the students coming to the Rashbi wrought an elevation in Rashbi himself, and only then could he make it rain.

 

One of the obvious messages is the importance of enhancing our own Hiskashrus. By strengthening our own bond with the Rebbe – through learning his Torah and fulfilling his directives – we bring about more Brochos for all of us and the whole world. What greater time to do this than Lag B’Omer, a special day which the Rebbe so treasured as an auspicious time to focus on Jewish pride and unity. When we draw close to our leader and further his initiatives, which we will have ample opportunity to do this week, we will shower our communities and the world with blessings, culminating in the biggest of all – Moshiach now! 

 

Wishing you a good Shabbos,
 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS acharei kedoshim

Yom Kippur is still quite some time away, but the first section of this week’s Parsha describes the special Avoida of Yom Kippur. Its annual culmination is recounted in the words of Chazal. In vivid detail, the Gemoro portrays the jubilation and fanfare that erupted as the Jews escorted the Kohen Gadol from the Beis Hamikdash to his home where a grand feast and celebration awaited them.

 

The simple reason for the celebration was the mere fact that the Kohen Gadol was still alive.  As the Posuk attests to in this week’s Parsha, if a Kohen Gadol was unworthy, he would be instantly struck dead. Lest anyone think this is an exaggeration, here are the mathematics: The second Beis Hamikdash stood for 420 years, and more than 300 people served as Kohen Gadol during that period. 130 years encompasses the combined stewardships of Shimon Hatzadik, Yochanan Kohen Gadol and Elazar ben Charson. That leaves about 300 other people who served as Kohanim Gedolim for the remaining 290 years.   

 

However, the Rebbe explains that there was a much deeper reason for the celebration. For seven days prior to Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol left his home, his wife and his family. He dwelled a pure and hermetical existence in the Beis Hamikdosh, far removed from the distractions of reality. This tremendous high climaxed on Yom Kippur when the Kohen Gadol performed the spiritual and lofty Avoidah. However, a spiritual high which achieves nothing practical in our world is useless. In fact, it can be tragic – as exemplified by Nadav and Avihu, the children of Aharon, who expired in the Kodesh Kodoshim in great mystical ecstasy.

 

The Jews knew that the Kohen Gadol’s divine service in the Beis Hamikdosh was itself not a cause for celebration. It was a tremendous opportunity, but it carried immense risk. The one and only thing indeed worthy of celebration was his safe homecoming – the opportunity to inject the material and the mundane with the spiritual gifts attained over the course of Yom Kippur.
 

Wishing you a Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS TAZRIA METZORA

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 resolve 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.” [The story is actually many times more captivating, and available in full at this link: sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.86a.3?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en]

This story seems puzzling. If Hashem declared the leprosy pure, how could the sages 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 difficult circumstances, his reaction will reflect where he himself stands:

1.       A very physical and materialistic being will immediately jump to superficial conclusions and assume the worst; he will tell you where there is smoke there is fire. From his perspective, evil is a reality which looms large. Thus, the sages of the heavenly academy, all souls who once lived this physical world and connected with it, regarded the suspicious leprosy as most certainly impure.

2.       A more spiritual being will more easily see the silver lining in the clouds. He transcends the physicality of the world, and for him, evil does not loom as large a reality. He is connected with the G-dly manifestation known as Hakadosh Boruch Hu, and he thus regards the suspected leprosy as pure. Nevertheless, this is declared only once, without emphasis, because his perception can still fathom the opposing view.

3.       But then you have someone who is completely connected with Atzmus, Hashem’s very Essence, which transcends even the level of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. From this perspective, nothing exists outside of Hashem’s goodness. When such a person encounters suspected leprosy, not only does he regard it as pure, but he cannot accept any other possibility. Thus, Rabbah emphatically declared twice “it is pure, it is pure” to indicate that it could not be any other way – and the sages were swayed. This is why Rabbah is called “Yochid B’Negaim”, because for him, the level of “Yochid” (the Singularity of Hashem) is palpable even in something as lowly as Negaim (leprosy).

This incisive explanation gives us a lot to think about in general; how much more so in our current “interesting times”. One simple message is that the conclusions we draw reflect where we ourselves stand. Our judgement says more about us than the events swirling around us.

Wishing you a Good Shabbos & a Good Chodesh,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS SHEMINI

Imagine walking into a Yeshivah or Kollel and seeing someone studying diligently. (Yes, these days we have no choice but to imagine…) Impressed, you approach him and ask what he’s learned. He responds, “Well, I counted how many words appear on this page and then I counted how many letters it has. Then, I worked out which is the middle word and letter of the page.” You’d probably walk away thinking that he missed the point.

 

Well, the Gemoro tells us that the earliest sages were known as “Sofrim” (counters), because they counted how many letters the Torah has. They determined that the middle letter appears in this week’s Parsha – the enlarged Vov of the word “Gachon”, which refers to a snake. Similarly, they counted all the words in the Torah and determined that the middle words also appear in this week’s Parsha – the words “Dorosh Dorash”, a double expression referring to expounding. What are we to make of this number-crunching?

 

Chassidus explains that the Torah’s words represent its “Chitzoniyus” (outward dimension), for words convey meaning that a human mind can grasp. When one looks at the words, he may fall into the trap of believing that the Torah alternates between two conflicting realities – the saintly high-road which is the focus of the positive commandments, and the evil underworld which is the focus of the negative commandments. This is why the two “halves” of Torah meet at the words “Dorosh Dorash”, for a superficial grasp of Torah deems good and evil as separate realities, and gives us “two separate ways of expounding”, in order to account for two separate realities.

 

Conversely, the individual letters of Torah don’t have any apparent meaning of their own; they are not decodable and they therefore transcend our intellect. The Torah’s letters thus represent its “Pnimiyus” (esoteric dimension), for when one looks at them, all he perceives is a holy letter of the Sefer Torah. When one views the Torah on this deeper level, he discerns that all of existence – without exception – is part of the G-dly reality. This is represented in the Vov of Gachon, where something as evil as the snake is highlighted with an enlarged Vov, whose long and narrow pole-like shape illustrates its ability to connect the lowest level with the highest level, and one discerns that the real purpose of evil – the snake – is to be elevated and unified with the good, to the point that it is not a separate existence for itself, but part of the G-dly reality. This is why “Nochosh” has the same Gematria as “Moshiach”, for the goal is to fuse the snake, and all it represents, with the highest levels of Moshiach.

 

When we look around us and perceive painful realities, we must remember that their purpose is somehow for the advancement of positivity. One way of attaining such perspective is through the study of Chassidus. Although it may not seem as graspable as the revealed dimension of Torah, it gives us the insight to find the good within the evil, and empowers us to merge these two seemingly conflicting realities.

 

Wishing you a Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Based on Maharsha Kiddushin 30a, Ohr Hatorah Shmini pages 240-250, and Likutei Sichos Chelek 17 Sicha 4. See Ohr Hatorah how this is also seen in the name Shmuel and Tiferes Shebtiferes, associated with the Yahrtzeit of the Rebbe Maharash on the second of Iyar.

Shevi'i & Acharon shel pesach 5780

“Is Shehecheyanu recited tonight?” It is a quite common question many people ask each Yom Tov, and the answer is quite simple: We always recite Shehecheyanu, on every night of every Yom Tov, with only one exception – the last two days of Pesach. Why? One answer can be traced back to a touching episode recounted by the Frierdiker Rebbe:

 

During Pesach of 5666, in the township of Lubavitch, two granddaughters of the Rebbe Rashab were playing in the dining room. The young five-year old girl, who would later become famous as Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, asked her older sister: “What exactly is the nature of this Yom Tov of Acharon Shel Pesach.”

 

“Why, it’s a Yom Tov like any other,” answered the older girl.

 

“This cannot be,” retorted Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. “It is most certainly not like every Yom Tov, because we did not recite Shehecheyanu at candle-lighting.”

 

The Rebbe Rashab, who was in his room learning, was interrupted by the sounds of fierce debate. Intrigued, he emerged to see what the argument was about, and was reminded of another similar incident that occurred many years prior. Later that night, at the Seudas Yom Tov, the Rebbe Rashab recounted in vivid detail how, as a young child, he had asked the very same question of his father at the Yom Tov meal. When none of his siblings could provide a satisfactory answer, they all went along with their father, the Rebbe Maharash, to seek clarification from their grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek.

 

The Tzemach Tzedek explained, “On the first days of Pesach, we celebrate the first redemption through the first redeemer, Moshe Rabbenu. On the final days of Pesach, we celebrate the final redemption through the final redeemer, our righteous Moshiach.” Shehecheyanu can only be recited when we feel the joy in our flesh and bones, and while we are still in exile and Moshiach has not yet arrived, we cannot thank Hashem for having “granted us life ... to reach this occasion”.

 

Even so, the absentee Brocho was a common topic of conversation at the Yom Tov tables of the Rebbeim, as well as in their Sichos. This seems strange: If it is not the time to recite Shehecheyanu, why dwell so extensively on its absence? In one approach, the Rebbe explains that talking about our inability to recite Shehecheyanu for the future redemption awakens a heightened desire and longing for it, and “a person is where his thoughts are.” Moreover, our focus on the absent Brocho aggravates our pain over the exile, and this pain itself has the power to break the exile.

 

This year, there will be a lot of things absent these last days of Pesach other than Shehecheyanu. Staying up the whole night amid the camaraderie of friends. Standing in Shule for the Shirah. Duchenen. Marching relentlessly on Tahalucha. Reciting Yizkor before the Aron Hakodesh, or leaving Shule at that time. Listening to the magnificent Haftorah of Achron Shel Pesach. Gathering with the entire community for the Seudas Moshiach. Yes, “a person is where his thoughts are”, and on one level we will very much be there. But on another level, may the pain of this compounded void break the exile, and may we speedily recite Shehecheyanu for the coming of Moshiach!

 

Wishing you a good Yom Tov, may we celebrate the ultimate זמן חרותנו  today!

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PESACH 5780

*The Gates of Prophecy*

 

If you’re like me, you’ve been swamped with social media videos related to COVID-19. If you’re like me, one video that really jumped out at you is a Ted Talk from March 2015. If you’re like me, you can’t help but be amazed at the spot-on accuracy of Bill Gates’ forecast. And if you’re like me, you can’t help but admit that, had you seen it as recently as three months ago, you would have wrongfully dismissed it as the words of a man who has more time and money than he knows what to do with it.

 

My mind then harks back to the days of the Prophets who walked the twisting, winding roads of our heart and home, Jerusalem. Sometimes they foretold of impending doom. The people did not listen. Just as often, if not more so, they heralded our bright destiny. But the people still did not listen, in a phenomenon that traces itself all the way back to the Egyptian servitude, when “Moshe spoke of the redemption to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken because of their shortness of breath and hard labour.”

 

Are we to blame them? In our present day, we were all deaf to a prediction based on hard data and solid science. What then of a prophecy that defies it all?

 

There has been a lot of Moshiach talk lately. That we are experiencing the birth pangs of Moshiach. That this is a necessary preparatory step to his imminent arrival. That the breakdown of society paves the way for an upgrade. That if it ain’t broke first, how’re ya gonna fix it? That the Egyptian exodus occurred only after “I passed over you and beheld you wallowing in blood.”

 

Personally, I’m a bit jaded; this kind of talk doesn’t speak to me. I am not sure why so many tragedies are needed as a vital step towards the coming of Moshiach.

 

What does speak to me is the Rebbe’s constant refrain, drawn from the Gemoro, “Kvar Kalu Kol Hakitizin – all the times and events predicating Moshiach’s arrival has long past”. The Rebbe taught us that any present-day hardship or difficulty is not needed as another step towards Moshiach. To the contrary, each hardship and difficulty should be added to the all-too-big pile of unanswered questions as to why Moshiach has not arrived long ago. So I am not attempting to understand and explain what is neither understandable nor explainable.

 

However, just as any other time, we must be Moshiach-oriented. And one lesson we can surely glean is how the impossible so quickly became possible. If coronavirus instantly transformed the entire world, is it so much harder to believe that Moshiach will do the same?

 

Of all the Rebbe’s Pesach insights, one of the most stirring is one that I have sermonised about in past years, as well as essayed about in the Young Yeshivah Magazine of Pesach 5778 (“The Sleep of the Righteous”.) This year, that message hits home more than ever before, if such a thing is possible. There is no way I could serve it justice in a short summary here, so you are encouraged to (re)read that essay in full, or learn it in the source. But here is the gist of the Rebbe’s message, which focuses on one of the miracles of Pesach night – when Hashem saved the Jews by annihilating the colossal army of Sancheriv at the stroke of midnight.

 

Imagine how matters must have seemed just one minute beforehand; the gloomy atmosphere that must have pervaded Jerusalem upon facing the mightiest army in the world. Militarily, there was no likelihood of the Jews surviving the onslaught of Sancheriv, let alone becoming wealthy on account of it. The Jews were defenceless and outnumbered, their king and commander-in-chief recovering from a grave illness, and their city mired in deep moral strife and political turmoil. Economically, the besieged nation faced abject famine, including the prospect of eating their own dung and drinking their own urine out of sheer desperation. Yet, in the face of it all, Hashem demanded only one thing from King Chizkiyahu and the Jews – to believe that everything would change in an instant. That surely must have seemed nigh impossible at the time, but that is exactly what ended up happening.

 

The Rebbe explains that our modern world also seems to be regressing on so many fronts, be it personally, religiously, morally, politically, economically and militarily. One might wonder how it could be possible for everything to abruptly right itself with the instant coming of Moshiach, the ingathering of the Jewish People and the building of the Beis Hamikdash. How could all this be conceivable when there is widespread poverty and disease, multiple wars unfolding on different continents, political turmoil and religious corruption? Pesach night reminds us that not only could it happen, but in fact, it already did happen. No matter how bleak the outlook, no matter how demoralised we might feel, no matter how distant and unlikely the Redemption may seem, the story of Sancheriv reminds us that everything can and will change in an instant. That instant is NOW!

 

Wishing you a Kosher un Freilachen Pesach,

 

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.

.
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.

.
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

.
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

 

 

Mon, 1 June 2020 9 Sivan 5780