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Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BEHA'ALOSCHA 5784

Trumpeting Through Triumph and Trial

There is so much in this Parsha about the two trumpets that Hashem instructed Moshe to fashion for himself. What did they represent? And why did some situations call for a Tekiah, while others warranted a Teruah?

The Hebrew word for trumpets, Chatzotzros, is a contraction of Chatzaei Tzuros – half figures. Thus, the two trumpets symbolise Hashem and the Jews, who are two “half figures” and incomplete without each other. The paired trumpets represented our bond with Hashem, with the Tekiah and Teruah signifying two distinct ways to forge that connection:

The Teruah was sounded during times of grave risk, such as when the Jews faced enemy attacks. The fragmented blast of the Teruah denoted our brokenness, aiming to ‘remind’ Hashem of His connection with us. This is articulated in the Possuk: “If you go to war in your land, against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before Hashem, and thus be saved from your enemies.”

In similar fashion, the Teruah guides each of us through times of personal struggle and challenge. We may feel besieged and beset, abandoned and neglected, but the Torah teaches us not to succumb in despair. On the contrary, these moments are uniquely opportune to connect with Hashem. All that is needed to overcome the challenge is to call out to Hashem with a broken heart. This remains true even for a person who seems ‘forgotten’ on account of his lowliness – his cry will evoke Hashem’s ‘remembrance’, Who will come and save him.

On the other hand, the Tekiah was trumpeted during times of great celebration and triumph, such as when returning victoriously from war or gathering in the Beis Hamikdash on Yom Tov. The simple sound of this unpunctuated blast reminded us to retain our own unpretentious humility at the peak of our greatest success. “On the days of your rejoicing, on your festivals … you shall blow a tekiah … and it shall be a remembrance before Hashem.”

The Tekiah serves as a reminder that good times can present an even greater challenge. Although turning to Hashem during difficult times may sometimes require a little encouragement, it also comes easily because to whom else can we turn? Conversely, during prosperous times, people may attribute their successes to themselves, ignoring the true source of their blessings. The Tekiah reminds us to humble ourselves before Hashem even then.

This message is relevant to virtually every aspect of our lives, but the Rebbe connects it to one specific area – Tefillah. One type of person may struggle with focus; his mind constantly wanders, or he may be inclined to chat with others. Even when he regains control of himself, there is no shortage of people who will happily lure him into conversation. Although he lacks enough discipline to keep ‘the enemy’ away, all is not lost – he only needs to proclaim his desire for a relationship with Hashem, and Hashem will come to his aid. The other type of person is the one who has triumphed over all distractions to the point that his davening is enviable. Even so, he must work on remaining humble to ensure that his success does not go to his head.

May we speedily merit the fulfillment of the Posuk, “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, you shall raise your voices before the King, Hashem.” For then we will be eternally saved from enemy attacks, and all of us will gather to celebrate in the house of Hashem.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS NASO 5784

Favouritism in High Places

It seems like a blatant contradiction. In Birchas Kohanim, we ask Hashem to bestow His favour upon us. Yet, in Parshas Eikev, Moshe adamantly insists that Hashem does not show any favouritism. So, which is it?

Many Meforshim distinguish between times when Jews follow Hashem’s will and times when they do not. When Jews are loyal to Hashem, He shows them favour, but He does not bestow it when they deserve punishment. The trouble with this approach is that we don’t exactly need to resort to Hashem’s favouritism when we are already doing His will. Furthermore, Rashi explicitly states that the purpose of asking for Hashem’s favour in Birchas Kohanim is to quench His divine anger and wrath, which is only applicable when we have rebelled.

Instead, the Rebbe explains that both Parshiyos refer to a person with sins, but with another critical difference. In Parshas Eikev, the Torah speaks of one who lacks Kabbolas Ol; as Rashi clearly states there, “If you cast off my yoke.” When a person is not only a sinner but also has little interest in connecting with Hashem, no favour exists for him. This is unlike the sinner referred to in Birchas Kohanim, who very much desires a connection with Hashem, even if he has given Him cause for anger. Such a person may still intercede with Hashem for preferential treatment.

Certainly, no one should be so foolish as to think that Kabbolas Ol is a ‘free pass’ to sinning. Aside from the fact that seeking such immunity runs contrary to Kabbolas Ol, the Rebbe also stresses that Hashem’s favouritism is directed at the person and not his misdeeds. In other words, a sinner must still atone, make amends, and cleanse himself of his sins. But through it all, Hashem desires and maintains His connection with him and cares about him, despite his deeds. This is quite unlike the person who has cast off the yoke of Hashem entirely, thereby shutting out Hashem’s favouritism.

Prikas Ol (casting off the yoke of Hashem) does not only manifest overtly but can also exist subtly, such as in the person who observes Torah and Mitzvos more for his own perfection than to serve a higher being. The message for us is that we must have absolute Kabbolas Ol to earn Hashem’s favour, and this will trigger Hashem’s desire for a relationship with us despite any shortcomings. By doing our utmost to bask in the radiant presence of the King, may we speedily merit the revelation of His ultimate glory with the coming of Moshiach.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BAMIDBAR 5784

Teaching and Birthing

The fourth Aliyah of Parshas Bamidbar begins, “These are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day that Hashem spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai.” However, the Torah goes on to list only the descendants of Aharon. If so, why is Moshe’s name mentioned at all? Rashi explains, “They became his descendants because he taught them what he had learned from the A-lmighty... This teaches that whoever teaches Torah to the son of his fellow, it is as if he gave birth to him.”

This raises several simple yet formidable questions. First, Moshe taught the children of Aharon – but he also taught all the Jews! If so, why are the children of Aharon singled out as his descendants? Second, the Posuk only states that they were his children (“these are the descendants”), so why does Rashi emphasise the birth aspect (“as if he gave birth”)? Third, Moshe taught his nephews both before and after Mattan Torah, so why does the Possuk single out Mattan Torah as the time that he “gave birth” to his nephews?

The Maharal explains that there was a crucial difference in the way Moshe taught his nephews. Regarding the rest of the Jews, Moshe relayed the Torah exactly as he had been instructed to teach it. However, when it came to his own nephews, Moshe went above and beyond the call of duty, teaching them even those parts of the Torah that Hashem had disclosed to him without any instruction to transmit it further. Thus, we derive that “giving birth” to a student is achieved only when one teaches with great dedication and devotion, surpassing whatever commitment or obligation he might have had in doing so. This answers our first question.

When one teaches in such a manner, he not only imparts Torah knowledge, but also brings about a “rebirth” in the student. This is quite unlike the instruction of all other wisdoms, such as arithmetic or science, where the transmission of information does not elicit any transformation of the learner’s inner essence, even if it provides him with the means to earn a living. Rashi thereby conveys the great novelty of Torah education: it is the only encounter in the world that is compared to the miracle of birth. If biological birth grants physical life, spiritual birth through Torah grants meaning to life. Since the uniqueness of Torah instruction is its power to recreate and renew a student’s inner identity, Rashi emphasises the aspect of birth. This answers our second question.

But how does teaching Torah cause one’s students to be “reborn”? The Posuk answers this by linking Moshe’s teaching to Har Sinai. It is widely known that the tremendous impact of Mattan Torah was not a result of what was said, but how it was said. It was not the message that transformed the Jews, but the experience. This is why Rashi speaks of Moshe transmitting what he heard from the A-lmighty, instead of using the more common name Hashem, to underscore the palpable presence of Hashem’s might and power at Mattan Torah. Moshe taught his nephews in a similar way, and it was precisely the dynamism of his teaching that led to their renewal. This answers our third question. 

And the same must be the aspiration of every teacher since, including all of us.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BECHUKOSAI 5784

Second-Rate? Second to None!

The last Mitzvah in the book of Vayikra concerns the tithing of animals. This Mitzvah requires the farmer to release his herd from the pen one at a time, striking every tenth animal with a rod dabbed in red paint. In the course of describing this, the Torah admonishes us not to substitute a choice animal for a blemished one. Although the things we give for Hashem should usually be the best, Hashem willed the tenth animal to be holy regardless of its state. Rashi explains, “This does not mean that a blemished animal can be sacrificed. Rather, he should eat it according to the law of tithes, and it must not be shorn or used for labour.”

In an intricate Rashi Sicha, the Rebbe dissects and analyses Rashi’s remark, and here we will focus on just one detail of it. Among the many questions, the Rebbe asks why Rashi feels the need to emphasise that a blemished animal is not sacrificed, given that the Torah has already stated so many times that a blemished animal can’t be sacrificed?

The Rebbe answers that Rashi’s focus is not on what can’t be done with the animal, but to contrast it with what can be done with the animal. Rashi is telling us that even if the animal can’t be sacrificed, it still attains and retains holiness. The fact that it is blemished and not ‘fit for purpose’ does not in any way minimise our duty to eat it in sanctity, according to the laws of tithes, and with the intention of fulfilling a Mitzvah.

What does tithing animals represent in our personal divine service? Chassidus explains that each person has an animalistic Neshama composed of ten Sefiros, or faculties, which can thus be described as ‘ten animals’. Our life’s mission is to elevate all of these ‘animals’. Most of us are capable of refining only one at a time, and as we bring each animal ‘through the gate’, we cannot yet be considered wholly holy, for other ‘animals’ remain. We attain holiness only when the tenth ‘animal’ is refined. In summary, tithing animals represents the transformation of our ten animalistic faculties, and their transfer to the side of holiness.

When this milestone is reached, it may sometimes happen that one gazes at their tenth ‘animal’ and perceives a blemish. In other words, despite their best efforts, the final result may end up imperfect due to circumstances beyond the person’s control. With a result that is not ‘fit for purpose’, one might fail to recognise the value of what’s been achieved, perhaps even discarding it completely. The laws of animal tithes teach us otherwise: If someone worked very hard and engaged in the entire process, and then produced a blemished result for reasons that we cannot understand, his or her achievement must still be respected and cherished. As Rashi emphasises, the Maaser must still be treated with sanctity even if it cannot actually be offered on the Mizbeach.

This is especially important to remember when considering the efforts of others – whether of our children, spouses, colleagues and acquaintances. When their efforts seem to have yielded a second-rate result, don’t fall into the trap of shunning their achievements. Instead, we must embrace and cherish the second-rate results of any person who truly tried his best.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BEHAR 5784

The Price of Fish in China

“What’s that got to do with the price of fish/cheese/tea in China?” Whichever version you prefer, this phrase is readily recognisable for highlighting irrelevance. The Talmudic version of this phrase is rooted in the beginning of this week’s Parsha, where the Torah emphasises that the Mitzvah of Shemitah was spoken at Har Sinai. This raises the question: What does Shemitah have to do with Har Sinai? In other words, why was it necessary for the Torah to highlight that the Mitzvah of Shemitah was commanded at Sinai, given that this is true of all Mitzvos?

Rashi explains that just as the details of Shemitah were given at Sinai, so too, the details of all commandments were given at Sinai. However, this answer requires clarification. If the Torah merely wanted to convey that the details of all Mitzvos were given at Sinai, why choose Shemitah as the example, rather than showcasing this through any one of the other 613 commandments? There must be something unique about Shemitah that links it to Sinai.

To understand this, let us consider the Shemitah paradox. On the one hand, the Torah doesn’t simply tell us to rest in the seventh year. Rather, it emphasises that we must work for the first six years. For six long years, the Torah expects us to respect the natural order and work hard to harvest produce. On the other hand, in the seventh year, the Torah expects us to rise above earthly matters and material concerns, instead relying on Hashem’s assurance of blessings to provide for us against all odds. How do we reconcile such opposites?

The Rebbe explains that, in truth, these seemingly opposite states are incomplete without each other. In order to truly rest in the seventh year and experience Hashem’s presence beyond nature, one must first spend six years engaging the physical world according to the Torah’s guidelines, for this is the medium which draws down spiritual elevation in the seventh year. Similarly, in order to engage the world for six years without being overtaken by it, one’s goal must be the spiritual boost of Shemitah, which grants us the fortitude to remain on top.

The deeper significance of Shemitah explains why it represents all Mitzvos given at Sinai. The essence of Shemitah – rising above the physical world while engaging in it according to Hashem’s Will – reflects the core of all Mitzvos. When a Jew performs a Mitzvah, his devotion to Hashem must transcend worldly concerns, yet he must simultaneously perform the Mitzvah within the constraints of the physical world. While this principle applies to all Mitzvos in the way they are observed, in Shemitah, it is the very substance of the commandment. Thus, Shemitah mirrors the essence of all Mitzvos.

The power to observe all Mitzvos in this manner comes from Sinai. Har Sinai symbolises the fusion of opposites: on one hand, it is a mountain, representing elevation, yet it is Sinai, the lowest of mountains. This union of humility and grandeur, of inconspicuousness and presence, gives us the strength to sanctify the physical world through our spirituality. In this way, we transform the world into a dwelling place for Hashem.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS EMOR 5784

Why Are There So Many Mitzvos?

We find ourselves in the annual period when we learn Pirkei Avos each Shabbos afternoon. One constant is the way we conclude our studies each week: Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya says, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to confer merit upon the Jewish people. He therefore increased for them Torah and Mitzvos, as it says: ‘It pleased Hashem for the sake of His righteousness to make the Torah great and glorious.’” 

The true location of this Mishna is at the end of Makos, and it does not seem to have any inherent connection to Pirkei Avos. If so, why do we recite it each week? Rashi answers that it makes for a delightful ending – which is why we recite it many other times as well. This makes us wonder: what is so appealing about the message of this Mishna?

Let us first turn our attention to a problem regarding the actual content of this Mishna. Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya asks why there are so many Mitzvos, and he answers that they were given in abundance in order to increase our merit. But there is an obvious flipside: the more Mitzvos there are, the more opportunities there are for a Jew to fail in their fulfilment. Thus, the large number of Mitzvos not only brings greater merit to the Jews, but also has greater potential of incriminating them!

The Rebbe explains that the Hebrew word for conferring merit, Lezakos, literally means to refine. In other words, when Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya speaks of Hashem conferring merit upon the Jews, his focus is not on earning reward. Rather, the purpose of Mitzvos is to refine and cultivate us. And because our bodies and abilities are so multifaceted, we need many Mitzvos to engage every part of our body, senses and life experiences. The mind learns Torah, the head and forearm wear Tefillin, the eyes are careful about what they see, the mouth speaks only positive words and no Lashon Hora, the stomach digests only Kosher foods, the hands give Tzedakah, and the feet run to perform Mitzvos.

There is not a single aspect of our existence that can’t be linked to a Mitzvah. This is why the 248 positive commandments correspond to the 248 limbs of the body, and the 365 negative commandments correspond to the 365 veins or sinews of the body. The number of Mitzvos is not random, but masterfully engineered to involve every part of our body in the service of Hashem, down to the smallest vein. Similarly, Mitzvos encompass both the cycle of the year and the cycle of life.

This explanation of Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya’s words is essentially summed up in the Rebbe’s answer to an indifferent fellow who asked, “If G‑d is so great, why does He insist on all these tiny details?” The Rebbe responded: “I don’t understand your question. It’s not for G‑d; it’s for us. G‑d wants us to be close to Him, and this is the path He gives us.”

On other occasions, the Rebbe explained that Mitzvos channel blessing and health into the part of the body that is associated with the Mitzvah. For example, dabbing the wine of Havdalah to improve the eyes’ health, wearing Tefillin to improve the mind’s health, learning Torah to mitigate migraines, abstaining from speaking Lashan Hora and falsities to improve oral health, and practising Taharas Hamishpacha as a blessing for fertility. All of this is another way that Mitzvos confer merit upon us.

Through these insights, we understand that Mitzvos are not merely an itinerary or checkbox to get over and done with. Rather, they are pathways through which we can channel our spiritual perfection and physical health. And, as Rashi clued us in, what a beautiful thought with which to conclude each study session.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

Based on Likutei Sichos Chelek 17 page 409-412, Igros Kodesh Chelek 7 page 19.

PARSHAS KEDOSHIM 5784

Positive Narcissism

V’Ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha. Each word of this enduring principle seems problematic:

V’Ahavta – Love is not a commodity that can be turned on and off at whim, like a faucet. How, then, can one be commanded to love?

Lereiacha – Among the various Hebrew terms for ‘fellow’, Lereiacha is unique in that it incorporates within it the word Ra, meaning evil, to signify that we must love even those who have wronged us. For that reason, the command to love one’s fellow immediately follows the prohibition against taking revenge or bearing grudges, indicating that we must love even one who has perpetrated an injustice against us. But how can we be expected to love such a person?

Kamocha – Ramban argues that it is impossible to love one’s fellow as much as oneself. This is because self-love is deeply rooted in one’s identity and self-esteem. If we are not as unified with others as we are with ourselves, how can we achieve equal love?

According to the Tzemach Tzedek, this Posuk can be divided into two parts: V'Ahavta Lereiacha – you should love your fellow. As one might question how this is feasible, the Possuk continues with the words Kamocha – you should apply the same approach to loving others as you do to yourself, despite your deficiencies.

After all, we each possess character flaws and are well aware of them. Yet we manage to love ourselves regardless. How? When we err, we might initially feel ashamed or even despise ourselves momentarily. But soon enough, we find a way to reconcile with our conscience and live with ourselves. For, as King Shlomo observes in Mishlei: “Love covers all sins.” Self-love not only smooths over but often “justifies” our behaviour, to the point that we may even go on to feel victimised and regard our peers as the ones who have done us wrong: “Why are they angry with me? Why don’t they understand me? Why don’t they give me the benefit of the doubt when I was just tired, confused, or made an honest mistake? Why can’t they separate me from my deeds and realise that this action doesn’t reflect my personality?”

V'Ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha demands that we apply the same standard to others as we do to ourselves. When someone offends you, pause and put yourself in their place. Instead of nitpicking or finding fault, consider how you would interpret the situation if you were in the offender’s position. Reflect on how you would shield yourself, perceiving any wrongdoing or flaw as a minor lapse rather than a major indictment of character. Just as self-love serves as a protective mask to conceal your own flaws, extend the same forgiving attitude to others. Effectively, the Torah is telling us, “Be a Narcissist!” – Not for yourself, but for your fellow.

Under this interpretation, the Torah does not literally demand that we love our fellow as much as ourselves. Rather, it expects us to employ the same mechanisms that allow us to love ourselves. This form of love is indeed possible towards someone who has wronged you. In fact, that is where it is most relevant.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS ACHAREI 5784

Opportunity or Risk? Your Choice!

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.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS METZORA 5784

When Nature Took a Stand

Hallel Hagadol contains 26 verses, corresponding to the numerical value of Hashem’s name. The tenth verse states, “To Him Who smote the Egyptians with their firstborn, for His kindness is eternal.” This Posuk corresponds not only to the first letter of Hashem’s name, but also to the tenth day of Nissan. On this day, the Egyptian firstborns launched a civil war against Pharaoh in an effort to force the Jews’ redemption and prevent the plague of the firstborn.

Why is this milestone always commemorated on Shabbos, instead of the date of the month, like all other occasions observed according to the Jewish calendar? The basic answer is that Miriam passed away on the tenth of Nissan, and the two events were thus scheduled so as not to clash. Even so, what is the deeper significance of the Egyptian civil war being commemorated according to the day of the week, as opposed to the day of the month?

One difference between weekdays and dates is that the former are synchronised according to the rising and setting of the sun, whereas the latter match the orbit of the moon. The sun continuously appears the same to us, and thus represents the constancy and consistency of nature itself. This is unlike the waxing and waning moon, which reflects surprise and novelty. The Rebbe explains that this is why all Jewish festivals are calibrated according to the lunar month, for they celebrate miracles which disrupted and upended nature. The exception is the Egyptian civil war, for that was essentially a natural consequence of the Egyptian firstborns seeking to protect their own lives. That is why the commemoration of the event is fixed according to the days of the week, to underscore that nature itself rose up to elevate the Jews over their opponents.

And not just any day of the week, but Shabbos – which means to rest or cease. In Vayikra 26:6, the same Shoresh is used to describe the cessation of all evil when Moshiach comes: “I will remove wild beasts from the Land.” According to Chazal, it is not the wild beasts that will cease, but rather, their evil character traits. As such, Shabbos has the power to transform nature’s evil into good. In fact, this was evident on the first Shabbos of history, as it will be in the era of Moshiach, the day which is fully Shabbos. A glimmer of this transformative power was apparent on Shabbos Hagadol, when the evil nature of so many Egyptians was redirected for the good, to assist the Jews.

In a certain sense then, the Egyptian civil war is the biggest miracle of all, because Hashem did not need to suspend the natural workings of the world to protect the Jews. Rather, nature itself rose to their aid. The firstborns, who represented the height and might of Egypt, rose up to fight Pharaoh for the sake of the Jews.

Shabbos Hagadol empowers us to transform the negativity of the world into positivity, so that the world as a whole will assist us in serving Hashem and fulfilling his Torah and Mitzvos, all within nature. Through this, may we merit the time when the “wolf shall lie with the lamb” – all of nature will become conducive to serving Hashem.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS TAZRIA 5784

Compelled to Return

There is a recurring expression in Tazria and Metzorah that both you and I likely would not have paid much attention to, but the Rebbe makes a fascinating observation about. In fact, when you’re done reading this, all you will need to remember is this little expression, which so succinctly captures the essence of this magnificent idea. The expression is “Vehuva el Hakohen – he will be brought to the Kohen”. This expression is used in this week’s Parsha to describe how the Metzorah is brought to the Kohen to be declared impure. In next week’s Parsha, however, this expression is used to describe how the Metzorah is brought to the Kohen to be purified.

The phrase “he will be brought” implies an element of coercion. Its usage is therefore understandable in this week’s Parsha, because the Metzorah likely does not want to go to the Kohen to find out that he might be impure. Of course, the Metzorah may have exercised his own free choice in seeing the Kohen, but still, one can imagine that there is a certain level of compulsion involved. Although the Metzorah understands that it is the responsible or proper thing to do, it is not something he relishes, and the word Vehuva is therefore appropriate.

What seems strange, however, is the usage of this phrase in next week’s Parsha. There, the Metzorah has long been declared impure, and has had to inconveniently encamp outside the city for weeks on end, in complete isolation. Now that his affliction has departed, one would imagine that he is all too eager and excited to go to the Kohen! If so, why does the Torah use the word Vehuva, which denotes compulsion and force? Confounding things further, the Metzorah cannot be brought to the Kohen anyway, for he is quarantined outside the camp. Rather, it is the Kohen who must make the trek to visit him outside the camp, as the very next words in the Posuk spell out. If so, why does the Torah say Vehuva?

The Rebbe explains that a Jew outside the camp may get too comfortable, acclimating to the foreign environment so well that he no longer desires to re-enter the camp. He is happy with a life bereft of Torah and Mitzvos, enjoying instead all the pleasures and indulgences of this world. And yet, although this person is not looking to return to the fold, he feels obligated and compelled to do so. Thus, the expression Vehuva: something is pushing the Metzorah in the right direction.

But what is it that compels this reconnection? The answer is that the Metzorah remembers what happened during that first instance of Vehuva. He was brought before the Kohen to be assessed and appraised, and he recalls the kindness, caring and sensitivity of the Kohen who did not rush to immediately render him impure, but sought a basis to purify him. Even once it became clear that the Metzorah was impure, the Kohen did not issue the verdict with a light heart and an easy mind, but with perceptible anguish over the fact that a fellow Jew would be expelled from the camp. Even though the Metzorah is now content in his spiritually remote corner, this memory triggers an urgent compulsion to reconnect, if only for the sake of the Kohen.

This message is very relevant to all of us. At times, it is our mandate to call our children or charges to account, and we cannot shirk that responsibility. However, we must ensure that every act of discipline is perceived as tough love, with more love than tough. By demonstrating our empathy and care every step of the way, we guarantee the Vehuva; the day will certainly come where he will feel compelled to re-enter the camp and be purified.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS SHEMINI 5784

From Unkosher to Kosher

If you were to ask someone to identify the most unkosher animal in the world, how would they respond? We don’t even need to spell out the answer. Jews have always avoided that animal like the plague, and Chazal even place a curse upon one who breeds this type of animal in Israel. Yet, fascinatingly, this is also the only animal that will become kosher when Moshiach comes. As the Ohr Hachaim observes, Chazir is etymologically linked to the word Chazara (return), which hints at its future return to a state of kosher. Although Mitzvos are immutable, the Ohr Hachaim explains that it is not the laws of kosher which will change, but the traits of the Chazir. At present it only has split hooves, but it will begin to chew its cud when Moshiach comes. The obvious question: why is the most impure animal precisely the only one that will be transformed?

The Rebbe addresses this by elaborating on the significance of the two signs of a kosher animal. Chewing the cud is an internal and digestive process, representing one’s inner consumption through intellectual and emotional processes. On the other hand, split hooves are the most external and lowliest part of the animal, and thus reflect a person’s outermost and lowliest manifestation – the world of deed and action. A kosher animal characterises one who is pure in both thought and action, whereas a deficiency in one or the other will render one impure.

The Chazir is unique because it is the only unkosher animal which has split hooves but does not chew its cud. The Chazir thus represents the person whose internal perspectives and beliefs are contaminated, but who is nevertheless meticulous in the fulfilment of physical Mitzvos. Despite his inner state of impurity, the constant focus on physical deed all but guarantees his eventual Teshuvah. Conversely, one who is well-versed in Jewish thought and morality, possessing lofty beliefs and values, but does not translate these principles into action, risks remaining lost in the world of thought forever.

Essentially, what we have here is the idea of Hamaaseh Hu Haikar. Like the drip-drip of water on limestone, physical deed that is repeated again and again will effectively drive a person to change. Although physical deed might not be as motivating and stimulating as heady ideals, the consistency of one’s actions will slowly but surely nudge the person in the right direction, often without him even realising it.

Why does deed have such power? One reason is that ideologies and principles can easily be swept aside in the pressures of life, leaving no time or energy to focus on them, whereas deeds form the very building blocks of routine life. Another explanation is that ideas and emotions are as fallible as the person they arise from, and what electrified him today might mean absolutely nothing to him in ten years. On the other hand, deed demonstrates true commitment and dedication to the will of Hashem, and that remains a constant.

This brings us full circle to the beginning of the Parsha, where Nadav and Avihu offered an incense that contravened Hashem’s instruction. How could such great men suffer such an ignoble end? The answer is that they drove themselves into an intoxicating spiritual frenzy, to the point that they could not understand the need for rules. What is the purpose of restrictions, they reasoned, when our hearts burn with impassioned love for Hashem? In prioritising their thoughts and feelings over their deeds, they didn’t stand a chance.

We tend to believe that the most important thing is what’s going on in our head and heart, with the minutiae of deed paling in comparison. However, it is precisely the other way around. Although we must obviously focus on both, it is important to recognise that slacking off in the realm of physical deed is really where the slippery slope begins. In our own lives, and in our education of others, we must emphasise that Yiddishkeit is founded on the fastidious observance of Halacha more so than on spiritual ecstasy. Through this, may we speedily merit to see the Chazir become kosher before our eyes.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS TZAV 5784

Gratitude That Resonates

Living as we do in our home girt by sea, Australians associate international travel with transoceanic flight, requiring us to bentsch Gomel every time. This obligation stems from this week’s Parsha, which teaches us about the Korban Todah, the Thanksgiving Offering. Thankfully, there are only four specific occasions which warrant such thanksgiving, for otherwise we would be busy with offerings every moment of our lives. These four instances are outlined in the 107th chapter of Tehillim, which the Baal Shem Tov instituted that we say each Friday afternoon before Mincha, to thank Hashem for helping us navigate – sometimes obliviously – the perils we faced during the week.

Yet, there is an inconsistency in the way these four situations are listed. In Tehillim, the order is: Desert travellers, freed prisoners, those recovered from illness, and sea voyagers. The Gemoro explains that Dovid ranked these situations according to their survival rate, with desert-crossings being the most dangerous and ocean-crossings being the safest. But despite referencing this chapter of Tehillim, Rashi rearranges the order of the list, repositioning sea voyagers from last to first. Why?

The Rebbe explains that one of the most important qualities of successful teaching is relatability. It might be relatively easy to convey dry information, but it will most likely be forgotten by tomorrow. It takes much more to captivate the mind and heart of the student with a memorable insight that will be ingrained forever. The best way to achieve this is by linking the subject material to the interests and experiences of the recipient, framing it so that it resonates personally.

This, the Rebbe explains, is why Rashi switches up the order. Since Rashi is depicting how Moshe initially presented these Halachos to the Jews, it only makes sense that he drew on their own life experiences to do so. Moshe thus tapped into the sequence of the nation’s journey after leaving Egypt – first crossing the Yam Suf, then sojourning in the desert, and their eventual incarceration for forty years in an open-air prison due to the sin of the Meraglim. Moshe Rabbenu left the recovering sick for last, because most Jews in the desert did not personally experience this. For this reason, Rashi describes the first three situations in the plural form, as they were experienced collectively by all the Jews of that generation, whereas sickness is presented in singular form, for that was something endured by only a few people.

The lesson for us is obvious. Without exception, we are all educators, be it to our children, students, family members, colleagues, or random strangers. Every encounter is an opportunity for us to teach and uplift, and the odds of success will directly depend on the degree to which we exert ourselves to reach into that person’s world of experiences in order to touch them.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS VAYIKRA 5784

Wood You Go the Distance?

Our Parsha details all kinds of Korbonos for all kinds of situations – voluntary sacrifices, obligatory ones, communal ones. These Korbonos may be sourced from cattle, herds or doves, and there are also grain offerings consisting of flour, oil, and frankincense. However, the strangest sounding Korbon alluded to in this week’s Parsha is the one brought from… wood?

The Korban Haeitzim was offered by any individual who volunteered to chop wood and bring it to the Beis Hamikdash, in order to fuel the fire that consumed all the other Korbonos. Why would wood qualify as a Korbon, when its purpose is merely to facilitate the offering of the other Korbonos? This would seem akin to a restaurant patron being served charcoal as a side to the steak it slow-roasted to perfection! Furthermore, we know that the Korban Haeitzim was offered with exceptional joy, but what was so special about it compared to the other sacrifices which had far greater monetary value?

In explaining the significance of all Korbonos, the Ramban posits that the donor must consider all the actions performed to the Korbon as if done to himself instead. Only by the great mercy of Hashem is it possible to substitute a Korbon. From here we can glean insight into the very essence of a Korbon, which means to draw near. When a person seeks to draw closer to Hashem, the most crucial element is to put his own self to the side and completely nullify himself before his Creator.

Within this, there are two types of commitment. Some people may show exceptional sacrifice in contributing of themselves, but only for a particular cause or in a particular way. For example, they might pitch in only when the cause speaks to them, or only because they feel their contribution will be significant. Such a person may even expect recognition or seek publicity for his good deeds. He is like the one who offers a particular kind or ingredient in the Beis Hamikdash, to the acclaim of all others who are present. His Korbon, while significant, does not reflect utmost nullification to Hashem, for his commitment is limited to those things he regards as worthwhile.

In contrast, there are those who commit unconditionally. They don’t turn up only when the project resonates, or only when they are exceptionally good at the task at hand. They always put themselves out there, whenever and for whatever they are needed, without seeking acknowledgment. Even when working on something specific, their internal motivation reflects their total and absolute dedication.

This is precisely the virtue of the Korban Haeitzim – total surrender and utter nullification to Hashem. The individual who logs wood for the Mizbeyach does so only to address the collective need – without it, there is no sacrifice. His contribution is devoid of fanfare or personal gain, assisting quietly from the side in an act of true dedication. He is not focused on his own self, but merely helping others to offer their sacrifice. In this way, the Korbon Haeitzim epitomises the essence of true sacrifice.

The coming week marks a handover of our YY committee. It is an opportune time to express our gratitude to all our tireless volunteers – past, present and emerging – whose silent and selfless work wonderfully epitomises the spirit of the Korban Haeitzim. May Hashem repay them with an abundance of blessings that they don’t even seek, and may we all merit to fulfill this Mitzvah literally, in the Beis Hamikdash, speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS PEKUDEI 5784

Mindful Hearts and Heartfelt Minds

There are some rather famous questions on the opening words of this week’s Parsha: “These are the numbers of the Mishkan, the Mishkan Haeidus…” Why does the word Mishkan appear twice? And why is the second instance followed with the adjective Haeidus (“of testimony”)? The answers abound, and even within Chassidus there are a variety of explanations, but here is one:

When is testimony needed? If a matter is established fact or clearly known to us, there is neither need nor scope for testimony. It is only for something hidden or unknown that the need for testimony exists, to reveal that which was heretofore hidden. The Possuk thus means that man’s mission is to create two types of sanctuaries for Hashem – both in the revealed realm (Mishkan) and in the hidden realm (Mishkan Haeidus). These two realms exist within us in the heart and mind.

The heart, representing the world of emotion, is open and exposed, for its entire purpose is to interact with others. Emotional expression is a mode of personal revelation that lays bare our feelings towards others, be it a feeling of love or anger. People of the heart are generally outgoing and deem their social relationships to be of utmost importance.

On the other hand, the mind is our internal space, a place of introspection and contemplation, where the focus shifts to the discovery of deeper, hidden truths. In fact, the entire purpose of intellectualism is to glimpse at that which is transcendental and mysterious to us. People of the mind are generally introverted, aloof and detached from their surroundings. Comprehension requires concentration, which in turn is more attainable by disconnecting from outside distractions.

The message of our Parsha is that one must not be satisfied with either pathway over the other. None of us are exempt from revealing Hashem through the exertions of both mind and heart, with an emphasis on both the inside and the outside.

What might this look like in a practical sense? People of the heart tend to busy themselves with improving the world around them, such as through outreach activities and acts of kindness. For example, parents may study Torah solely so they have something meaningful to share at the Shabbos table, or to help their children with homework. Similarly, a community minded person will tirelessly work on influencing the environment, such as through Shiurim, mentoring or personal example. Such individuals are building the first kind of Mishkan. Although good and wonderful, this is not enough, because self-education and self-improvement are also necessary. Even the busiest mentor must find time to learn Torah and daven for no purpose other than to do Hashem’s will, even if no one sees and no one hears. That is how they can also build the second kind of sanctuary, the Mishkan Haeidus.

On the other hand, people who are overly engrossed in their own studies and personal growth, such as Torah scholars and the like, must remember that focus on self is insufficient. While introspection is valuable, it must not lead to isolation. They ought to take an interest in the world around them, through teaching and advising, or performing acts of kindness.  They will thereby also build both types of sanctuaries – the Mishkan and the Mishkan Haeidus.

The word Mishkan is related to the word Mashkon, which means collateral. Chazal say that the double instance alludes to the first two Batei Mikdash which were seized from us as indemnity for our sins. However, the third Beis Hamikdash will stand eternally; may we build it speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS VAYAKHEL 5784

More Than Mere Repetition

There is a strong sense of déjà vu when reading this week’s Parsha because everything about the Mishkan has already been outlined in Parshiyos Terumah, Tetzaveh and the beginning of Ki Sisa. The only difference is that the previous Parshiyos presented Hashem’s plans, whereas Vayakhel and Pekudei describe the Jews’ implementation. As such, 212 Pesukim could have all been replaced with just one Posuk, stating simply that the Jews did as instructed. Why the seemingly needless elaboration? Here are three lessons we can derive from the repetition:

Lesson 1: We have all heard of the “Jew at heart” – the individual who warmly and sincerely identifies with Jewish values in theory, but not in practice. We are sometimes guilty of the same, such as when we make the same Hachloto every year because last year’s sincere commitment somehow didn’t translate into action. The gulf between intention and action is a common human failing, which makes actual deed far superior to the initial plan. This is why the Torah emphasises the actual construction of the Mishkan, underscoring the transformation of Hashem’s vision into reality. In that sense, our Parsha is not mere repetition, but underscores the actualisation of Hashem’s dwelling place in this physical world.

Lesson 2: Rarely does a project’s outcome align perfectly with its initial blueprint, often hindered by unrealistic expectations or human error. The construction of the Mishkan was a notable exception, as the execution mirrored the divine plan to the fullest. That is why the Torah repeats every small detail all over again, to confirm that it was exactly the same in execution as it was in the original instruction. Such a feat may be virtually impossible when the designer or architect is human, but entirely attainable when the mission comes from Hashem. From this we learn that when Hashem instructs us to do something in a specific manner, it is indeed within our capacity to execute it precisely as He directed.

Lesson 3: The Torah dwells on the Mishkan’s construction to highlight the extent that Hashem treasures our personal investment. Our Parsha serves to emphasise that the primary objective is not only the physical structure itself, but the devotion and effort we invested in its creation, including our time, energy and abilities. Hashem took great pride in the Jews’ efforts, and therefore described these efforts in the greatest of detail. Similarly, Hashem values our engagement and meticulous application in fulfilling His Mitzvos as much as He values the Mitzvos themselves.

Each of us is tasked with building our own sanctuary as a dwelling place for Hashem. In doing so, we ought to apply these principles – translating the theory of Yiddishkeit into practice, doing so accurately down to the last detail, and applying ourselves with the greatest dedication. Through this, may we merit to do the same with the building of the third Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS KI SISA 5784

Neck and Neck: Two types of Stiff-neck

Parshas Ki Sisa contains the tragedy of the Jews’ unfaithfulness less than forty days after their match made to Heaven. Hashem’s reaction was severe, regretting having chosen them as His nation. Threatening to unleash His vengeance against the Jews, Hashem accused them three times of being stiff-necked: “I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff-necked nation; now leave Me alone so My anger may burn against them so that I may destroy them” (32:9) ... “I will not go up in your midst for you are a stiff-necked people” (33:3) … “You are a stiff-necked people; were I to go up into your midst for one moment, I would destroy you” (33:5).

It is easy to understand the metaphor: a stiff-necked person cannot or will not turn his neck in any direction, and this is like the obstinate who refuse to acknowledge their rebukers or heed their words, showing their disdain by wilfully turning their back to their reprovers. Hashem thus sought to destroy the Jews for their shameless contempt, because a nation cannot be founded on stubborn and uncompromising individuals who refuse to learn and change.

Shockingly, Moshe beseeches Hashem to forgive the Jews for that very reason. “If I have found favour in Your eyes Hashem, let Hashem go now in our midst; because they are a stiff-necked people, You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and take us for your inheritance.” How could the very indictment against the Jews now morph into their defence? Because of this enigma, many Meforshim reinterpret this Posuk as Moshe’s plea that Hashem forgive the Jews despite their stiff-neckedness, rather than because it. But if so, why bring it up at all? Why did Moshe invoke the Jews’ flaws when seeking to secure their atonement?

The beginnings of an answer can be gleaned from Midrash Rabbah which states, “The Jews are the most brazen of the nations… you might regard this as their shame, but it is in fact their tribute. A Jew proudly proclaims, ‘Either Jewish or dead.’”

In other words, Jewish survival relies on our stiff-necked refusal to bend to the culture of the day. A Jew is deaf to whatever beliefs may enchant the nations of the world, instead embracing the ways of his father and grandfather before him. If there is one trait that epitomises Judaism, it is the ability to resolutely stand by our beliefs. How else could we stick to the same tradition for thousands of years, as excited as if it were all brand new? So yes, even if the stubbornness of the Jews led to their temporary downfall when they struggled to shake themselves of the lingering shackles of their Egyptian upbringing, their obstinacy remains a virtue in the bigger picture, rather than a flaw.

The Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that the same also applies on an individual basis. To be stiff-necked represents steadfast loyalty to Hashem, even at times when our intellectual and emotional capacity may not be sufficiently robust to contemplate about or be moved by the greatness of Hashem. This, the Alter Rebbe explains, is Moshe’s remarkable defence of the Jews: Forgive them because they are stiff-necked. Even if they sinned and transgressed the Word of Hashem, this trait of Your children is the one that will bring you the most satisfaction.

There are so many ways to apply this in our lives. The more obvious message is that we must be assertive in upholding Hashem’s principles in this Woke world, drawing on our willpower to harness every moment and experience to connect with Hashem. No less importantly, when we meet a Jew who appears stiff-necked in rejecting Torah’s ways, we must emulate Moshe and embrace the immense potential of this trait. May our persistent loyalty to Hashem in the troubles times of Golus yield the coming of Moshiach speedily in our times.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS TETZAVEH 5784

Etched in Mosaic Stone

The names of the Jewish tribes were twice engraved into the Kohen Gadol’s garments – once on the twelve stones of the Choshen, and again on the two stones of the Ephod that sat atop his shoulders. Their overall purpose was to display the names of the Jews as a remembrance before Hashem. But why a double remembrance?

There are two types of Jews: One serves Hashem with all his heart, and the other serves Hashem out of a sense of duty. The first mode parallels the Ponim (front), which is where the Chosen was positioned. Individuals who serve Hashem in this manner do so with wholehearted joy and a genuine desire to connect with Him; they stand “face to face” with their Creator. The second pathway is represented by the Achor (back), where the bulk of Ephod was worn. This represents the Jew who must compel himself to serve Hashem, for his personal desires gravitate towards worldly temptations, and aligning himself with the Divine Will is a constant struggle.

Taking the analogy one step further, the front of a person’s body is far more multifaceted and varied than the uniformity of one’s back. Similarly, a Jew who serves Hashem with passion and desire is likely to feel the unique significance of each Mitzvah, and his personal expression and creativity in serving Hashem will differentiate him from all others. On the other hand, a Jew who serves Hashem out of a sense of submission is unlikely to perceive the diversity of the Mitzvos. He will thus observe them all with the same monotonous sense of duty, as rote as that of any other like-minded person.

This distinction is reflected in the stones of the Choshen and Ephod. The tribes of Israel were engraved on separate stones on the Choshen, each with its unique colour and characteristics, symbolising the individualised approach to serving Hashem. In contrast, the names of the Ephod were all inscribed on the same type of stone, reflecting a homogeneous approach to serving Hashem.

The Kohen Gadol’s role was to empower all Jews in their relationship with Hashem, regardless of their personal pathway. Wearing their names on both the Ephod and Choshen testified to the inherent value of both the heartfelt service of Ponim and the disciplined service of Achor.

It would be wonderful to think that we can always serve Hashem in the way of Ponim. However, each of us will encounter circumstances that send us down the path of Achor. In a certain respect, this can be an even more powerful expression of our Yiddishkeit, demonstrating that we serve Hashem with fortitude and tenacity – Azoi, un nit Andersh. That is why the stones of the Ephod sat higher than those of the Choshen. Similarly, they were fabricated of Shoham, which contains the same letters as Moshe, to indicate that such Jews are especially fortified by the leader of the generation. Either way, may we merit to see the stones of Ephod and Choshen speedily in our days!

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS TERUMAH 5784

From Pole to Pole: Ready to Roll

Every Mitzvah is eternal, applicable in all places and for all time. What, then, is the enduring relevance of the Mitzvah (in this week’s Parsha) to safeguard against the removal of the Aron’s poles? Furthermore, considering that the Aron remained stationary for most of its existence, why was it so crucial to perpetually keep it in “transport mode”? And most intriguingly, apart from the overall Mitzvah to fashion the Mishkan with all its components and vessels, why is this the only other Mitzvah associated with the Mishkan’s construction? Does it make any sense that fabricating the Aron is not listed among the 613 Mitzvos, whereas keeping its poles intact is a Mitzvah in its own right?

The Chinuch explains that the Aron was the focal point of the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash, for it connected the Shechinah with the Jews, and by extension, the entire world. It was thus imperative that the Aron be protected at all costs. Even during peaceful periods, the Aron had to be kept in a state of evacuation readiness. This way, in the event of unexpected crisis or emergency, the Aron could be securely handled by the Kohanim, even if they were under duress or thrown into panic.

This approach offers a measure of explanation, but it is still hard to understand why such an improbable risk would warrant such an extreme precaution. The Rebbe therefore presents another explanation, one which imparts a timeless message for every Jew:

The Aron, which contains the Luchos and the Torah, is a metaphor for every Jew who embodies Torah and Mitzvos. Just as the Aron resided in the most sacred space, the Holy of Holies, so too, such a Jew yearns to constantly remain in a sanctified environment. Hashem commands the opposite: not only must we be willing to venture out of our holy environs to bring the Torah to the outside world, but we must remain “transport ready”, always equipped for instant mobilisation. To “keep our poles on” means to take interest in and care about the state of the world outside of us. We must be on the constant lookout for opportunities to boost the quality of connection between the outside world and Hashem.

This insight of the Rebbe is reflected in a teaching of the Olelos Efraim regarding the Kruvim atop the Aron, which were designed with “wings spread upwards… their faces toward one another.” This imagery portrays a Jew of such holy aspirations as to be depicted with his wings soaring upwards. Yet, in the very same instant, he directs his gaze towards his fellow Jew, ready to assist. We too must embrace our ambassadorship to project the Torah’s values, both to those around us and the entire world. May we thereby once again merit the revelation of the Aron in the Holy of Holies.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS MISHPOTIM 5784

Trusteeship and Tzedakah

Over a century ago, the foundation “Chevras Gemilas Chasadim Shomrei Shabbos” was established in New York, to support those whose Shabbos observance meant that they were fired by Sunday. As the years passed and Shabbos observance became more accepted by society, the fund morphed into providing interest-free loans for anyone in need. In 5711, the Rebbe assumed the presidency of this Gemach, and demanded of its treasurers to ensure that its funds never remain idle.

The Gemach would host its annual Melave Malka each Motzei Shabbos of Parshas Mishpatim, which contains the Posuk: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him.” During the Shabbos afternoon Farbrengen beforehand, the Rebbe would generally focus on this Mitzvah and urge Chassidim to contribute.

One puzzling aspect of this Posuk is its conditional phrasing: “If you lend money,” suggesting that lending is optional. How could the Torah subject such an important responsibility to the lender’s willingness and discretion? After all, what will happen if the rich do not want to lend? Should this matter not call for a mandatory obligation?

Rashi addresses this by citing R’ Yishmael in the Mechilta, who interprets three instances of if in the Torah as when, thereby transforming a conditional statement into an obligation. As such, the imperative to lend is indeed compulsory. Even so, the question lingers: Why did the Torah use this oblique expression which could so easily be misinterpreted?

The Rebbe would often cite an insight from the Ohr HaChaim, which not only answers our question but informs us of the Torah’s perspective on philanthropic responsibility. The Ohr HaChaim explains that if a person finds himself with surplus funds above and beyond his personal needs, he must recognise that Hashem entrusted him with these spare funds in order to pass it forward to those in need. This then is how the Posuk should be read, “If you have the means to lend money to My people, know that it belongs to the poor among you.” The lender is not generously relinquishing something of his own, but is rather a temporary custodian who directs the funds to their rightful place. For this reason, the continuation of the Posuk warns us against unduly pressuring the borrower to return the loan, for the funds were already predestined for him at the very outset.

A parallel teaching of the Rebbe notes that the word Tzedakah does not mean charity, but stems from “tzedek,” meaning justice. Hashem provides the well-to-do with excess income so they may, on His behalf, distribute it to the poor. When a wealthy person provides a loan, he is not doing the poor person a favour, but is merely an executor who disburses funds to its intended beneficiary. That is why supporting the needy is an act of justice, rather than an act of kindness. The more faithfully and promptly we distribute this trust, the more Hashem entrusts us in return, allowing the cycle to grow and flourish.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS YISRO 5784

Hearing versus Heeding

The beginning of this week’s Parsha tells us exactly what news reached Yisro’s ears: “He heard all that Hashem had done for Moshe and the Jews – how Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt.” Yet, Rashi introduces a question that should now seem inexplicable, “What news did Yisro hear that he came? The splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek.” Given that the Posuk explicitly states what Yisro heard, why does Rashi ask? Rashi’s answer seems just as mysterious, because he diverges from the Posuk’s focus on the Exodus to highlight the parting of the sea and the war with Amalek. How can this disparity be reconciled?

The Rebbe explains that Rashi sought to address a particular nuance that is not so apparent from the Torah itself. Although the Posuk tells us in general terms what Yisro heard, one still wonders what inspired him to come. What motivated him to abandon the comfort of his home and the security of his homeland, embarking on a journey fraught with discomfort and danger to join the Jews in the distant wilderness? If Yisro’s goal was merely to worship Hashem, could he not have converted in Midian and observed the Mitzvos there, even proselytising his newfound faith to his compatriots? This is the emphasis of Rashi’s question: “What news did he hear and come?” Rashi answers that it was specifically the parting of the sea and the war with Amalek that inspired Yisro’s coming.

While the parting of the sea was a wonder that reverberated across the whole world, causing nations to tremble and consuming the inhabitants of Philistia with terror, the battle with Amalek had the opposite effect, shattering the momentum of miraculous events. It exposed not only the physical vulnerability of the Jews, but their spiritual decline too, for the war was precipitated by their weakened hold of the Torah and questioning whether G-d was in their midst. One would have expected that this should have given Yisro pause, reminding him that the Jews were still very much hated and persecuted by antisemites even while Hashem was so clearly at their side. Yet, this moment was precisely the one that Yisro chose to approach and declare, “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all gods.” Why?

The Rebbe offers a profound glimpse into Yisro’s character, portraying him as the first “Righteous Gentile” in world history who was deeply empathetic toward the Jewish plight. Despite his comfortable and dignified life at the apex of society, the “Priest of Midian” could not rest when the people of Israel suffered and despaired. So long as the Exodus went well for our forefathers, Yisro rejoiced from afar. With Pharaoh defeated and the Jews set free, and even the great sea parting before them, Yisro was content with watching from the sidelines as the entire world stood in awe of the miracles that befell the Jews.

But then, in one instant, everything changed: Amalek attacked the Jews, reducing yesterday’s invincible people into today’s vulnerable outcasts. The spell cast by the splitting of the sea was now broken, and all the haters came out of the woodwork to jeer at the Jews. And that is precisely what galvanised Yisro into action and stirred him to journey to the camp of Israel. He recognised the Jews’ need for solidarity and saw the role he could play in restoring their national honour. Yisro leveraged his prestige and global reputation to shift the prevailing narrative and change the tide of discourse around the world. Instead of talking about Israel’s loss of deterrence, people would now ask: “Have you heard about the revered high priest and renowned philosopher who forsook it all to align himself with the Jews?” In embracing the Jewish people during their most vulnerable moment, Yisro did not just change the narrative; he became an integral part of their story, forever entwining his legacy with theirs. May we see much of the same in our times.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS BESHALACH 5784

Parting with Convention: Covenant over Command

At the time of its creation, Hashem formed an agreement with the Sea that it would split for the Jews on their way out of Egypt. Generally, the purpose of a condition is to secure the commitment of an independent party to a certain course of action. This raises an intriguing question: Why would Hashem need to make a deal with an element of His own creation when He could simply impose His Will upon the Sea?

Additionally, our awareness of this condition is derived from the Posuk that says, “Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned toward morning L’eysano (to its strength),” which comprises the same letters as Litnao (to its condition). Why is this condition alluded to in a Possuk which speaks of the waters’ return to their original flowing state, rather than in an earlier Possuk which describes their initial parting?

Chassidus explains that splitting the Sea against its will would suggest that nature itself stood in the way of the Jews, and that Divine intervention was necessary to restrain and suspend it. That is not how Hashem wants the world to operate. Rather than standing in the way of G-dliness and Holiness, Hashem desires of nature itself to actively assist the forces of G-dliness and Holiness. Hence Hashem’s condition with the Sea, to ensure its willing participation. This affirms not only that nature suspends its modus operandi to eliminate any obstacles that hinder a Jew’s Avoidah, but that this suspension of nature is itself part of nature.

On a deeper level, the purpose of this condition was not only for the benefit of the Jews, but more importantly, for the sake of the Sea itself. The condition underscored that the Sea’s entire purpose was to assist the Jews, in the absence of which their whole existence would be called into question. This is why the condition is alluded to in the word L’eysano – to its strength, for only through parting did the Sea validate its own existential purpose in creation. For the very same reason, this condition is insinuated in the Possuk that speaks of the waters’ return to their flowing state, for it was the fulfilment of their condition that sustained their ongoing existence.

Taking it further, the Midrash tells us that Hashem made a similar pact with every other aspect of creation. Thus, what is said of the Yam Suf extends to all of nature. The Torah teaches us not only that natural laws can be suspended to remove all our impediments, but that that such interventions are embedded in nature itself. Therefore, when we perceive challenges that seem as daunting as the Yam Suf, the Torah gives us the confidence to persevere. Not only will these obstacles cease to frustrate us, but they will in fact become the catalyst to propel us forward, thereby fulfilling their own purpose in creation, without which they would not deserve to exist. May we see the immediate disintegration of all our challenges with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS BO 5784

Citizens of Tomorrowland

The unsophisticated question of the Tam, the third of the four sons, is presented to us at the end of this week’s Parsha. “And it will be if your son asks you tomorrow, saying, ‘Mah Zos – what is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a mighty hand did the L‑rd take us out of Egypt.”

In explanation, Rashi comments, “There is a tomorrow which is immediate, and a tomorrow which is at a later time.” At the face of it, Rashi appears focused on the timing of the Tam’s question, observing that it would not arise the morning after the Exodus, but only in the distant future. The problem is that this seems redundant – surely a child who witnessed the Exodus would not be wondering the next day as to the purpose of Pesach. If it is obvious from the context that “tomorrow” refers to the distant future, why does Rashi feel the need to state the obvious, and at such (relative) length?

The Rebbe explains that Rashi was concerned about a different question entirely: Why does the Posuk spell out “tomorrow” at all? After all, it does not really seem to matter when the Tam will ask his question? Rashi therefore infers that the Torah means to highlight the motivating factor of the Tam. For, the wise son asks questions to increase his sagacity, and the wicked son to attack our credibility, whereas the child-who-does-not-know-to-ask simply lacks ability. The Tam is none of the above… but what then defines him and drives him, and from where do his questions arise?

Rashi’s answer is that the Tam is a “child of tomorrow”. Not in a chronological sense, but in an ideological one. Having grown up in a different era and set of circumstances, he has a different perspective of reality, moulded by the society and culture which surround him. His questions are dull and simplistic because the Pesach rituals simply don’t speak to him. He is a child of the future who basks in cosmopolitan liberalism and the wonders of scientific ingenuity, whereas the Exodus is a thing of the past, as much relic to him as hieroglyphics and sarcophagi. “What is this?” reflects not just disinterest, but a genuine inability to grasp any relevance.

More specifically, the Rebbe classifies children of the future into two distinct categories. There is the child of “the immediate tomorrow” who aligns himself closely with his parents’ lifestyle, despite having been born into a later generation. He dresses as they do, shares their values, and follows their ways. The questions of such a child are welcomed and understood by the older generation, who are all too eager to answer them.

But then there is the child of “the distant tomorrow” who seems detached and withdrawn, the one to whom nothing seems to resonate. His questions don’t reflect curiosity but inattention and disengagement. One might be tempted to ignore his questions altogether; why bother? But the Torah tells us otherwise – it is especially important to answer the child of “the distant tomorrow”, tailoring our responses to pique his interest and attract his attention. True, what “worked” for generations bygone won’t necessarily work for this child, but he is as much Jew as any other, and simply requires a different approach to reach his core.

This insight of the Rebbe captures one aspect of the Rebbe’s dynamic leadership: Relatable messaging! It is a call to action for us to adopt a similar strategy, crafting messages that are relatable and engaging to our own youth, thereby bridging any generational divide.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS VOERA 5784

The Three-Day Escape

Hashem’s seal is truth, and one would expect all directives and instructions emanating from Hashem to project the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If so, why was Moshe instructed to demand an allowance of only three days to serve Hashem in the desert? The endgame all along was a land flowing with milk and honey. Since the Jews had no intention of ever returning, why wasn’t the full itinerary shared with Pharaoh – Mattan Torah and the Promised Land? In fact, full disclosure at the outset may have averted the panic and terror precipitated by Pharaoh’s chase, who felt cheated by the Jews’ failure to return after three days. Furthermore, this whole charade seems to diminish the honour of Hashem, Heaven forbid – as if He had to resort to trickery and sleight to force Pharaoh’s hand.

There are many answers to these questions. For example, the Midrash tells us that the purpose of this farce was to engineer Pharaoh’s chase, so that the Exodus could culminate in the even greater miracle of Krias Yam Suf. Many meforshim explain that this tactic was devised to unmask the extent of Pharaoh’s sadistic cruelty – he would not allow his long-suffering slaves a respite of even just three days. The Ohr Hachaim posits that the proposed turnaround time was conceived to make the Egyptians more amenable to the Jews’ “borrowing” their personal belongings. Or, the Alshich postulates that Pharaoh simply could not handle a request of more than three days, and we know that Hashem does not demand from any creature more than it could handle. Yet, the downside with all these answers is that they don’t fully address the need for deception.

Chassidus puts forward an entirely different explanation, one which is both surprising and profound: The Three Days ruse was orchestrated for our own sake more than anything to do with Pharaoh. Hashem deliberately wanted us to leave Egypt in haste, in turmoil, and in distress. Why?

Change and positive transformation is a complex and arduous process, one which is easily plagued with questions of worthiness or hijacked by self-doubt. Habits are resistant to change, and inner struggles can go on forever. Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites is a metaphor for the inner Pharaoh who chases us within and tries confining us to the status quo. Hashem teaches us that we can escape Egypt even with Pharaoh hot on our trail, insisting that our rightful place is Mitzrayim. Even if there might be some truth to what he is saying, the Parsha instructs us to just make a run for it – even if it means taking just three days at a time. Rather than reaching out only for the things we consider ourselves ready for, escape into what we feel undeserving of, and just take it day by day. Often, our personal redemption is achieved by duping our own selves.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

PARSHAS SHEMOS 5784

Burning Yet Unburned

Hashem first revealed Himself to Moshe through the extraordinary vision of the burning bush. Intrigued, Moshe approached to comprehend this phenomenon. That moment marked a turning point in our national destiny, for it was here that Moshe was appointed as the first Jewish leader, setting into motion the chain of events that would culminate in the giving of the Torah. But what fundamental and vital message was Hashem conveying to Moshe, and to all of us, through this marvellous display?

The laws of physics dictate that a fire must consume. The greater the fire and the longer it burns, the more it must devour. In a metaphysical sense, spirituality is fire and materialism is matter. The classical view is that spirituality can thrive only at the expense of materialism. This is the meaning of Pharaoh’s complaint to the Jews, “You are idle, idle! That is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the L‑rd.’” Similarly, many regard the fire of Kedushah as a threat to our own identity, leading to fear and paralysis in serving Hashem. The very same fear that inhibits a not-yet-religious person from doing a Mitzvah is the very same fear that impedes a Frum person from adopting a new Hiddur or Hachlotoh. This fear that heightened spiritually will somehow downgrade our current way of life is also what some may find disconcerting about the messianic era.

However, the Torah emanates from the Creator of both the spiritual and physical. It is thus not bound by the laws of physics, be they physical or spiritual. The Torah’s holiness does not reduce physicality or diminish one’s individuality, but rather empowers and enhances them. By directing them towards their divine purpose, they become Hashem’s ambassador in this world. And there is nothing stronger than that.

When a person allows the fire of Kedushah to burn, his identity not only remains unharmed and intact, but becomes impassioned by the flame. Like all those thornbushes out there, he resembles the one which is most captivating, the one in which a fire dances. This is the message that Hashem conveyed to Moshe, and indeed to all of us at the threshold of our religious journey: the Torah’s fire does not consume. Rather, it ignites our potential and extends our glow. Understanding this message is crucial to progressing in our service of Hashem.

Perhaps we can extend this idea to gauge our spiritual leadership over our charges – our children and our students. We must recognise that true leaders ignite their followers with a fire that does not consume. If our devotees feel consumed or hurt, that is a sure sign we are doing something wrong.

Let us embrace this thornbush fire, and may the synergy of the spiritual and physical usher in the days of Moshiach.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

SHABBOS CHAZAK PARSHAS VAYECHI 5784

Waiting by The Wayside 

Why was Rochel buried at the wayside? The commentaries offer several explanations that are both straightforward and aligned with the Torah’s wording. For instance, the Ramban highlights the logistical challenges Yaakov faced while traveling with a large family and entourage, making it practically impossible to bury Rochel elsewhere without neglecting his family’s safety and wellbeing. Alternatively, the Sforno surmises that Yaakov was so overwhelmed by Rochel’s passing that he lacked the strength and vigour to bury her elsewhere.

Curiously, it is the master of Peshat who opts for a Midrashic explanation, one which is not at all alluded to in the Posuk: “You should know that I buried her there by divine command, so that she would be of assistance to her children. When Nevuzaradan exiles the Israelites and they pass by there, Rachel will emerge from her grave and weep and beg mercy for them… and the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, ‘There is reward for your work … and the children shall return to their own border’”. Why does Rashi regard this as Peshat?

The Rebbe explains that Rashi was guided by his deep insight into the relationship between Yaakov and Yosef. To Rashi, it made no sense that Yaakov would have felt obliged to defend himself to Yosef, as Yosef would have never second-guessed his father. Moreover, had Yaakov sensed that Yosef was slighted, he surely would have excused himself many years earlier.

Rather, Yaakov must have had a different objective in mind: Although Yosef bore his father no grievances or grudges over his mother’s burial, he was still pained by the question, “Why did it have to be this way?” Yaakov intuited that his own request to be buried in Mearas Hamachpela would have brought Yosef’s unspoken pain to the fore, and he therefore sought to assuage Yosef’s agony.

That is why Rashi veered from the explanations of the Ramban and Sforno, for theirs doesn’t truly address the question of “Why did it have to be this way?” Instead, Yaakov informed Yosef that, had the question been put to Rochel herself, she would have chosen this second-rate burial site to be on hand for her descendants during their exile.

In other words, had Rochel been asked, “Do you want to be buried in the holy Mearas Hamachpela, along with Odom and Chava, the Avos, and your beloved husband? Or do you prefer to give all of that up so that one day, in 2000 years when your sinful descendants are thrown out of their Land, you will be situated exactly where you can help them?” – she would have unhesitatingly chosen the latter. For this reason, the Posuk states that Rochel is rewarded for “her work”, attributing to her the credit of being buried on the wayside even though she did not have the opportunity to weigh in on the circumstances of her burial, and this outcome was not of her own doing. This was Yosef’s consolation – his mother was buried exactly where she would have wanted.

There is a powerful lesson we can all take from this: The extent of our commitment is not always as apparent in our achievements as it is in our sacrifices. If we desire to raise Frum and Chassidishe children, they need to be able to sense that we ourselves are willing to yield for our principles. In truth, in doing so, we are really opening pathways to greater fulfillment rather than foregoing opportunity.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

 VAYIGASH 5784

Those Who Don’t Ask Don’t Learn

There is something subtly unusual in this week’s Haftorah, of the sort that might be easily overlooked. The Haftorah begins by describing how Hashem instructed Yechezkel to make a presentation for the Jews, “Take one stick and write on it ‘For Yehudah and the Children of Israel his companions’, and write on another stick ‘For Yosef, the stick of Efraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.’ Bring them close, one to the other into one stick, and they shall be one in your hand.” It is here where things get interesting. Instead of instructing the Prophet to immediately explain the symbolism to the Jews, Hashem instead directs Yechezkel to wait for the Jews to ask, “Will you not tell us what these are to you?”

This approach is rather unprecedented, given that Prophets are generally enjoined to present the word of Hashem without delay, irrespective of whether the people are asking for it or not. There is only one other place in Tanach where a similar scenario transpires – in the prophecy foretelling the events of Asara Bteves (24:15). Why is the Novi instructed to wait for the Jews to query the significance of these props?

On Shabbos Parshas Vayigash 5729, there wasn’t supposed to be a Farbrengen. In fact, as was common in such situations, the Rebbe addressed future milestones in the previous Shabbos Farbrengen, including the Pegisha planned for Shabbos Parshas Vayigash. However, as it turns out, there ended up being an unforeseen Farbrengen.

At this spontaneous Farbrengen, the Rebbe emphasised that all novel Chassidic teachings were embedded in Torah all along, even if no one ever shone a spotlight on it. As an example, the Rebbe invoked the famous teaching of the Baal Shem Tov – that a Jew must take a practical lesson from everything he sees or hears. The Rebbe explained that this teaching is sourced in the two prophecies above, where Hashem expected the Jews to seek out the message in the deeds they witnessed before them. In fact, this was the entire catalyst for the unscheduled Farbrengen – the Rebbe wished to derive lessons in the service of Hashem from the successful Apollo 8 mission, the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit and reach the Moon. The Rebbe went on to draw a whole range of parallels and lessons from spaceflight, which can be accessed by looking up the sources below.

The message is clear: In our service of Hashem, we must seek lessons from everything that we see and hear. As important as this pursuit is for us, it is particularly important to include our children in this too. There is no better time to dwell on this than during the less structured times of the summer holidays, a period with lots of elaborate travel or recreational plans. We will encounter diverse experiences and sometimes unexpected events, such as when (our) plans may go awry. When this happens, it is supremely important to emphasise not only the concept of Hashgocho Protis, but that there must be a positive and valuable lesson in whatever we just experienced. By teaching our children to find learning opportunities in every situation, we not only enhance their spiritual growth, but also equip them with resilience and calmness. Through this, we will usher in the era when the Divine purpose is manifestly apparent in every single aspect of creation.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

MIKETZ 5784

Profoundly Crazy

Dreams. They play a dominant role in this part of the Torah. Last week’s Parsha recounts Yosef’s two dreams foretelling his ascension to power, and the dreams of Pharaoh’s steward and baker. This week’s Parsha conveys Pharaoh’s dreams about the years of plenty and famine.

The Alter Rebbe explains that a dream contains all the familiar objects and experiences of real life, but they come together in an absurd way that defies credibility. This is why significant messages are often delivered in the guise of a dream, for one’s mind is governed by a level of imagination that completely transcends the structures and strictures of the logical thought process, thereby tapping into superrational realms that surpass logical constraints.

All the dreaming in these Parshiyos converged to usher in the Egyptian galus, the forerunner of all subsequent exiles. Indeed, Tehillim describes galus as a dream, for it is a time when paradoxical quests seem to coexist. For example, only in galus can a person begin his morning with mikvah, fervent davening and dedicated learning, only to proceed to the office for a day of duplicity or worse. In many cases, the person’s morning may have indeed been completely sincere, and no less heartfelt than his subsequent pursuits. He inhabits the dream of galus, where opposites coincide.

However, there is a positive side to the galus dreamtime: An imperfect individual can truly experience perfection. Galus presents us with the uncanny opportunity to attain the highest goals, even those that seem inconceivable and inconsistent with who we are. In galus, we’re called upon to seize every opportunity and defy what seems credible by any rational measure.

The Rebbe derives another lesson about galus from these dream narratives. Yosef’s dreams portrayed a progression from the earthly to the celestial, with the Jews compared first to wheat sheaves but then to the heavenly bodies. In contrast, Pharaoh’s dreams embodied regression, shifting from the animate (cows) to the inanimate (wheat), and from years of plenty to years of famine. This contrast illustrates a deeper truth: any repression that Jews endure in Golus ultimately leads to their ascendancy, whereas the seemingly powerful forces of the Klippos will fade into obscurity.

Today, as we witness global double-standards and mass hypocrisy emanating from every direction, we wonder about the world’s sanity. But it’s all context-dependent, you see. The self-righteous speciousness spouted around us is a symptom of our dreamlike subsistence, and that will all change in a flash when we are awoken by the touch of Moshiach.

Good Shabbos and a Freilachen Zos Chanukah,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

VAYEISHEV 5784

Lasting Peace and Tranquillity

By the start of this week’s Parsha, Yaakov had already endured so much. He had fled the murderous clutches of his brother Esav, lived for twenty years in the home and employ of his idolatrous and crooked father-in-law, navigated a tense reunion with Esav, survived the strife of Dina and Shechem, and mourned the untimely passing of his favourite wife, Rochel. With these trials behind him, Yaakov is finally ready to settle down – Vayeshev Yaakov. Yet, how does Hashem respond? Rashi informs us: “When Yaakov sought tranquillity, the ordeal of Yosef sprang upon him. When the righteous seek tranquillity, Hashem says, ‘What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them, that they seek tranquillity in this world too?’”

This seems disturbing on so many levels. Given what Yaakov had already been subjected to, was he not entitled to finally live out his days in peace? Moreover, the very fact that Yaakov desired tranquillity is proof positive that this was a well-placed and worthy aspiration, so why would Hashem deny him of it? Finally, why would the Parsha – Vayeshev – be named for the very thing that Yaakov did not receive? To the contrary, the roiling turmoil in the Parsha is the very antithesis of what Vayeshev means!

These questions seem insurmountable when viewing Hashem’s declaration as a denial of Yaakov’s craving. However, the Rebbe explains that the exact opposite is true: When Hashem saw how much Yaakov desired tranquillity, He sought to bestow it upon him in the highest form, far surpassing what Yaakov imagined for himself in the Land of Israel. This transpired in the last seventeen years of Yaakov’s life, which were also his best, when he witnessed the fledgling Jewish nation flourish even in Mitzrayim. Such an outcome could culminate only through the significant traumas and tribulations that Yaakov experienced beforehand, for those events engineered Yaakov’s relocation to Egypt under Yosef’s governance.

This account highlights the two forms of tranquillity. The first is superficial, characterised by material comfort but lacking in depth – good food, good sleep and fun things to do. This recreational form of serendipity is devoid of true purpose and meaning, for it does not lead to fulfilment and satisfaction in the long term, but to the very opposite – emptiness and depression. The second type of tranquillity is profound, but achievable only through much work and effort – “Those who sow with tears will reap with joy.” Achievements such as these impart a rewarding sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that eclipse all the temporal pleasures of life, but there are no shortcuts to its attainment through blood, sweat and tears.

This message is an important one to remember as we approach the summer holidays. Yes, we need rejuvenating downtime each year to reconnect with ourselves and those dearest to us. But in doing so, it is crucial to consider the nature of our sought-after tranquillity. Will we still prioritise our Ruchniyus and Yiddishkeit? Will we utilise the extra time on our hands for more davening and learning with ourselves and our children? Yes, such pursuits may take more effort than lounging around on the couch, but they are the surest way to achieving the highest form of serenity, with results that will linger for the long term.

In a sense, this is also the heroic story of the Maccabees. Rather than complacently embracing the alluring ways of Hellenism, they fought bitter battles to restore true peace and calm in Israel. The same can be said of us: The Jewish People have endured so much suffering and hardship in Golus, and there doesn’t seem to be any end to our struggles. However, we know that Golus is the means through which to achieve the ultimate serenity – Geulah. We ask Hashem to finally usher in “the day that is entirely rest and eternally serene”.

Good Shabbos and a Freilachen Chanukah,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

VAYISHLACH 5784

Heartless and Soulless

Shabbos Vayishlach 5533 was the last Shabbos prior to the Mezritcher Magid’s passing a few days later, on the 19th of Kislev. As he lay in bed surrounded by his disciples, the Maggid turned his focus to the first Rashi of the Parsha. In commenting on the type of messengers that Yaakov sent to Esav, Rashi writes that they were malachim mamash. Taken simply, Rashi is saying that these messengers were ‘literally angels’. However, the Maggid explained these words differently: that Yaakov sent the “mamash” of the angels – their angelic “substance” or “(spiritual) body” – to Eisav, but their souls remained with Yaakov.

A body cannot live without its soul. If so, how can it be said that the angels were split in two, with their bodies sent to Esav and their souls remaining with Yaakov? 

The Rebbe explains that Yaakov certainly did not tear the angels asunder, separating their bodies from their souls. Rather, the Maggid's intent was that the angels were so loyal to Yaakov that it was as if their hearts and souls remained with him even after they set off on their mission to Esav. To any bystander observing these messengers as they stood before Esav, it would appear as if they were present in body only, for their aspirations were somewhere else entirely.

Given that the Maggid presented this teaching on his last Shabbos in this world, the Rebbe regards it as a last will and testament of sorts, with an enduring message for all Chassidim and for all time. The Rebbe elaborates that this teaching informs us regarding how we ought to engage the physical world. As physical beings, we all need to eat and drink, sleep and partake of other physical pursuits. In doing so, we must not become consumed by our consumption, for physicality is only a means to a higher end. Rather, at the very same time that our "mamash" (body) is engaged in physicality, we must ensure that our “soul”, our higher senses and faculties, are focussed on loftier interests. This is how we ensure that we are influencing Esav instead of being influenced by him.

Similarly, we are all messengers to bring Chassidus to the furthest extremities of the world, and to the most Esav-like places. In going out as messengers to “Esav”, we must be aware that our success depends on our hearts and souls remaining connected with the messenger. Here again, this is the only way to ensure that we are influencing Esav instead of being influenced by him. May we thereby complete the Avoidah of bringing the wellsprings of Chassidus to the furthest Chutzah, and herald in the era of Moshiach.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

VAYEITZE 5784

No Peace

Given that Yaakov was raised in Be’er Sheva, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this was his point of departure when he set forth for Charan. Yet, the Torah goes to the trouble of articulating this at the beginning of this week’s Parsha: “And Yaakov left Be’er Sheva.” According to the Midrash, this is to underscore that Yaakov was desperate to escape Be’er Sheva. He could not tolerate what it represented, for it drew its name from the treaties that Avrohom and Yitzchok struck with Avimelech, with each side committing not to antagonise the other. Avrohom’s pact with Avimelech deferred the Jews’ conquest of Eretz Yisroel for seven generations (until the times of Moshe), and Yitzchok’s subsequent pact with Avimelech deferred the Jews’ conquest of Eretz Yisroel for another generation (until the times of Yehoshua). Yaakov ran away from all that.
 
The question is obvious: If a covenant with the Plishtim was good enough for Avraham and Yitzchak, then why not for Yaakov? Or, to ask it the other way around, how could Avraham and Yitzchak forge such a pact, given the negative outcome for their descendants?
 
The Rebbe explains: We often consider it expedient to adopt a “live and let live” strategy. We will eagerly bring our message to all who are receptive, and maybe even to those who are apathetic or ambivalent. But we may steer clear of those who are antagonistic, out of the fear that they might attack us and disturb our mission. This was the approach of Avraham and Yitzchak. They spread G‑dliness wherever they could, but “made peace” with their antagonists and enemies. For that reason, Avraham and Yitzchok forged a peace treaty with Avimelech – they agreed to leave him alone in the hope that he would leave them alone.
 
But there is a downside to mutual non-aggression. Although Avimelech would not disturb Avraham and Yitzchok in the short term, neither could they overcome him. Avimelech and his society would remain unchanged, and the consequences would haunt the Jews down the road. For seven or eight generations, the Plishtim retained the power, wherewithal and inclination to bar the Jews from their land.
 
Yaakov heralded a new approach, pioneering the age of “live but don’t let live”. He rejected the path of truces, with the recognition that engaging rivals was crucial to overcoming them. Yes, his approach was tougher and invited pushback, but Yaakov sensed that this was the only way. Thus, Yaakov ran away from what Be’er Sheva represented, and headed straight for Charan, “the place of divine anger”. Here, in the wickedest of places, Yaakov “grabbed the bull by the horns”, challenging, daring, and dueling with the fraudster Lavan, in order to extract all the sparks of Kedusha contained within him.
 
As Chassidim, we engage the world around us through spreading the wellsprings of Torah and Chassidus. When we encounter resistance, we may think that further engagement is not worth the consequences. We might be tempted to just adopt the “live and let live” strategy and move on to the next opportunity. Our Parsha tells us that although such an attitude was acceptable in the times of Avraham and Yitzchok, the strategy changed ever since the time that Yaakov left Be’er Sheva.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

TOLDOS 5784

The Real Deal

There is a Mazal Tov at the end of this week’s Parsha: Esav married his third wife!
 
Let us review the backdrop of this Shidduch. Yaakov had been instructed by his parents to travel to Padan Aram in order to marry within the family. Hearing this, Esav decided to follow suit. But to travel to Padan Aram? Esav put that in the too-hard basket and instead sought a local match with the daughter of Yishmael. Yes, she has a name, but the Torah changes it up. While she is referred to as Machlas in this week’s Parsha, she is called Basmas in Parshas Vayishlach. The Midrash explains that her real name was Basmas, but she was called Machlas on her wedding day to teach us that a Chosson and Kallah’s sins are forgiven (Mechilah).
 
But how does that make any sense? Sincerity is the foundation of Teshuvah, a quality notoriously absent in Esav. Esav’s sins included murder, theft and selling his birthright to dodge any obligation to serve Hashem. How could a sinner of such magnitude be forgiven merely because he stood under the Chuppah, without even a probationary period to gauge whether he had truly turned over a new leaf? In fact, the Midrash states that this was the only time ever that Esav performed true Teshuvah, but it didn’t even last into the next day… Well, no kidding! And how could the Midrash describe it as true Teshuvah if it didn’t endure!
 
Moreover, why does the Torah teach us about a Chosson and Kallah’s forgiveness specifically in the context of Esav’s marriage, instead of showcasing this teaching in any of the other numerous marriages recorded in the Torah?
 
The Rebbe explains that this narrative speaks volumes about the way we ought to perceive others. Each of us has had good and less-than-good moments, the times we were inspired and thus inspired others, and the times where we disappointed. Which of these moments truly reflects our essence?
 
The Torah answers this question by telling us that the true Esav is the one who briefly surfaced on his (third) wedding day. That fleeting moment of Teshuvah revealed his core and bared his true self, while everything else about Esav was a mere façade. Indeed, further glimpses of Esav’s true character are apparent in the utmost honour he accorded his father, and in his ambition to own the holy garments of Odom Harishon.
 
This is why the Torah informs us of wedding-day Teshuvah in the context of Esav, who stands out as the first Jewish sinner, and a prolific one too. If this message can be said of Esav, then how much more so of all Jews – their essence is projected in their good deeds, and any transgressions are mere aberrations. We are thus reminded not to judge others on the basis of their shortcomings but to recognise the goodness inherent within them. This is particularly evident in our times, as we see Jews of all backgrounds and histories striving to reinforce their connection with Hashem.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches 

CHAYEI SARAH 5784

Globalism or Nationalism

Paradoxically, Chayei Sara speaks about everything other than the life of Sara. It contains three central episodes that seem to underscore her supplanted role – her passing and burial, Yitzchak’s consolation through his marriage to Rivka, and Avraham’s subsequent marriage to Keturah. How can all this be dubbed “the life of Sara”?

Moreover, the last of these events raises some disturbing questions: What prompted Avraham to marry Keturah at the ripe old age of 140, thereby bringing more non-Jews into the world? Was he not betraying Sara who had insisted, with Hashem’s backing, that Hagar be expelled? And why was Avraham not repulsed by Hagar’s relapse into idolatry during her period of banishment?

Delving into the depths of this narrative, the Rebbe develops a profound analysis: Avraham was a globalist whereas Sara was a nationalist. What does this mean?

Avraham’s very name means “father of all nations”, and he constantly strove to welcome even idolaters into his tent to teach them about the one true G-d. Avraham had multiple wives and multiple children; some part of the Jewish fold, and others not. Avraham sought to maintain a relationship with Yishmael even when it disturbed Yitzchak’s pure environment. Avraham was a globalist who inclusively prioritised the spiritual welfare of the entire world as much as that of his own kin. He was certainly successful on that front, with all Abrahamic religions claiming eternal affinity with him.

On the other extreme is Sara, whose name means “princess over all” – regal, yet aloof and distant. She had only one husband and only one son, both of whom are the cornerstone of the Jewish nation. Her entire focus was begetting and raising Yitzchak, to the point of banishing anything in the way – including her stepson Yishmael, despite her initial support of Avraham fathering a child with Hagar. Sara was clearly a nationalist, who prioritised her people above all else.

Both husband and wife acknowledged the necessity of both missions: spreading the divine message universally and nurturing a nation dedicated to this cause. Their differences centred primarily on the prioritisation of these objectives, a tension that surfaced later in their lives when events caused these missions to clash.

This is why this Parsha is called “the life of Sara”, because all three episodes not only exemplify Sara’s nationalism, but Avraham’s eventual surrender to it. First, Sara’s passing led to the very first Jewish purchase of the Holy Land. Despite Efron’s willingness to cede Machpelah for free, Avraham insisted on paying top dollar for it, so that no one could deny Jewish control of the land. Second, when it came time to find a soulmate for his son, Avraham resisted Eliezer’s pleas for Yitzchak to wed his daughter, even though that would have made for a perfect multicultural union. Instead, Avraham sent Eliezer to find the one and only woman in the world who would perpetuate Sara’s legacy. And lastly, Avraham’s union with Keturah culminated in his decision to distance his other progeny, in order to preserve his spiritual and physical heritage exclusively for Yitzchak.

What about us? In our own lives, are we globalists or nationalists? When we sit around our Shabbos tables or catch up with our friends, do we spend our time “solving” the world’s many problems? Or do we set aside the “global” issues and focus instead on practical and positive initiatives that will make a tangible difference to our people?

The Torah tells us about both pathways because each has its time and place. Still, although Avraham, too, passes away in this week’s Parsha, the name remains Chayei Sara, and not Chayei Avraham. This is a testament to the enduring primacy of Sara’s calling, one that Avraham ceded to even when it clashed with his own life’s mission. In our times too, may we merit to see the triumph of the Jewish National interest over all adversity.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

VAYEIRA 5784

Take It with a Grain of Salt

The transformation of Lot’s wife into a Pillar of Salt survives not only as a relic in the Dead Sea region, but as an enduring and enigmatic riddle shrouded in mystery. We all know that her punishment is attributable to her refusal to supply the guests with salt, but that only triggers a series of bewildering questions: Why was she punished specifically for refusing to give salt when it is reasonable to assume that she didn’t agree to give them anything else either? Why did this punishment occur at the precise moment she turned back for a last glance at Sodom? And why does the Torah describe her last act as looking “behind him”, and not “behind her”?

The Rebbe often cited the Gemoro’s expression, “Melach Mamon Chaser – the salt of money is its decrease”. What on earth does that mean? The answer focuses on two properties of salt: It is one of the oldest preservatives known to mankind, and it is also characterised by its unpleasant taste. The Gemoro is thus telling us that the most effective way to preserve one’s wealth is by diminishing it through acts of Tzedakah. Although parting with one’s money may seem unpalatable, Tzedakah is the surest way to safeguard and preserve one’s funds, assets and financial resources.

This was the fundamental disagreement between Lot and his wife. Lot grew up in Avraham’s shadow, and he thus regarded Tzedakah and acts of kindness as a valuable investment that would preserve the rest of his finances, even if it meant putting parts of himself and his money on the line. In contrast, Lot’s wife viewed such acts as a burdensome imposition, as unpleasant as salt. In this sense, she resembled the people of Sodom, who might have possibly given of themselves when convenient, but certainly not to the point that it hurt. This is why the Torah portrays her miserliness as a refusal to provide salt, because salt embodies the essence of her transgression.

Lot’s wife was so fixated on her wealth that she could not let go even when forced to flee Sodom. At the very moment of Sodom’s destruction due to their own unhealthy attachment and selfish obsession with materialism, she turned back in consternation over the possessions she was forfeiting. At this pivotal moment she demonstrated that money remained her foremost concern and, for the life of her, she simply could not put it behind her. That also explains why the Torah says “she looked behind him”, referring to her husband Lot, because she wondered how her breadwinner would sustain them from now on.

This narrative imparts a valuable lesson about the extent to which we should extend ourselves for others, be it through Tzedakah, acts of kindness, or the contribution of our time and resources – we ought to do so to the point that we feel the saltiness. But the connection between Tzedakah and salt does not end there: Just as salt is best sprinkled, so too, it is better to give Tzedakah frequently rather than in lump sums. Although the financial total might be the same, continuous giving moulds our minds and our hearts to constantly promote Hashem’s Chessed. And that is the best vehicle through which to achieve salvation from our current plight, and to merit the coming of Moshiach speedily in our times.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

LECH LECHO 5784

Question versus Quest

Central to Yiddishkeit lies the expectation that we not only believe in Hashem, but also strive to know Him to the best of our ability. Within this, there are two vastly distinct paths of focus: The school of Chakirah, which provides evidence that Hashem exists, and Chassidus, which is far more fixated on understanding how Hashem operates.

The latter pathway is not an intuitive one to take. After all, most of us do not typically bother to exert our intellectual faculties and acumen to investigate or research something we do not regard to be a problem. We stop to think primarily when we are sceptical of a particular truth, or when we encounter a problem with the way something operates. When all functions as expected, we seldom delve into underlying mechanisms.

For instance, consider a person craving an early morning caffeine-hit. When the brewer dispenses the java without a hitch, the coffee-lover couldn’t care for the mechanics behind the machine. He would not pause to investigate the presence of electricity, nor would he have any inclination to reflect on the inner workings of the machine. It is only when the coveted brew fails to materialise that the caffeine-starved takes the time and effort to scrutinise the machine’s internals to troubleshoot the problem.

Similarly, since every Jew is a believer and the son of a believer, it is no surprise that many are entirely content with their wholehearted belief in Hashem’s existence, and that He knows exactly what He is doing. This is especially true when events around us align with our preconceived notions about how the world should operate. At such times, any ambition to learn more about Hashem may remain dormant.

This brings us to the difference between Avraham and Noach. Avraham is described as the “Head Believer” who rejuvenated humanity’s faith and consciousness in Hashem's omniscience. But why was this crown not shared with Noach, who is described as a “complete Tzadik” with unwavering faith in Hashem? And what enabled Avraham to instil these values in his descendants for all time, whereas Noach did not?

The Rebbe explains that Noach’s faith in Hashem was innate and instinctive. He was born circumcised, and his contemporaries recognised him as the child whose birth had been foretold to Odom. Noach inherently sensed G‑dliness, and he was at peace with Hashem’s governance of the world. Consequently, he felt no need to pursue the study of Hashem any further – and he didn’t.

In contrast, Avrohom was born into circumstances far removed from faith in Hashem. He had to wrestle with and reject the idolatry of his family and country. His initial quest for faith was fuelled by his own questions and discontent with what he saw around him, and that led him to awareness of Hashem’s existence. Yet, Avraham did not stop after his philosophical and theological conundrums were solved. Even after crossing that bridge, Avraham kept at it; this time, not to resolve his personal quandaries nor make sense of the world’s craziness, but simply to know Hashem more. This unwavering pursuit elevated him to a believer of the highest order, with the power to filter through and leave an indelible imprint on his children and descendants.

The Call to Action is clear – to intensify our study of Chassidus. This holds true not only in times such as ours, when we may wonder more about the way that Hashem operates. Rather, our curiosity about the intricacies of His ways must remain a constant endeavour, even when all seems well. As we stand in proximity to “the Mattan Torah of Chassidus”, let us rededicate ourselves to its study, thereby ushering in a future where the entire world will be filled with the Knowledge of Hashem.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Based on Likkutei Sichos Chelek 20 Parshas Noach Sicha 1.

NOACH 5784

Alone, Abused and Condemned

It once happened that a dedicated Shliach faced a profound challenge in his Shlichus. The Rebbe directed him to a Rashi in this week’s Parsha, on the Possuk that recounts how the entire world was blotted out, “Ach Noach – but Noach”. After presenting the simple explanation that Noach remained alone, Rashi goes on to cite the Midrash that Noach cared for the animals and beasts so tirelessly that he would groan and spit blood due to the overwhelming burden. Rashi further relates the story of Noach arriving late to feed the petty-minded lion, who became so enraged at the slight inconvenience that it struck Noach, with nary a thought to the immense logistical challenges Noach faced in caring for the multitude of diverse animals.

The Rebbe went on to pose a perplexing question: Noach had been directly chosen by Hashem to be His Shliach through which the world would be saved and rebuilt. Appointed as he was by Hashem, one would have expected divine assistance in ensuring that his work would proceed smoothly and effortlessly. If so, how did Noach end up in such dire circumstances?

The Rebbe answered that this is the dynamic Hashem instilled in the world: one must confront and overcome difficulties in order for good to emerge. “Thus,” said the Rebbe to this particular Shliach, “challenges should not weaken you. To the contrary – they should serve as the ultimate proof that you are on the right track and engaged in important work. ‘A free ride’ is the pathway of impurity, whereas in the realm of holiness, the more important the task, the greater the challenges.”

In an edited Sicha, the Rebbe further explored the hardships of Noach as alluded to in the phrase “Ach Noach – but Noach”. First, these words capture his utter isolation and loneliness; there was simply no one on his wavelength with whom he could associate and unburden himself. Second, his mission quite literally exacted a huge physical toll on his body. Lastly, even when putting the animals’ welfare ahead of his own needs, the ingrate of a lion responded with violent aggression when the outcome did not perfectly suit its taste. The Rebbe derives a clear message for us: Even when we face all three difficulties simultaneously, we must remain focussed and faithful to our cause, and persevere as much as Noach did.

This message resonates strongly in our own unimaginable times marked by unparalleled challenges. Today, our Nation feels all alone in a hostile world that blames us for the very atrocities committed against us, rather than stand by our side in solidarity. The current stresses exact a heart-wrenching toll on our psyche and emotions. And perhaps most insulting is the reaction of the lions around us who ignore our Nation’s efforts in protecting the interests of others at our own expense, and instead rage against us and condemn us for any outcome that does not suit their petty and illegitimate small-mindedness.

It is all too easy to succumb to disillusion. However, Noach’s example serves as an enduring inspiration for us, reminding us to remain steadfast in our life-missions. Through our unwavering commitment, we will be the ones to rebuild a better world. May this happen swiftly in our times.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

BEREISHIS 5784

Beyond a Mere Shadow

On market days in Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek would deliver a Maamar before the morning light, finishing early enough for the visiting merchants to open their stalls by the time the market opened. On these occasions, a modest lantern would be placed in front of the Tzemach Tzedek, to provide a measure of illumination.

During one such gathering, it happened that Rashbatz, a revered Chossid of the Tzemach Tzedek, unwittingly positioned himself between the candle and the table at which the Tzemach Tzedek sat. When Rashbatz realised that his figure cast a shadow on the table, he was initially inclined to move. On second thoughts, he decided to remain exactly where he was, so that the Tzemach Tzedek could elevate even the shadow he created. But just then, the Tzemach Tzedek interrupted his delivery of the Maamar with the remark, “It is possible to elevate light, but not darkness.” The Chassidim were mystified by the seemingly irrelevant interjection, aside from Rashbatz who recognised the Tzemach Tzedek’s Ruach Hakodesh in discerning his thoughts.

This anecdote poses a profound question: How could the Tzemach Tzedek posit that darkness cannot be elevated when we know that the entire purpose of creation is to transform darkness to light?

The Rebbe explains that there are two kinds of darkness: the first is merely the absence of light, whereas the second is the actual presence of darkness. Although we typically perceive physical darkness as a void of light, the Torah gives us instances where darkness goes beyond that. For example, before Hashem separated light and darkness on the first day of creation, they “served concurrently”, which can only be possible of a tangible darkness that is not eliminated by light. Similarly, the plague of darkness was clearly more than just a void if it could freeze the Egyptians in their places.

Spiritually speaking, the darkness that is just a void represents someone who does nothing at all – neither good nor bad. Conversely, the tangible kind of darkness represents the evildoer, or evil itself. Counterintuitively, the Tzemach Tzedek was telling Rashbatz that while the darkness of evil can be elevated, the darkness of nothing – such as a mere shadow – cannot. As it relates to Avoidah, one who has committed evil can do Teshuvah and thereby transform his misdeeds into virtues, whereas inaction and inertia cannot be propelled anywhere.

In our current trying times, the barbaric savagery unleashed against the Jewish People cannot represent anything other than the utterly palpable darkness of hatred, and its eventual transformation into light remains a mystery to be deciphered only when Moshiach comes. Yet, in our response, we must be vigilant not to create the darkness of absence. Chassidus cautions us greatly to distance ourselves from depression and despair, which are nothing but a void. Rather, we must remain focused on creating light and actively radiating positivity. This explains Chassidus’ obsession with “just doing”, for it is not the scale of our deeds that matter, but the mere fact that we are doing.

Even so, there was another occasion when the Rebbe spoke of the potency of a shadow. It was just three days after the onset of the Yom Kippur war, and the Rebbe invoked the Posuk, “Hashem is your Guardian, Hashem is your shadow at your right hand.” Why do we call Hashem our shadow? Because just as a shadow echoes our movements, so too does Hashem reflect our spirit and conduct. When we exude joy and enthusiasm, He mirrors that back to us. May we see that today!

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SUKKOS 5784

Dance of Distinction

One of the most distinctive melodies of Yom Tov is Atah V’chartanu. The first stanza begins “You chose us from all the nations”, while the second begins “You elevated us over all tongues”. On the face of it, both lines seem to echo each other, highlighting the special status and distinction of the Jewish Nation. Even so, the Rebbe insightfully points out a profound difference:

V’chartanu – You chose us. Choice suggests separation. When something is selected, it becomes completely relegated to a class of its own, and entirely severed from everything else. For example, many of us will have spent considerable time selecting our Esrog before Sukkos. From the moment we made our choice, it is as if all the other Esrogim ceased to exist for us.

Romamtanu – You elevated us. Elevation is comparative. When something is elevated to the top of the batch, its prominence is relative to all the items beneath it. Even while it is distinguished, a sense of affiliation remains with its underlings. For example, the best specimens showcased atop a basket of Esrogim are still part of the collective.

These represent the two differing yet concurrent pathways of a Jew. One part of our relationship with Hashem is nestled within sacred realms completely exclusive to a Jew, for which there is no counterpart in the world at large. Another part of our relationship with Hashem parallels elements that exist in the broader world, but they find higher and holier expression in our connection with Hashem.

In like fashion, the Rebbe explains that there are two ways of celebrating Simchas Beis Hashoeva. The first is the way it was celebrated throughout all seven generations of Chabad – through the Farbrengen. A Farbrengen generally focuses on – and is indeed a manifestation of –V’chartanu, creating a sacred space distinctly set apart from the world. The downside is that it lacks the capacity to include or embrace anything “outside” of its paradigm.

In our generation, a novel dimension was added to Simchas Beis Hashoeva – dancing, even in the streets. Dancing is a universal language, something that everyone can do. Our dancing is thus in a way of Romamtanu – an affirmation of our distinctiveness, yet with the ability to touch and uplift the world around us. Just as dancing feet elevate the entire body, our street dancing similarly invigorates the world and infuses it with life, even pulling its outer layers into the joyous whirl – truly, the embodiment of Romamtanu. So, let’s do it!

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a good Yom Tov!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS HA'AZINU 5784

The Soaring Dropout

Haazinu, Moshe’s last song to the Jewish people prior to his passing, describes the relationship between Hashem and the Jews as that of an eagle and its young: “Like an eagle that awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and bearing them aloft on its pinions.” Rashi explains that an eagle stands out in the animal kingdom for its extraordinary compassion towards its young. Driven by a protective instinct, the eagle elevates its hatchlings above its wings, ensuring that any hunter’s arrows will strike it rather than its vulnerable offspring.

To gain a much deeper understanding of this symbolism, let us note that King Shlomo, the wisest of men, intriguingly described the eagle as one of the three wonders that baffled him. “Three things are too wondrous for me… the way of an eagle in the sky.” This naturally prompts our own surprise: what is so mystifying about an eagle in flight?

The Arizal explains that Shlomo wondered how it could be that the eagle, an unkosher bird, derives from the Eagle’s Face of the Merkava (Divine Chariot)? Although all impure things ultimately originate from a holy source, the Tzemach Tzedek clarifies that the eagle down here is exactly as in its source. If you can’t understand how, that’s okay, because Shlomo Hamelech couldn’t either.

All this is succinctly captured in the Hebrew word Nesher, which means both eagle and dropping. Such opposites! The eagle is legendary for soaring at the heights of the world, and yet the very same word describes someone or something that has fallen to the lowest of lows! This explains why Hashem’s compassion is likened to an eagle, for His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy emerge from the highest apex of Kesser, yet extends to the lowest abyss.

Just as the eagle analogy applies to Hashem, so too does it apply to His young, the Jewish people. The question posed by King Shlomo movingly echoes through the ages: How is it that a Jew who has fallen into the darkest places is still the same Jew who stands at the pinnacle of greatness, the chosen child of Hashem? As our sages teach, when Jews rise, they touch the zenith; when they fall, they plummet to the deepest void, grappling with the pitfalls and vulnerabilities of life. Yet, as King Shlomo marvelled, even at their lowest, they remain the same eagle whose way is in the sky.

What hope is there of rescuing a Jew from the depths? The answer lies in the characteristic of the eagle: compassion. How so? Mercy embodies a certain duality. On the one hand, it suggests an entity in pitiful circumstances, but on the other, it signals that this entity originated from a greater place, because one would only feel pity for a creation outside of its natural habitat, in a place where it doesn’t belong. It is precisely the stark contrast between a Jew and his circumstances that evokes the deepest sense of sympathy, sorrow, and compassion. The very sense of compassion serves as an empowering reminder to the one who plummeted that he is not in his rightful place, and this very recognition inspires him to rise once again.

When someone stumbles spiritually and falls, the worst calamity they can suffer is despair, or the belief that there’s no way out. In many ways, this is more damaging than the fall itself, because it traps them in that state. The remedy is to remind them that they are eagles of the sky. No matter how low they’ve fallen, they still carry with them a spark of divinity, of inherent purity. This isn’t their true place; they belong somewhere grander. This realisation serves as the catalyst to seek redemption and make amends.

This is what the Torah means when it says of Hashem “like an eagle that awakens its nest”. Hashem’s limitless mercy and compassion is itself the greatest motivator for those who have fallen to rise and reclaim their rightful place in the heavens. Let us do our part in reminding the fallen that they are truly “eagles in the skies”! Even more importantly, let us constantly remind ourselves of this whenever we engage our brethren.

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

ROSH HASHANA 5784

As time moves along in its incessant march, we don’t necessarily pay it much daily attention – no more than we do to the little goodbyes when we drop our children off at school or wave our spouses off to work. But when it comes time to farewell the past year and usher in the new year ahead, we grow thoughtful and pensive as we think about the journey of life, our past and our future. If you look out for it, you will find echoes of these sentiments sprinkled throughout the Selichos and Machzor, and you will also find their traces in the Minhagei Chabad applicable to the late afternoon of Erev Rosh Hashana and the first moments of Rosh Hashana.

These solemn moments are ripe with potential. When we pause to reflect on our personal histories and destinies, we instinctively know that we can – and should – improve. We become inspired to adopt new Hachlatos – resolutions to improve. Indeed, it is customary to do so on Erev Rosh Hashana, or on Rosh Hashana, with the proviso that it is accepted Bli Neder.

I would like to suggest several possibilities, using the model of Torah, Tefillah and Tzedokoh. They are curated to bring immediate benefit not only to one’s personal character, but also to others as well. Each of these suggestions is general enough so that each individual can tailor them to suit his or her needs and situation.

Torah: Torah is the foundation of a Jew’s life. One who lives without it will find himself on a slow and steady slide into apathy. It is vital for all of us – both men and women – to learn Torah on a constant basis. This was easier when we were younger, but harder to keep up amidst all the pressures and commitments of daily life. Do you have a real Shiur at least once a week? A real Shiur that is ingrained both in your weekly calendar as well as your soul. A real Shiur in which you learn with others, and not just by yourself. A real Shiur that grabs your focus and attention, and makes you wonder about things you have taken for granted in the past. A real Shiur is one that you will not forego for anything in the world – barring an absolute emergency.

Tefillah: Tefillah lies at the heart of our core and identity. Without davening, what would we be? There are so many ways to enhance our davening. For example, Chassidus teaches that three things greatly enrich one’s davening: Learning Chassidus, Mikvah and Tzedakah – all prior to davening. When one makes the proper preparations, his or her davening will be enhanced, and will contribute to a general atmosphere of introspective davening. Come to Shabbos Mevorchim Tehillim. It’s a big ask, but this is what the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe expect of us, and they taught that doing so brings blessing to one’s entire family and community.

Tzedokoh: We have all heard of the Chasida, a non-Kosher bird that is nice to its own but indifferent to others. From this we learn that kindness towards one’s own is not enough. Kindness must be indiscriminate and know no bounds. So, whether in Shule or at a community function, don’t just gravitate to your mates. Make it a habit to say Good Shabbos and exchange some words with someone you don’t know so well. Open your home to everyone. Make that extra effort to reach outside of your own inner circle. In fact, make everyone part of your inner circle. Each Motzei Shabbos or Sunday, when you plan the week ahead, think of at least one act of premeditated kindness you can do for someone who would not ordinarily attract your attention.

As we move into those final moments of 5783, ready to usher in 5784, I would like to wish each and every one of you Kesivah V’Chasima Tov, L'Shana Tova uMesukah. May you and all your dear ones be inscribed and sealed for a happy and sweet new year, with much Gezunt, Parnassah and Nachas – and Moshiach Now!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NITZOVIM VAYELECH

When the Opposite Attracts

Rabbi Simlai was one of the great sages of the Gemoro. In fact, the opening statement of Tanya is attributed to him in our contemporary texts of the Gemoro. Yet, when he appeared before the eminent Rabbi Yochanon to study Aggadetah, Rabbi Yochanon spurned him. Rabbi Simlai persisted, surmising he could learn the entire thing in three months. In exasperation, Rabbi Yochanon threw a clod at Rabbi Simlai, exclaiming, “If Bruriah, the esteemed wife of Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon, who was known to study three hundred Halachos on a short autumn day, nonetheless took three long years to master this study, how can you hope to grasp it in a mere fraction of that time?”

This intriguing tale is shrouded in much mystery. Let us examine the most prominent question: Why did Rabbi Yochanon decline to teach a part of Torah to Rabbi Simlai?

One answer can be derived from a Possuk in this week’s Parsha, “The secret things are to Hashem; but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.” This Posuk conveys that Torah is a tapestry of Nigleh and Nistar. The revealed dimension encompasses Mishnah, Gemara, and Halacha, which detail the intricacies of all the Mitzvos. The esoteric dimension of Torah illuminates the profound essence of the Mitzvos and their connection to the Divine. Although seemingly distinct facets, they are really two sides of the same sacred coin. That is why the Zohar describes Nigleh as the ‘body’ and Nistar as the ‘soul’, just as the body and soul are inseparable. In similar fashion, Nigleh is described as a ‘garment’ and Nistar as the ‘light’, as evidenced in the Possuk, “Who cloaks Himself with light as with a garment”.

This distinction is also apparent among Torah scholars: there are those who are primarily Halachic decisors, and then there are the Kabbalists. The revealed Torah is the purview of the former, whereas the hidden world of Kabbalah resonates with the latter. This distinction is illustrated in the life of the Alshich, who sought to study under the great Arizal. Each time the Arizal began expounding on Kabbalah, the Alshich would drift off to sleep. Despite his greatest efforts to stay awake and attentive, nothing helped. Baffled and disheartened, the Alshich approached the Arizal for guidance. The Arizal responded, “Your soul belongs to the world of Drush, not the world of Soid.”

This is why Rabbi Yochanon demurred, for he knew that Rabbi Simlai’s soul was fundamentally attuned to Nigleh, and not Nistar. We see this in the name Simlai, which is derived from the Hebrew word for garment (‘Simlah’), which (as above) is a metaphor for the revealed dimension of Torah. When Rabbi Simlai insisted, Rabbi Yochanon pointed out that even Bruriah, whose name means ‘bright’ and ‘pure’, reflecting her bond to the hidden part of the Torah, had still needed three years to master it, and Rabbi Simlai certainly could not fare any better.

What about us? The Rebbe often taught that we merit a taste of Moshiach as we stand at his threshold. We are therefore able to – and therefore must – achieve success in both kinds of study, just as we will after Moshiach comes. This message is especially apt in the leadup to Rosh Hashana, in which our role is to draw down and reveal the new hidden light that Hashem unleashes at the start of each year. May our efforts be crowned with success!

Based on Likkutei Levi Yitzchok. The Talmudic story is told (with more details) in Bavli Pesachim 62b, Yerushalmi Pesachim 5:3 (where it is recorded as Rabbi Yonason).

Good Shabbos and Ksiva vChasima Tova L'Shana Tova UMesuka,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KI SAVO

The Chassidic Convergence of Miracles and Mind

In the lead-up to Chai Elul 5652 (1892), the Rebbe Rashab went to the Ohel for two consecutive days. The second time, he stayed very long and returned with eyes swollen from crying. The Chassidim were perplexed. The Rebbe Rashab’s Tefillos on Chai Elul, which fell on Shabbos that year, were unusually fiery and took so long that he barely had time for Mincha and Kiddush before the conclusion of Shabbos.

Some time later, the Rebbe Rashab explained: “I never deliver a Maamar to the public before it becomes ingrained in me, but I did not succeed in internalising the Maamar I wished to say this Shabbos, Chai Elul. I therefore travelled twice to the Ohel of my father to daven for success. Because of my great exertions, my father took me during the Shabbos Tefillos to the Heichal of the Baal Shem Tov, where I heard the Baal Shem Tov deliver seven teachings in honour of his birthday.” The Rebbe Rashab relayed these seven teachings, at the same time describing Gan Eden in vivid detail, and also exactly how the Baal Shem Tov presented each of these teachings.

Miracles and supernatural occurrences are not emphasised within Chabad circles. If so, why did the Rebbeim relate the preternatural backdrop of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, instead of just transmitting their content without the circumstantial details?

The Rebbe finds the answer in the opening Posuk of this week’s Parsha. “And it shall be when you arrive in the land… and you shall conquer it and settle it.” Wait; isn’t that a contradiction? Was Bikkurim to be given as soon as the Jews arrived in the land, or only when they settled it fourteen years later? While this matter is debated by Chazal, there is truth in both perspectives when applied to our Avoidah:

On the one hand, we must bring our “first fruits” to Hashem as soon as we awaken each morning. At this point, all we have is pure faith, because we have not yet had a chance to engage our intellect and emotions. On the other hand, we also have to bring our “first fruits” after we harness our intellect and emotions to “conquer” our animalistic side and “settle” our G-dly soul. Both aspects are crucial in serving Hashem; what we achieve through intellect and emotions is meaningless if it does not start with pure faith, and at the same time, pure faith must transform one’s intellect and emotions.

This also explains the above episode. The first revelation of Chassidus was that of the Baal Shem Tov, of pure faith, which explains why the Baal Shem Tov attracted his followers primarily through miracles. Once that stage was achieved, Chabad Chassidus emerged, aiming to refine our intellect and emotions. But even after that development, there needs to be a synergy between the two stages of Chassidus. This is why, on Chai Elul, the day that celebrates both stages of Chassidus, the Rebbe Rashab relayed intellectual teachings of Chassidus couched in a miraculous episode.

Good Shabbos and Ksiva vChasima Tova,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KI SEITZE

Flavour of the Month

A Jewish month is normally referred to as Choidesh. Yet, in describing the monthlong “cooling off period” of the Yefas Toar (captive woman), the Torah says that she must weep for a Yerach of days. Although the word Yerach is certainly acceptable, why does the Torah employ this rare form here, and not the far more common Choidesh which appears more than sixty times in Chumash?

The Halachic answer to this question (Yavomos 48b) is that Choidesh refers to a calendrical month, which can be either 29 or 30 days, whereas Yerach is a full thirty days. Thus, the Torah informs us that the Yefas Toar’s crying and grief must span a full thirty days.

However, there is another masterful answer to this question, one which focuses on the fact that both Choidesh and Yerach are associated with the lunar month; the word Yerach literally means moon (similar to the way ‘month’ is etymologically rooted in the word ‘moon’), and Choidesh refers to the lunar’s rebirth following its monthly conjunction with the sun. The Rebbe explains that there is a profound difference between what the two represent:

The word Choidesh, meaning renewal, is suggestive of energy, enthusiasm and momentum. It is little wonder that this is the Torah’s choice of word to describe a month. In similar fashion, when the Torah speaks of marriage further on in this week’s Parsha, it uses the phrase Isha Chadasha to reflect the excitement and enthusiasm of the newlyweds. For that reason, the Kesubah uses the word Choidesh in its date, to hint that the foundation of a healthy marriage is renewal and rejuvenation. What was yesterday cannot be today, and the future must go deeper than the past.

Conversely, the word Yerach is indicative of the overall lunar cycle, which moves from one set of thirty days to the next without any apparent variety. Yerach thus represents the endless loop of a repetitious and predictable cycle of familiarity that breeds contempt. Thus, the last Parsha of the Torah coins the phrase Geresh Yerachim, linking Yerach to Geresh, which can mean divorce. In similar fashion, the Gett contains the word Yerach in its date, as the dissolution of the marriage can often be traced to the relationship becoming endlessly humdrum and stale. In the context of the Yefas Toar, the Torah warns us that this sort of unhealthy marriage, based on superficial factors alone, will soon lose its appeal.

The most famous acronym of Elul, Ani Ledodi v’Dodi Li, represents our marriage relationship with Hashem. It thus behoves us to pause and consider what kind of relationship we are in. Are we caught in an endlessly repetitive loop of Mitzvos, or do we embrace them with renewed passion and zeal every time? Indeed, our Sages have proclaimed, “Each day, the Torah should be perceived as new.” Intriguingly, the Zohar tells us that the monthlong crying of the Yefas Toar corresponds to the month of Elul, which we can now understand as being the month to bewail our “Yerach” relationship with Hashem, and transforming it for the better.

But how? The Baal Shem Tov explains that the Shofar reminds us to renew our relationship with Hashem, and to observe His Mitzvos not out of a sense of compulsion or habit, but with a genuine appreciation of their novelty. This sentiment is echoed in the Possuk Tiku Bachodesh Shofar; sounding the Shofar is a call for renewal. In this light, we can well understand why Chassidus emphasises the adoption of new deeds and practices in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, in order to inject a newness in our service of Hashem. May we succeed this Elul in meriting the ultimate refresh with the coming of Moshiach now.

Good Shabbos and Ksiva vChasima Tova,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHOFTIM

By the Scruff of Our Neck

The Eglah Arufah is mandated when a slain person is found but nobody knows who killed him. One novelty of this Mitzvah is that it achieves atonement through the killing of an animal in a non-sacrificial manner, far from the Beis Hamikdash. Another unique aspect is that the calf was beheaded from the back of its neck, the exact opposite of Shechita. The Rebbe offers a unique perspective about these matters, framing them as they pertain to our own service of Hashem: 

The term the Torah uses when referring to the corpse, Chollol, also means a void. Thus, the Torah is presenting us with guidelines for a situation in which we feel spiritually empty and devoid of enthusiasm and zest for observing Torah and Mitzvos. When this happens, it would be instinctive to search for the source of the problem in order to take corrective measures and restore our joy and feeling in serving Hashem. Yes, sometimes the search for the source of this spiritual disconnect ends in frustration, because “Lo Noda Mi Hikahu – it is not known who slew him.” We cannot pinpoint what drained our enthusiasm and connection to Torah and Mitzvos. What’s to be done in such a situation?

Chassidus explains that Hashem created most living beings so that the front is more multifaceted than their back. For example, most of a person’s senses and skills are linked to the front of his body, which thus projects sophistication, complexity and nuance. The back of a person is far plainer and rather inelegant. Thus, the typical Korbon, inspired as it is by a person’s passion in serving Hashem, is sacrificed at the front of the neck and in the sacred grounds of the Beis Hamikdash, for it is the epitome of spiritual enlightenment, ecstasy, and connection. In contrast, the Eglah Arufah, beheaded at the nape of the neck and at a remote distance from the place of Hashem’s revelation, is reminiscent of a person who is devoid of feeling and emotion, and who finds himself in a stubborn and stiff-necked state of disconnect.

The Eglah Arufah’s message for those feeling spiritually hollow is to harness that very same nape of the neck for the service of Hashem. Be stubborn in a positive way! Embrace the Torah with stiff-necked determination, even if you feel that you are languishing in a spiritually remote location.

Not feeling the urge to do a Mitzvah? It doesn’t resonate? So what! Do it anyway. While the effort might initially feel dry and uninspired, a spark will soon be ignited. Just as the initial apathy arose from a source that “is not known”, so too will such Kabbolas Ol evoke a response from a place so high that its source “is not known”. It will enable us to open new doors and light the path of discovery.  The Torah guarantees our success if we are only willing to defy our defiance.

Good Shabbos and Ksiva vChasima Tova,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS RE'EH

Spiritual Sightseeing

Parshas Reeh sets into motion a trilogy of Parshiyos containing approximately 170 Mitzvos, or slightly less than one-third of the total. Moshe introduces them with a reminder to ponder the consequences of our choices, saying, “See, I give before you today a blessing and a curse.”

The problem, though, lies in the very first word of the Parsha, Reeh. You see, for much of Sefer Devorim, Moshe has been telling us to listen, Shema, which seems entirely apropos when directing us to focus on his spoken word. In fact, Shema appears over 90 times in Sefer Devarim, in one form or another. Why does Moshe suddenly tell us to see?

The Rebbe explains that there are two kinds of vision. We can opt to view a situation through our physical eyes, in a superficial, materialistic and crass way. Alternatively, we can choose to gaze with the deeper vision of the soul, looking beyond the limitations of our physical eyes to appraise the situation for what it truly is. Indeed, the Zohar tells us that a person sees clearest when he closes his eyes, for only then does he observe with the eyes of his Neshama. The Chasam Sofer explains that this is why we close our eyes when we say Shema. (Some also say this is why a Chosson and Kallah don’t physically look at each other under the Chuppah.)

Thus, the first Possuk of our Parsha instructs us to close our physical eyes and Reeh; to perceive how both blessings and curses are placed before us by Anochi, by Hashem. Although sins and curses seem to emanate from a force that opposes holiness, the profound vision of our Neshama can sense that they, too, are set before us by Hashem as a gift (Noisen). This is because overcoming temptation and tribulation propels us to far greater heights than those attainable through good deeds. From this vantage point, we realise that we are not merely passing up indulgence for something greater, but are actually harnessing them to the fullest for their intended divine purpose.

This lesson is especially relevant as we embark upon the Avodah of Chodesh Elul. As we navigate our lives and experience all kinds of challenges, we ought to remember this mantra, “Reeh Anochi Noisen – See that I am giving you a gift.” We are reminded not only to listen, but to witness, how all of existence, including the seeming curses, are really a gift from Hashem. Embracing this worldview empowers us to overcome everything!

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS EIKEV

Pointing Up and Away

The Gemoro recounts a story related to Bentsching (a Mitzvah featured in this week’s Parsha): As youngsters aged 6-9, Abaye and Rava were sitting in the presence of Rabbah, and he asked them, “To whom do we address our Bentsching?” Without hesitation, the duo proclaimed, “Hashem!” Rabbah persisted, “Tell me, dear children, where is Hashem?” The two children reacted quite differently. Rava pointed up at the rafters, whereas Abaye went outside and gestured to the heavens. Rabbah responded, “You will both be great Rabbis.” According to one version, Rabbah concluded, “But Abaye will be greater!”

There’s some enigma to this story, because any child asked this same question would likely surpass both Abaye and Rava by pointing in all directions, perhaps even singing “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere!” Why, then, did Abaye and Rava point only upwards, and why was Abaye’s answer deemed superior to Rava’s?

One explanation focuses on the markedly different upbringings of Abaye and Rava. Rava hailed from a prosperous, influential and distinguished family, and he was nurtured within the safe and sheltered confines of the family home. Even so, he still recognised Hashem as the ultimate provider of the “roof over his head”, which is why he pointed to the rafters. This was mirrored in the subsequent direction of his life, which remained strictly beneath those “rafters”, seeking connection to Hashem within the tents of Torah, and steering clear of the disorderly world outside.

In stark contrast, Abaye’s life was fraught with hardship. His father passed away as soon as he was conceived, and his mother passed away shortly after birth. Abaye was raised by a foster mother, and he lived in abject poverty his entire life. In a sense, he had no place he could truly call home. That is why Abaye stepped outside and pointed to the heavens, for he recognised Hashem as his Protector in the rugged elements and the rough-and-tumble of life. This was reflected in the subsequent direction of his life, in which Abaye was never content with remaining solely within the tents of Torah; he consistently endeavored to connect with Hashem in the world outside through worldly acts of Gemilus Chassadim.

Reb Levi Yitzchok Schneersohn, the Rebbe’s father, whose yarhtzeit is observed this coming week, presents a mystical explanation of this anecdote, which is perhaps just a deeper layer of the insight shared above: Kabbalah subdivides the level of “makif” into “makif hakarov” (the near makif) and “makif harachok” (the distant makif). While the former is a transcendental level of G‑dliness that somewhat resonates with us, the latter is so lofty that it remains completely outside our sphere of comprehension. That is why, when asked where our blessings emanate from, both Abaye and Rava pointed upwards, to signify the level of makif. But there was a difference. Rava pointed to the close makif, the rafters of the house that transcend merely its inhabitants. However, Abaye ventured outside and gestured towards the distant makif, the heavens that transcend our entire planet. In indicating that Hashem transcends our comprehension, Rava was satisfied with an accessible point of reference, whereas Abaye reached even higher. Perhaps we can say that Abaye and Rava’s physical upbringing mirrored the level of makif they identified with.

All of us navigate our lives between the safety and certainty of home and the risk and unpredictability of the world outside. Both Abaya and Rava impart the wisdom that wherever we are—indoors or outdoors—our Sustainer is always just above us.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VOESCHANAN

Seeing Double: The Dual Message of Nachamu Nachamu

This Shabbos draws its name from the first two words of the Haftorah, Nachamu Nachamu, in which the prophet proclaims Hashem’s call to comfort the Jewish people. This seemingly redundant repetition raises a question – what is the significance of this doubled assurance? After all, if Hashem’s comfort is potent, one instance should suffice, and if it isn't, then how will doubling it help?

Several interpretations emerge from the Midrash. One suggests that the double consolation corresponds to the two Batei Mikdash that were destroyed, or to the devastation of the two Kingdoms of Israel. Another proposes that it extends both to the living and the deceased, to those in the lower worlds and those above. Yet another perspective observes the use of double language throughout Yishayahu’s prophecies, reflecting the double level of prophecy rewarded to him for enduring the cynicism and scorn of Israel.

However, none of these approaches seem to address how the comfort itself is doubled. Rather, they depict a single solace that is merely directed at multiple tragedies. To address this, the Rebbe developed a unique interpretation during several Sichos in the summer of 5734, illuminating how the comfort itself is truly doubled.

The first comfort, understandably, redirects our attention towards the future, reassuring us of forthcoming goodness, even if things today seem bad. Yet, it fails to fully address our wounded sense of insult that is worse than injury:

The fact that the Jews were punished for their Sinas Chinam and other grave sins is hard enough. What crushes our spirit far more profoundly is the manner in which our retribution was executed, triggering a total collapse of our national honour and dignity before all the nations of the world. Indeed, as far as they are concerned, it calls into question our status as the Chosen Nation, the honour of our Torah, and indeed, the very power of Hashem. Why does the path of the wicked prosper, at our expense? In this sense, the Churban is doubly troubling; the punishment itself, and our ignominious indignity ever since.

This is where the second consolation steps in, assuring us that good not only awaits us in the future, but is already present today. Although the present exile seems tragic, it contains immense opportunities that would not otherwise materialise. Success creates more of the same, whereas failure opens new doors. As the adage goes, there are three ways to deal with hardship: the weak cry, the strong stay afloat, and the believer sees and seizes opportunity.

This is the double message of comfort: Redemption does not begin somewhere in the future, but in the here and now. The first Nachamu assures us of a bright future, whereas the second Nachamu delivers a much deeper message, informing us that it is already good today.

In our own lives too, we are used to finding Hashem in the good and glorious, in all that which is beautiful and happy. We tend to regard moments of crisis and fracture as the enemy, like an invading force from the outside. Nachamu Nachamu expresses to us the opposite. Not only must we remind ourselves that we will prevail over hardship, but even more importantly, that we will grow from it. May our own personal redemptions herald the cosmic redemption speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS DEVORIM

Eicha – A Sad Word?

Eicha is the book of lamentations, and the opening word of each of its chapters. This week’s Parsha also contains the word Eicha; it appears at the beginning of the second Aliyah. The custom in many communities is to begin Sheini one Possuk earlier, so as not to start the Aliya on a negative note. In fact, this is the custom recorded in Sefer Haminhagim. Nevertheless, the current Chabad practice, based on the Rebbe’s Minyan, is to open the second Aliyah with the word Eicha, as if its negative implication does not concern us. Why?

An answer can be drawn from the Midrash, which points out that the word Eicha simply means, “How is it!?” This expression is not inherently bad, says the Midrash, and it serves as an expression of astonishment, either to celebrate abundant good or to bemoan raging evil. In the book of lamentations, the word is used in a negative sense: “How has the city that was once so populous remained lonely!” However, in this week’s Parsha, Moshe uses it in the positive sense, “How can I, alone, lead such a populous nation!” Moshe celebrated the fact that the Jews had reached such a high state of accomplishment and activity that he could no longer lead them alone, and he needed to appoint many more judges to help him.

In similar vein, Shabbos Chazon, the Shabbos of Vision, has a dual meaning. At the simplest level, the name Chazon originates from this week’s Haftorah, which describes the devastating vision of destruction beheld by the prophet Yeshayahu. However, according to R’ Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Shabbos Chazon also signifies that every Jew is shown a vision of the third Beis HaMikdash on this day, arousing us to do all that is necessary to realise this vision.

There are a number of lessons we can take from this, but one is the power of Positivity. Everything that exists and transpires is ultimately for the good. When you come across an “Eicha”, see celebration and not lamentation. When you come across “Chazon”, see a vision of construction and not destruction. Let us our positivity illuminate the darkness surrounding us, and we will thereby merit to speedily see the revelation of the third Beis Hamikdash.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS MATOS MASEI

The Deep Clean

Anger leads to error, and that is exactly what happened when the Jewish warriors returned from their victorious campaign against Midian. After expressing his indignation that the troops had not purged those most responsible for the sins of the Jews, Moshe turned his attention to the spoils and reminded the Jews to purify them from Tumah with the waters of the Parah Adumah. However, Moshe did not tell them to Kasher the utensils, and Elazar the Kohen spoke up to address this oversight.

Since anger leads to error, rather than forgetfulness, we must assume that Moshe deliberated the non-Kosher status of the utensils but wrongly concluded that Kashering was unnecessary. What was the reasoning for his assumption? According to the Rebbe, Moshe reasoned that if the waters of the Parah Adumah were potent enough to sanitise the Tumah of death, it certainly had the power to expel any vestige of Issur (non-Kosher) that had adulterated the vessel, and no further Kashering would be necessary.

Elazar clarified that Kashering can be achieved through fire alone, and the waters of the Parah Adumah could accomplish nothing in this regard. The reason? Tumah is contracted exclusively through exterior contact – touching, lifting or sharing a room with a corpse – and is likewise removed through external means such as Mikvah or the waters of the Parah Adumah. Conversely, Issur penetrates the very walls of the vessel and must be eradicated through a fire that will reach into the vessel’s interior and either extract or destroy any Issur.

This insight goes well beyond the mechanics of purifying a vessel and sheds much light on the broader journey of personal transformation. Tumah and Issur represent the two types of negative forces that can influence the Jewish soul, with a key difference between them. Tumah characterises an outer negative atmosphere that might envelop a person without permeating him or affecting his core, whereas Issur typifies a negative influence that has infiltrated the person’s soul and adversely changed its inner essence. Tumah defilement can be removed simply by substituting the surrounding atmosphere with a more constructive one, and this external change is sufficient to yield the desired outcome. Even so, this will not be adequate to uproot any Issur defilement that penetrates one’s inner fibre, and a thorough and invasive cleanse will be required to purge all negative influences from one’s internal being.

Of Moshiach’s time, Hashem foretells, “And I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you will be Tahor; from all your impurities and from all your abominations I purify you.” Hashem speaks only of purifying us from Tumah, with no mention of Kashering us from Issur. This indicates that the adversities of Golus cannot tarnish the inner essence of a Jew, and its negative impact goes no deeper than our external environment. May we merit our purification speedily in our days!

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS PINCHOS

A Tale of Two Tzaddikim: Body or Soul?

For his zealousness, Pinchas merited two monumental blessings – a covenant of peace, and Kehunah for himself and his children. The second blessing is rather self-explanatory, but what is the covenant of peace? Chazal explain that Pinchas was united in soul with Eliyahu Hanavi, who is destined to herald the era of universal peace at the end of days. Thus, Hashem said to Pinchas, “Just as you brought peace between Israel and Me in this world, so will you bring peace between Me and My children in the future.’”

Now, we know that Moshe Rabbeinu appeased Hashem’s anger many more times than Pinchas did. If so, why didn’t Moshe merit a similar, or even greater, reward? In fact, our Parsha tells us quite the opposite: Moshe requested that his leadership be bequeathed to his children, but Hashem refused. Why did Moshe deserve any less than Pinchas?

Chassidus explains that there are two groups of Tzaddikim: those who serve Hashem with their souls and those who serve Hashem with their bodies. Moshe was the kind of Tzaddik whose soul was so holy that his bodily existence ceased to matter. He separated from his wife, ascended to heaven like one of the angels, and did not eat for forty days. His body was totally subsumed to the service of Hashem; not of its own accord, but because it was completely eclipsed by the brilliant light that irradiated from his great soul. On the other hand, Eliyahu was a Tzaddik who invested much effort in refining, reorienting and transforming his body to the point that it became holy in its own right.

The distinction between Moshe and Eliyahu manifested in many interesting ways: Chazal tell us that Moshe spent less than seven months in his mother’s womb, while Eliyahu endured the longest possible gestation period of twelve months. Their respective formation periods directly paralleled the extent to which they would focus on refining their bodies. This dichotomy is also evident in the ways that Moshe and Eliyahu departed the world. Eliyahu’s physical body ascended to the heavens amidst flaming fire, overcoming death and becoming an eternal figure on account of the refined state of his body, whereas Moshe’s body went the way of all flesh.

More importantly, the difference between Moshe and Pinchas / Eliyahu is apparent in their respective missions. Chazal tell us that when Moshe was born, the entire house was filled with light. This was essentially the story of his lifelong mission – to illuminate the world with the light of the Torah, repelling negativity rather than confronting it. Pinchas and Eliyahu’s approach was markedly different; they confronted evil head on.

Herein lies the difference between the ways Moshe and Pinchas intervened on behalf of their brethren. In the face of catastrophe, Moshe’s first response was always a soulful prayer to Hashem, pleading with Him to unconditionally forgive the people of Israel. Even Moshe’s self-sacrifice was spiritual in nature, such as when he asked that his name be removed from the Torah if Hashem would not forgive the Jews. Although Moshe successfully secured Hashem’s atonement time and again, the Jews themselves remained unchanged.

On the other hand, Pinchas confronted Zimri with brute force, risking his own physical body precisely because it could not tolerate this desecration of Halacha. In battling evil directly, Pinchas brought about a meaningful change within the people of Israel, which is what appeased Hashem’s wrath. Because Pinchas introduced permanent change within the Jews, he was rewarded with his own permanent transformation, becoming a Kohen and meriting to be Eliyahu, who will announce the era of ultimate transformation. May it happen speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS CHUKAS BOLOK

Rising from the Dust and Ashes 

Chazal tell us that the dust of the Sotah and ashes of the Parah Adumah were Avraham Avinu’s reward for uttering the phrase “I am but dust and ashes” with utter humility. From a technical standpoint, the words ‘dust’ and ‘ashes’ correlate well with these two Mitzvos, but what substantive connection is there between them?

The Rebbe explains that there are two forms of kindness. A lesser form of kindness is exemplified by a person who extends generosity only when convenient and easy, whereas a deeper form of kindness is embodied by one who willingly sacrifices for the sake of others. Avraham Avinu personified the latter kindness, extending it even in the face of much physical or spiritual sacrifice. He welcomed guests who could not pay, and deliberately positioned himself where wayfarers would otherwise lack assistance. When Hashem visited him post-circumcision, Avraham braved intense pain and sweltering heat to greet three idolatrous guests, even at the expense of basking in the Divine presence.

Such kindness stems from a deep-rooted sense of humility and placing others ahead of oneself, which is the full import of Avraham’s words, “I am but dust and ashes”. For this reason, Hashem rewarded his descendants specifically with these two Mitzvos, whose common denominator is self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. In the Mitzvah of Sotah, Hashem commands to have His name erased to restore peace between husband and wife, and in the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah, the Kohanim involved in its preparation became impure solely to purify others.

We also find a unique connection between the Parah Adumah and Moshe. Chazal tell us, for instance, that the ashes of Moshe endure eternally, and that only he was privy to the meaning behind Parah Adumah. But what exactly is the reason for this unique bond? The answer can be gleaned from another Midrash, which describes how Moshe was initially stunned by the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah, for he could not fathom how a Jew could plummet into such a grave level of impurity. Nonetheless, like Avraham, Moshe exerted himself on behalf of these very Jews, without consideration to the fact that they represented his antithesis.

This message is particularly relevant to the Chag Hageulah that we celebrate this Shabbos. The Frierdiker Rebbe in could have easily withdrawn into his own private world, devoting his life to the lofty pursuits of a Tzaddik, or clandestinely attending to the needs of his most loyal followers. Instead, he chose to humble himself and descend many spiritual levels, demonstrating extraordinary Mesiras Nefesh to purify Jews who were endangered by the impurity associated with spiritual death. Similarly, we must commit ourselves to the welfare of our brethren to the point of self-sacrifice, even if it means prioritising another person’s purity over our own.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KORACH

The Road Out of Gehinnom Is Paved with Good Intentions

“The sons of Korach did not die”, and the Gemoro (Sanhedrin 110a) explains that “an elevated area was set apart for them in Gehinnom, where they settled, singing the praises of Hashem”.  They survived there for decades until they eventually resurfaced and resumed a physical life, producing offspring from whom emerged the prophet Shmuel.

Elsewhere, the Gemoro (Bava Basra 15a) expands on these songs: It was in these profound depths that Korach’s sons were inspired with Ruach Hakodesh, composing eleven psalms that begin with “Livnei Korach”. They prophesied about events in the distant future – the splendour of Yerushalayim, the majesty of Dovid’s dynasty, and the subsequent destruction and exile. Korach’s sons are thus counted among the ten righteous elders who contributed portions of Tehillim prior to Dovid Hamelech.

How did Korach’s sons merit such glory after their sins? Rashi explains, “They originally participated in the conspiracy, but they contemplated repentance during the uprising; therefore, an elevated area was set apart for them in Gehinnom.” Although initially at the very forefront of the rebellion, collaborating with Doson and Aviram in plotting their incendiary attacks against Moshe, Korach’s sons came to the realisation that they had crossed a dangerous red line and harboured regret in their hearts.

Still, why was such a peculiar form of punishment meted out to Korach’s sons? Furthermore, if their Teshuvah was acceptable before Hashem, why did He not fully save them? And if their Teshuvah was insincere, why were they not subjected to the full brunt of Hashem’s wrath? What are we to make of their subterranean punishment?

The Rebbe explains that the fragmented punishment of Korach’s sons reflected the way in which they were themselves torn. Externally, they participated as leaders of the rebellion, their raucous voices blaring above the clamour of Korach’s assembly. For that, they had to be swallowed by the earth as an outward punishment for their sin. However, internally, they were distressed by the seditious mob and no longer identified with their father’s faction. Because they inwardly lamented the bitter lot that had befallen them, they continued to secretly exist beneath the surface, in tandem with their Teshuvah that had lingered below the surface. This glimmer of Teshuvah culminated in their eventual emergence, allowing them to bequeath an everlasting legacy through the Tehillim they composed and the children they bore.

Korach’s sons thus stand as a profound example of the power of Teshuvah – a mere thought of repentance can be lifesaving. Even those who have become so entangled in a negative situation that they can’t find the strength or wherewithal to extricate themselves, Korach’s sons demonstrate that they should at least feel the pain and reform their attitude. Hashem so fervently desires their return that He will shield them from the depths into which they have descended, by virtue of such good intentions alone.

Gimmel Tammuz is a time when we reflect upon the Rebbe’s leadership and its significance to us. At every step of the way, the Rebbe taught us to especially love and embrace Jews who are spiritually challenged, cherishing them and showering them with warmth and affection. Indeed, when we view them as great human beings, they will eventually become just that. This perspective is enshrined in hundreds of the Rebbe’s teachings, the one above being just one such example. As his Chassidim, the Rebbe empowers us to do the same.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHLACH

Mission Sabotage: When Motive Trumps Deed

Rashi presents a vivid description of the Meraglim’s return with enormous fruits from Eretz Yisroel: “How was it done? Eight of them bore a cluster of grapes, one carried a fig and another took a pomegranate. Yehoshua and Kolev took nothing at all, for the intention of the others was to slander the land; just as its fruit is extraordinary, so are its people extraordinary.”

We can well empathise with how Yehoshua and Kolev must have felt when they elected to boycott the Meraglim’s plan. But there is still a significant problem. Bringing back the fruit was not a scheme concocted by the Meraglim to frighten the Jews, but an explicit directive from Moshe, “See what kind of land it is… be courageous and take from the fruit of the land.” In boycotting the Meraglim, Yehoshua and Kolev seem to have divested themselves of the mission entrusted to them by Moshe.

In fact, this instruction was the one for which Moshe demanded the most self-sacrifice, urging the Meraglim to be courageous. For, unlike Moshe's other instructions to the Meraglim, which merely required them to form an impression, this one necessitated them to return with evidence. The last thing a spy would risk is to be caught with tangible evidence, and Moshe sought to stifle any reluctance on the part of the spies to bring back the fruits. If so, how could Yehoshua and Kolev disregard the very instruction that Moshe had so emphasised?

The Rebbe explains that we can glean an essential message about Shlichus from this episode, be it our ongoing mission of Torah and Mitzvos from Hashem, or an assigned Shlichus from the leader of the generation. While there is always an expectation that the messenger will fulfil the mission meticulously, there is only one scenario that would compel the messenger to recuse themselves of the Shlichus – when other have seized the agenda and are sabotaging it to the detriment of the Meshaleach. When the mission is exploited to undermine the goals of the Meshaleach rather than to advance them, it ceases to be a Shlichus.

This message serves as a counterpoint to the central theme of the Parsha, which is Hamaaser Hu Haikar; the main thing is action. In many other Sichos, the Rebbe illustrates how every single event and incident in this Parsha demonstrates that good intentions alone matter far less than deed. Nevertheless, the episode of the fruits highlights the exception – when the deed is executed entirely with the purpose of subverting the mission’s objective, transforming the deed from good to evil. This lesson is one to reflect upon in the leadup to Gimmel Tammuz, where every Chossid contemplates their Hiskashrus to the Rebbe. We must always remember that, even if the main thing is deed, it must be pursued in a manner that promotes the goals and objectives of the Meshaleach.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BEHA'ALOSCHO

Half Full or Half Empty

Does everything need to be an argument?

Each lamp of the Menorah was filled with precisely half a log of oil (about 172ml), the exact amount needed to last even the longest winter night of Teves. However, there is an unexpected disagreement as to how that determination was made. One opinion proposes a top-down approach; the Kohanim initially used a larger quantity of oil, and upon observing a surplus of oil the next morning, they gradually reduced the amount until they reached the precise measurement of half a log. The other opinion adopts a bottom-up approach; the Kohanim originally began with a minimal quantity of oil, and when it didn’t last the night, they gradually increased the amount until they arrived at the exact measurement of half a log.

In retrospect, does it truly matter how the oil’s measurement was deduced? And is it really so necessary to enshrine this debate for eternity? The basic answer revolves around the technicalities – the first opinion posits that we should be generous in serving Hashem, and the second holds that one should use our resources sparingly to avoid wastage.

However, those familiar with Chassidic teachings will instantly recognise 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' as representing two opposite philosophies. Viewed in this light, this Talmudic debate extends far beyond the measurement of oil in the Beis Hamikdash:

The top-down approach is related to the attribute of Chessed, giving. In this context, a giver generously bestows whatever he can, far more than necessary, without requiring the recipient to take any initiative or demonstrate their worth. This is like a parent or educator who guides a child towards the right decisions, without expecting the child to make any independent choices. This type of educational journey starts with the parent or educator, who contains so much more than what will be absorbed by the child.

The bottom-up approach is related to the attribute of Gevurah, withholding. In this context, a giver demands that the recipient first expend every effort in their own self-improvement, in order to be deserving of a relationship with the giver. This is like a parent or teacher who steps aside and waits for the learner to find their own autonomous path in life without becoming overly reliant on the educator. This type of educational journey starts with the leaner, who initially contains nothing and gradually builds their way up.

Which approach is the correct one? The answer can be inferred from the Menorah’s kindling, which integrated both approaches: First, the Kohen reached out to light the flame, but then waited for the flame to burn independently of its own accord, “until the flame rises on its own”. This demonstrates that a parent or teacher should not wait for a child to make the right choices on their own, because they do not always possess the strength and wisdom to do so. The parent or teacher needs to set the ball into motion by giving, guiding, and educating. All the same, from the very get-go, the aim should be for the student's flame to rise on its own. To this end, the educator must gradually transfer responsibility to the student until they achieve their own independent outcomes without external assistance.

What is true in education also applies to promoting Yiddishkeit. Some argue that we should bend over backwards to ensure that other Jews fulfill mitzvos. Others would say that people should make their own choices and not be pushed into observance. The truth, as is often the case, demands a combination. On the one hand, we cannot wait for others to fulfill mitzvos of their own accord, as they may be impeded in this regard. We must ignite them and influence them with a top-down approach. However, the ultimate goal is indeed the bottom-up approach; that they should eventually observe the Torah and Mitzvos of their own volition, “until the flame rises on its own”.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NASO

Not Wishy-Washy: Hashem’s Enduring Name

The Gemoro relates a story associated with the Mitzvah of Sotah: When Dovid Hamelech commissioned the boring of the Beis Hamikdash’ foundations, the very depths were breached. As the floodwaters stormed upwards, Dovid Hamelech feared mass devastation. Turning to his advisors, he asked, “Is it permissible to inscribe Hashem’s name on a shard of clay and throw it into the depths to keep the waters at bay?” His quandary was whether the name of Hashem could be exposed to water and potential erasure. Initially, his advisors offered no response. Sensing that Achitophel, the wisest among them, knew the answer but was withholding it, Dovid pronounced a curse on anyone who knew the solution but would not share it. This spurred Achitophel to speak up, “If the Torah allows the erasure of Hashem’s name in order to restore peace between a husband and wife, all the more so to save the entire world.” Dovid Hamelech followed his advice, and the waters were pacified.

An obvious question arises: Even a schoolchild knows that Pikuach Nefesh (saving lives) overrides all of Torah! If so, why did Dovid Hamelech hesitate to throw Hashem’s name into the water? Furthermore, why did Achitophel need a different proof to demonstrate that this was allowed?

The Rebbe explains that inscribing Hashem’s name on a shard and throwing it into the waters was not a natural remedy. Rather, salvation could be achieved only due to the divine power of Hashem’s sacred name. Dovid’s dilemma was whether writing Hashem’s name with the knowledge that it might be erased could potentially diminish its holiness from the outset, and hence not achieve the desired result. In essence, Dovid Hamelech’s uncertainty was less about whether it was permissible to take such action, and more about whether it would have the power to save the world. He thus sought a source in the Torah to establish that writing Hashem’s name for such a purpose would not lessen its sanctity. Achitophel found this assurance in the Mitzvah of Sotah, where Hashem’s name is written to be erased, yet still retains the sanctity of Hashem’s name, leading to a miraculous outcome.

From here the Rebbe derives a significant lesson. The Torah possesses numerous beautiful qualities: intellectual and emotional depth, morals and ethics, practical life lessons for all, and literary elegance. Even so, none of these qualities will guarantee success when using it to influence, inspire, or save the world around us. Merely emphasising these aspects might lead others to regard the Torah as a magnificent artefact, but nothing more. True impact can be achieved only when the Torah is projected with proper reverence for its holiness, and the recognition that its power draws from its sanctity.

Another lesson the Rebbe derives is that nothing in the world inherently supersedes Torah. Even Pikuach Nefesh overrides the Torah only because the Torah itself says so. Therefore, in all such situations, one must look to the Torah for guidance. Similarly, when one wishes to draw a seemingly assimilated Jew into the fold, one cannot make concessions or adjustments with the justification that they are necessary to achieve the end goal, unless sanctioned or warranted by the Torah itself. Otherwise, such outreach efforts will be bound to fail, much in the same way that Dovid Hamelech’s intervention did not stand a chance of success without a source in the Torah.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BAMIDBAR

The Hub and Heart of a Community

This Shabbos marks ten years since Young Yeshivah’s inception. Every anniversary is special, but there is something particularly meaningful about our tenth – Ha’asiri Yihye Koidesh LaHashem. It is as good a time as any to reflect on the centrality of a Shule as the hub and heart of our community.

This takes us right to this week’s Parsha, which details the camping arrangements of the Jewish Nation. Rashi (2:2) observes that the Jews camped just within the Techum of the Mishkan, and Rashi explains that they did so in order to attend the Mishkan even on Shabbos. What is not fully understood though is why the Jews chose to live at the considerable distance of a full Mil (kilometre) from the Mishkan. It is like some someone who says, “I want to be close to Shule on Shabbos, so I purchased a home one full kilometre away!” Why not next door? And instead of focussing on why the Jews did not camp further away, Rashi should have seemingly been explaining the exact opposite – why the Jews did not live any closer?

The Rebbe explains that there are indeed two distinct issues here. The first is why the Jews did not live any closer, but the reason for that is so obvious that Rashi did not 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.

Rather, the real question is: If the Jews were so concerned about their safety and wellbeing, why not 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. They desired constant connection, especially on Shabbos. Although the more expedient thing would have been to live further away, they could not bear the thought of being absent on Shabbos.

In similar vein, our Shules and centres of learning are the focal point of our lives. Even when someone finds it more convenient to “live further away”, at least in a figurative sense, nevertheless, a Jew plans his whole week around Shul and around Shabbos! Through doing this, may Hashem speedily facilitate our immediate return to the Beis Hamikdash Hashlishi.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BEHAR BECHUKOSAI

Of Passing Interest

Interest plays such a fundamental role in modern economics that one would struggle to think of life without it. Interest rates drive a wide range of financial activity and investment decisions, and buttress mortgages and credit cards. They also form the backbone of monetary policy, inflation control, economic stimulus and exchange rates. All of this stands in stark contrast with the interest rate mandated by the Torah – 0%. Why does the Torah ban interest entirely? Why can’t the owner derive benefit when someone else makes use of his cash?

There are many classical explanations in the Meforshim. For example, the Sforno explains that loans are often sought as a last-ditch attempt to prevent financial ruin, and it is unconscionable for someone else to think of profiting from such a situation. The Abarbanel echoes this sentiment, stating that we must go beyond the letter of the law and forgo what we are reasonably entitled to in order to stand in solidarity with our poorer brethren.

Alternatively, Rashi focuses on the concern that the borrower is not fully cognisant of the risks involved. This is why the Torah refers to interest as Neshech, like a snakebite whose effect is not immediately felt until after the venom has spread too far. Similarly, a person who takes an interest-bearing loan won’t truly appreciate his predicament until after he accrues too much interest. Yet a third explanation is proposed by the Kli Yakar, who posits that one who lends with interest becomes overly reliant on a steady income stream that is guaranteed and fixed. This gives him a false sense of security, which in turn minimises his trust in Hashem.

None of these explanations seem to account for the prohibition in all situations, which is one of the reasons that the Rebbe takes a different approach entirely. According to the Rebbe, the prohibition of interest does not stem from another imperative, such as proliferating kindness or increasing one’s faith in Hashem. Rather, interest at its very core is problematic. Let us consider that when money is loaned, the lender ceases to control the funds, and the borrower may use it as he deems fit. He merely has an obligation to return a similar amount eventually. Were the lender to demand interest, he would essentially be profiting from something that he controlled in the past, and not something that is currently his. The Torah objects to this because it does not want us to live in the past. By prohibiting us from lending with interest, the Torah is exhorting us to never rest on our laurels and suffice with the fruits of our past labour. Rather, we must act in the present! Every moment, every second of our life, is a newly unique opportunity that must be capitalised.

This message especially resonates this time of year, when we commemorate the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. There are many lessons to be learned from that story, but which one does the Gemoro highlight? The answer is crystal clear to anyone who examines that Sugya. The Gemoro underscores that Rabbi Akiva did not recede into the past and wax nostalgic about the glorious era of Torah during which he presided over 24,000 students. Instead, he set the past completely to the side and focussed on the present, gathering five new students. The rest is, quite literally, history. These five new students became the pillars of instruction for all generations. One shudders to think what would have been had Rabbi Akiva chosen to live in the past instead.

The message for us is clear. Each of us has certainly achieved so much in our lives, regardless of the age and stage we find ourselves in. But we must never reach a point where we become satisfied with basking in our past achievements. You taught many students already? Great, now go find some more! You learned so much Torah already? Great, now go learn some more! You performed so much Mivtzoim already? Great, now go do some more! Only through living in the present, as opposed to the past, will we be able to usher in the future era of Moshiach.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS EMOR

Timely Yet Timeless

A big chunk of this week’s Parsha is very familiar to us, for it contains the Parshas Hamoados read each Yom Tov. The order of Parshas Hamoados is perfectly chronological: It starts with Shabbos, the most frequently recurring event, continues with the Mitzvah of Kiddush Hachoidesh, the calendrical system which is the prerequisite to scheduling any Yom Tov, and then lists each Yom Tov in perfect yearlong chronology: Pesach, Shavuos, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos.

Curiously, the Rambam presents a different order in his magnum opus: Shabbos, Yom Kippur, Yom Tov, Pesach, Rosh Hashana, Sukkos, Kiddush Hachodesh. The order differs primarily with regards to Yom Kippur and Kiddush Hachodesh. Why?

The Rebbe is far from the first to raise this question. One of the most famous answers is put forth by the Kessef Mishnah, who explains that the Rambam presents each of these milestones in order of significance: Shabbos is most important, then Yom Kippur which is a “mini-Shabbos”, followed by every other Yom Tov. Kiddush Hachodesh appears last because it is merely the means to facilitate a dating system through which to schedule each Yom Tov.

Although the Kessef Mishnah’s insight is undoubtedly correct, for what purpose does the Rambam deviate from the Torah’s chronological order, instead creating a new significance-based order? The Rebbe explains that the Possuk is deed-oriented, and therefore lists each Mitzvah according to the order in which it becomes practically relevant. However, the Rambam is driving home a different message entirely:

Even if each time-based Mitzvah is practically relevant only in certain times and situations, its significance to a Jew must be constant and eternal. A Jew must feel and demonstrate that the Mitzvah of Shofar is as relevant to him on Pesach as it is on Rosh Hashanah, for the simple reason that all Mitzvos form part of Hashem’s Will. When looking at Mitzvos from this angle, the practical timing of the Mitzvah is a mere technicality. Far more important is the fact that each Mitzvah represents a bridge connecting us to Hashem, and thus has eternal relevance. That is why the Rambam arranges these Mitzvos according to how fundamental they are to us in our relationship with Hashem. In doing so, the Rambam reminds us that all 613 Mitzvos are relevant to us every single moment, regardless of whether it is now the time to fulfill it or not.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS ACHAREI MOS KEDOSHIM

Just Don’t It

Although Kedoshim, the second of this week’s Parsha, does not contain the highest total number of Mitzvos (that honour belongs to Parsha Ki Seitzei with 74 Mitzvos), nevertheless, it includes a total of 51 mitzvos within just 64 Pesukim, which arguably constitutes the highest concentration of Mitzvos in the Torah. These 51 mitzvos are broken down into a division of 13 positive commandments and 38 negative commandments. Generally speaking, the dos and don’ts are predictable; when the Torah wants action, it expresses this as a do, and when the Torah mandates abstention, it expresses this as a don’t.

There seems to be one exception, an instance where the Torah tells us a don’t when we would have expected a do. The overall gist of the command “You shall not stand by your fellow’s blood” is clear – when you see another person’s life in jeopardy, save him. But if the Torah is driving us to act, why is this Mitzvah expressed as a don’t (stand by), instead of as a do (save him)?

The Rebbe offers an innovative answer based on a highly literal reading of Rashi. “Do not stand by your fellow when you are able to save him; for example, if he is drowning in the river and a wild beast or robber attacks him.” The Torah is not referring to a person who faces only one danger. Rather, the Torah is referring to an instance where a person’s life is jeopardised on multiple fronts simultaneously – not only is he drowning, but at that very moment, bandits or wild animals are assaulting him. In such a hopeless situation, a bystander would surely wonder how he could possibly save the person from so many dangers at once! (It goes without saying that the Torah does not expect the bystander to throw all caution to the wind, for two lives will go down instead of one.)

This is why the Torah presents this command as a don’t, instead of a do. The Torah does not tell us what to do because there is no playbook here, nor is there a training manual or precedent that one can turn to for guidance. Even so, Hashem tells us the don’t – don’t stand by. Even if we cannot fathom how our involvement in the situation might help, no matter. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, everything happens due to Divine Providence, and the very fact that we encountered such a situation is proof positive that we can assist. We must get involved and just do our best in the moment, and our efforts will yield the desired results despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

If this is true physically, how much more so in a spiritual sense. At times, Hashem presents us with circumstances that seem spiritually bereft and desolate, or bring about our interaction with a person who seems beyond redemption. In the absence of clear instructions or direction, we might second-guess ourselves and wonder what we could possibly do. This Mitzvah tells us that even when we have nothing to fall back on and we really don’t know what to do, the very fact that Hashem brought it to our attention demonstrates that we cannot stand idly by. By trying our best, we will be able to look back and count all the little miracles that occurred along the way that ultimately achieved the desired outcome.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Based on Likkutei Sichos Chelek 32 Kedoshim Sicha 2.

SHABBOS PARSHAS TAZRIA METZORA

You Can Do More Than You Can Do

In 1946, the Rebbe was entrusted with the weighty task of editing the Tzemach Tzedek’s responsa and publishing it in the United States for the first time. Naturally, a project of such magnitude required significant financial underwriting. To this end, the Frierdiker Rebbe proposed sponsorship to a particular Jew, even though his income was relatively modest, and the costs far exceeded his financial worth. The man responded affirmatively, and in return, he received the Frierdiker Rebbe’s blessings. In a short span of time, his business ventures prospered greatly, allowing him to easily fulfill his commitment. Subsequently, the Frierdiker Rebbe observed that when he had initially proposed the idea, the costs were beyond the man’s means, even as ordained from Above. However, in choosing to be unconstrained by his circumstances, this man unlocked additional channels of blessings from Above, allowing him to fulfill his commitment.

This story holds the key to an intriguing Halacha related to this week’s Parsha. The Parsha tells us that a wealthy Metzorah must offer three animals as a Korbon, while a poor Metzorah may suffice with one animal and two birds. This is consistent with the precept that the Torah does not make demands of a person that exceed his ability. Yet, Halacha dictates that when a poor person pledges to bring the sacrifice on behalf of a wealthy Metzorah, he may no longer provide the minimal Korbon, but must offer that of the rich. In this case, what happened to the principle of not demanding more than one’s ability?

The Rebbe explains that this Halacha showcases two remarkable qualities of a person’s capacity to support another. First, it conveys that an individual must be willing to lend a hand not only to those in less fortunate circumstances than his own, but even to those who are more privileged, much like our poor benefactor who assumes the pledge of the wealthy Metzorah. Second, this Halacha assures us that when we genuinely and appropriately resolve to help another, we will be able to meet demands in excess of what we can typically manage for ourselves, even if this requires Hashem’s intervention to unlock new channels that will facilitate this success.

This lesson is particularly timely as we celebrate the Siyum HaRambam – of all tracks – this Shabbos. Its restart on Sunday is the perfect opportunity to commit or recommit to the study of Rambam. Such an undertaking may appear daunting, to the point where one may even question his or her ability to deliver. However, the Torah assures us that when we genuinely resolve to do what is right, Hashem will help us to attain those goals, even if this necessitates the opening of new channels.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHEMINI

Paradox of Purity

Shemini was the Parsha we learned for Chitas during Pesach. One of the more obvious links between Shemini and Pesach is spelled out towards the end of the Parsha: The obligation for every single Jew to purify himself before each of the three Regolim (Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos).

In the times of the second Beis Hamikdash, many Jews were lax in their observance of the laws of ritual purity. The Sages referred to them as “Amei Ha’aretz” and decreed that they could not be trusted. However, recognising that every Jew purifies himself before Yom-Tov, the Sages ruled that the Amei Ha’aretz could be relied upon during each of the three Regolim. This led to a seemingly bizarre twist. If an Am Ha’aretz touched a piece of meat or a barrel of wine on Yom-Tov, those items remained pure for the duration of Yom-Tov, but they automatically became impure the moment Yom-Tov ended! This seems paradoxical: If the Am Ha’aretz touched these items when he was deemed pure, why should they be regarded as impure as soon as Yom-Tov ends?

The Rebbe explains that the purity of each Am Ha’aretz on Yom-Tov does not stem from his own efforts alone. Rather, when all Jews gather together, each person fuses with the greater Jewish collective, which is in a collective state of purity. The Am Ha’aretz becomes part of that entity too, so he is regarded as pure. However, as soon as Yom-Tov ends and the Am Ha’aretz returns to his own individual interests, he resumes his former status. Therefore, everything he touched must henceforth be treated as impure.

Having celebrated the Yom-Tov of Pesach with family and community, Parshas Shemini imparts the tremendous power of community, and inspires us to do as much as we can to keep that momentum alive, even after Yom-Tov has ended.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TZAV

There is No Mistaking It

The concluding Possuk of our Parsha tells us that “Aharon and his sons did all the things that Hashem commanded”. Rashi explains that the objective is to praise them for their flawless inauguration of the Mishkan, in that they “did not deviate to the right or to the left”. This leads to two simple questions: It seems superfluous to tell us that Aharon and his sons did as they were instructed; would anyone have thought otherwise? Furthermore, why does Rashi state that they did not deviate, as opposed to saying simply that they didn’t make any changes?

The Rebbe presents a fascinating explanation, one which is quite down to earth and simple: It is all too common for people to make mistakes as beginners. One might study well for a certain task and prepare in advance for the experience, but inevitably slip up when something unanticipated crops up. For example, a new employee generally enjoys a honeymoon period at the beginning of his role, where newbie errors are magnanimously and patiently tolerated by bosses and colleagues alike, whereas the very same mistakes at a later stage will only draw forth their ire. Or, using another example, we all remember the first time we sat behind the steering wheel, convinced in our driving ability after having watched others so many times, only to discover otherwise.

This explains the novelty of Aharon and his children. They were so dedicated in preparing for the Mishkan’s inauguration that they internalised every single detail taught to them by Moshe, visualising the entire process in vivid detail. As a result, they anticipated everything and did not make the slightest mistake, despite the myriad Halachos. This is what made their performance so noteworthy. For added emphasis, Rashi uses the word “deviate” instead of “change” to inform us that they averted not only great “changes” that would have completely invalidated the Avoidah, but even relatively minor “deviations” that would not have invalidated the Avoidah.

On the surface, this calibre of conduct seems to be the domain of Tzaddikim alone, one which we cannot even aspire to. Indeed, this is exactly how the Rebbe framed this teaching the first time he presented it, in 5725, invoking the precedent of the Rebbe Rashab training his body to conduct itself solely in accordance with Shulchan Oruch, already from an age before Bar Mitzvah. However, when revisiting this teaching 23 years later, the Rebbe cited the famous dictum that Torah means instruction, and everything it contains must be an instruction for us. The Rebbe took from this that even if such a standard cannot be demanded of us regular folk at all times, nevertheless, when circumstances allow for it, we must emulate the conduct of Aharon and his children to the best of our ability. Thus, whenever we serve Hashem, we should strive for the same standard of excellence, scoring 100% even the first time round.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYIKRA

For His Sake Alone

“A pleasing fragrance to Hashem” is what the Torah tells us 37 times about Korbonos. Yet, specifically in our Parsha, where it appears neither for the first nor the last time, Rashi chooses to explain the meaning of this expression, in the context of the Olah, the burnt offering. “This sacrifice gives Me contentment, for I commanded, and My will was fulfilled!” Why the delayed reaction?

There is another more subtle question as well. In his commentary to Chumash, Rashi is generally uninterested in the realm of philosophy, instead focussing on the plainest meaning of the Pesukim. As such, Rashi does not usually explain the reasons for the Mitzvos, a topic which inspired the genre of Taamei Hamitzvos. Yet here we have one rare instance where Rashi unveils the essence of sacrifices – “It gives Me contentment, for I commanded, and My will was fulfilled!” Why does Rashi depart from his usual routine?

The Rebbe explains that there is a profound difficulty in understanding the meaning of sacrifices, so plainly prominent that Rashi was compelled to address it: It is self-evident that “a pleasing aroma” is not a physical one, but spiritual. If so, one cannot help but wonder what sets Korbonos apart from other Mitzvos, such as Tzitizis or Tefillin. Would it not be correct to say that they, too, provide a pleasing fragrance to Hashem, in the spiritual sense?

Rashi’s answer is deep. Each Mitzvah, even when performed solely for the sake of Heaven, offers a unique benefit to the individual, whether in their relationships with fellow humans or their connection to Hashem. Even the Chukim, whose purpose a person cannot know, still impart certain lessons to be internalised, and they also cultivate a person to be disciplined and humble before Hashem. In this sense, all Mitzvos imbue a person’s life with meaning, energising him and inspiring him! Rashi is telling us that the purpose of Korbonos is entirely different – we do it solely to bring pleasure to Hashem.

Imagine slaughtering an animal, dismembering it, and burning it. How inspired would you feel? The truth is, not at all. And yet, this is what makes Korbonos so remarkable. They are performed entirely to bring pleasure before Hashem, without any expectation of personal fulfilment. As we know from our own relationships, the most meaningful present is the one which the giver doesn’t relate to, but gives nonetheless, knowing how much it means to the recipient. This kind of gift is truly cherished by the beneficiary, knowing that s/he was the only catalyst. This is exactly what Rashi is relaying if we accentuate his words correctly, “This sacrifice gives Me contentment, for I commanded, and My will was fulfilled!”

Although true of all Korbonos, this is most emphasised in the case of the Olah, the burnt offering. Most other Korbonos cater to a human need as well, be it the sin offering, peace offering, guilt offering, or thanksgiving offering. Many are also partially consumed by the people, or by the Kohanim. But the Olah is not sacrificed for any specific human need, nor is it consumed by us. Its only purpose is to bring pleasure to Hashem, and not for our own sake.

Tefillah takes the place of Korbonos. It is no secret that, for many, davening is a struggle. One reason might be that a person thinks ,whether consciously or subconsciously, “What is in it for me? If I daven properly, I won’t have anything to show for it – no increased knowledge, no achievement I can attach my name to, no money in the bank.” This is unlike the study of Torah and observance of Mitzvos, where we more easily sense a quantifiable return – either in terms of knowledge, inspiration or sense of fulfillment. In this regard, davening can seem to offer us the least. The message from this week’s Parsha is that this very “fault” makes Davening the greatest – we do it not for the benefits it might yield us, but out of our sheer loyalty to Hashem.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYAKHEL PEKUDEI

Tackling the Impossible

When the craftsmen finished the Mishkan’s components, they could not put it together, try as they might. Their inability to do so was caused by the sheer weight of the beams; no mortal was able to lift them. Hashem had planned it this way, for He wanted Moshe to be the one to assemble the Mishkan. Upon hearing this, Moshe asked, “How is it possible for a human being to set it up?” Hashem replied, “Do your part and work with your hand; it will appear as is you are constructing it, even as it rises by itself.”

This episode raises some obvious questions. First, let us recall that this was not the only time the Mishkan was assembled. Rather, the Levi’im assembled it and disassembled it repeatedly throughout the next forty years. If the Levi’im were not up for the task this first time round, from where did they muster the strength and might to do so all the subsequent times?

The Rebbe also notes the theory that the Jews built the pyramids, which should make us wonder why they struggled with the assembly of the Mishkan. And, even if one were to argue that the Jews did not build the pyramids, their construction certainly transpired in that era, which means that the engineering know-how was accessible. Furthermore, the Jews in Egypt had been subjected to heavier weights when they built the fortified cities of Pisom and Raamses, so why was the Mishkan too hard?

The Rebbe offers a most unexpected answer: Sure, the Jews were all too familiar with the rigours of back-breaking labour. However, “the ways of the Torah are pleasant” and the purpose of Mitzvos is to uplift us, rather than wear us down through tortuous labour. By extension then, the only way the Jews knew to assemble the Mishkan, through arduous lifting, was not what Hashem wanted. Neither did Hashem want the Mishkan to come together miraculously, for Mitzvos must imbue physicality rather than suspend it. Only one option remained – for a person to work to the best of his natural abilities, without too much pressure, at which point Hashem would help, without negating the natural component. Hashem instructed Moshe to be the first, and he paved the way for every Jew after him to do the same.

The message is eternally relevant. Although we must apply serious effort in observing Torah and Mitzvos, Hashem does not desire that we be crushed or broken in the process. Rather, we are to serve Him in an inspired and motivated way, within our natural abilities. This very recognition can sometimes paralyse us with the simple thought: “How can my small and measured actions make any major difference in the grand scheme of things?” This contention would be sensible were our natural efforts subject to natural limitations. However, Hashem has entered into a pact with us, assuring us that if we do our best, He will bless our efforts to yield results far beyond what would otherwise be possible. May we thereby achieve what seems like the hardest mission of all – to bring Moshiach Now.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KI SISA

The Messy Middle

This week’s Parsha reads like a sandwich. It is preceded by Terumah and Tetzaveh, which describe in great detail how exactly Hashem wanted the Mishkan built. It is followed by Vayakhel and Pekudei, which relate how the Jews actually built the Mishkan true to Hashem’s plan. But smack in between the command and its execution, the Torah inserts the narrative of our greatest all time low– the disastrous sin of idolising the Golden Calf only forty days after receiving the first set of Luchos, Hashem’s anger, the resulting plague, and the ultimate reconciliation with the second set of Luchos. How is this narrative relevant in the middle of the story of Hashem’s Mishkan? Why the interruption?

The Rebbe explains that between envisioning a goal and successfully achieving it, there is always the stage of implementation. Which is where things can get really messy. How many times have we enthusiastically resolved to achieve an important objective – be it to learn Chitas daily, daven with the proper concentration and focus, make a concerted effort to be more kind and patient, to lose a couple of kilograms, or shake off that all-annoying habit? We initially get ourselves all pumped up, ready to march towards the goal. But then, when we actually have to roll up our sleeves and put in the work, reality hits. It turns out that it was much harder than we thought it would be. There are all sorts of obstacles and struggles. We may even make mistakes along the way. We start to question ourselves; perhaps this is not really the right thing for us. Our resolve begins to flounder. It becomes so tempting to just throw in the towel.

The message of this week’s Parsha, says the Rebbe, is not to be discouraged. In between the plan and its goal, the Torah tells us that the Jews stooped to the lowest depths imaginable. After sinning as they did, they certainly could have questioned whether they were good enough to build Hashem's Mishkan. Yet they did not. They extracted themselves from that situation, restored their connection with Hashem in an even deeper way, and successfully implemented the goal that Hashem set for them. Like them, we should never be discouraged, and keep pushing forward.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TETZAVEH

Getting Self-Cancelled

Moshe Rabbeinu is arguably the most central figure in the Torah. From his birth in Shemos until his passing at the end of Chumash, Moshe’s name is mentioned more than 600 times. In the last Sefer, Devorim, there are several Parshiyos without Moshe’s name, for the simple reason that he narrated the entire Parsha. Other than that, Tetzave is the only Parsha where Moshe's name is famously absent.

The reason for this is just as well-known. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, when Hashem threatened to eradicate the Jews and supplant them with a nation of Moshe’s progeny, Moshe responded, “And now, if You forgive their sin; and if not – erase me now from Your book, which You have written.” Rashi tells us that this Possuk is somewhat truncated, but the intention is that Moshe was making his inclusion in the Torah conditional on Hashem forgiving the Jews. The Zohar explains that this is the cause of Moshe’s exclusion from at least one Parsha.

Hashem ultimately did forgive the Jews, so why was Moshe excluded at all? The Baal Haturim draws on the Talmudic dictum that “even the conditional curse of a Tzaddik is fulfilled”, and explains that Moshe’s name had to be erased from at least one Parsha in fulfillment of his conditional curse.

However, the Rebbe’s father presents another explanation that is as refreshing as it is innovative: Moshe’s request to be deleted was not conditional at all, nor was he paying an indirect price for words he hoped would not be fulfilled. Rather, Moshe was asking to be completely removed from the Torah – not just if Hashem refused to forgive the Jews, but even if He did!

Why? Because Moshe understood that the only reason Hashem contemplated destroying the Jews was because a replacement nation could be built out of Moshe. It pained Moshe that his existence could be capitalised upon to punish the rest of the Jews, so he asked to be excised from the Torah. He wanted to make it clear that the Torah is about the Jews, rather than their leader. Although his request wasn’t fully granted, Hashem acquiesced for at least one Parsha.

According to this approach, Moshe’s words “And now, if You forgive their sin; and if not – erase me now from Your book, which You have written” means exactly what it says, and nothing is abbreviated. Whether Hashem forgave the Jews or not, Moshe wanted to be removed. Remarkably, this Possuk, which goes to the very heart of Moshe’s leadership, is the 32nd Possuk of the 32nd Perek of Shemos, doubly bearing the Gematriya of Lev, heart.

We all face a similar battle, one which is psychologically hard – to choose between working on our own perfection, or prioritising the needs of others who needs us. More often than not, the right choice is to put our dreams and visions on hold while we reallocate that time and focus for our peers and community.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TERUMAH

Plugging In

Imagine a friend announcing that he is heading to the car dealership to buy a car for Hashem. Or the barista at the neighbourhood café casually mentioning that she is brewing a perfect coffee for the One on High, with an accompanying wrap stuffed with His favourite filling. Such talk would make you wonder whether that person has lost it, maybe in more ways than one. What then are we supposed to make of a physical Sanctuary for Hashem, replete with artefacts such as a table and candelabra, all manufactured to exact physical specifications? Hashem, who is unbounded by anything finite or infinite, needs a house? Indeed, the Midrash echoes this sentiment: “When Hashem instructed Moshe to fabricate the Mishkan, he was astonished, ‘His glory fills the higher and lower realms, yet He says to build a Mishkan?’… Similarly, Shlomo said as much at the Beis Hamikdash’ inauguration, ‘Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected.’”

Modern technology offers us numerous metaphors through which to address this question; let us use the metaverse as an example. It is probably fair to say that some regard it as reality, whereas others do not. What is the difference between the two groups? The answer comes down to what steps a person has taken to become invested and engaged. A user who invests in a VR headset and the right computer build will be opened to an experience which far transcends the plastic and metal components of his equipment; it is no longer just about a VR headset or computer hardware, but an entryway into an otherwise unseen universe. The experience is completely immersive and transformative, capturing one’s imagination and aspirations, thus influencing his goals and objectives. But then we have the second kind of person, the one who has not bought into the metaverse in any way. Without the right technological gear, he remains completely shut out of that experience.

In a similar (but far more real) fashion, the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash serve as the medium through which we physical humans can tap into a G‑dly reality, one which we would otherwise remain completely oblivious to. Thus, it is not Hashem who needs the house, but us who need it as a way to encounter Him. To function as it should, the House of Hashem must be made to exact physical specifications so that it will foster the correct mystical atmosphere and heighten one’s spiritual senses. Even so, the Mishkan’s utility far transcends the sum total of its composite physical parts, for it raises every Jew out of the mundanity of life to connect with the source of life.

The Mitzvah to build a Sanctuary is eternal. One way this Mitzvah can be fulfilled during our times is by each Jew building and maintaining a Sanctuary for Him within. This means that we must create an infrastructure that allows us to take notice of, and connect with, Hashem. Over the years, the Rebbe put forth many ways of achieving this on the home front – by filling it with Seforim, affixing a Tzedakah box to the actual structure, and obtaining a personal Siddur for each child. Even if merely physical, these holy items serve as an effective conduit to a far greater spiritual reality. All of this allows us to achieve a deeper layer of the Mishkan’s eternity, for by “plugging in” to G-dliness with the right “equipment” and avidly feeling the realism and dynamism of every detail of Torah and Mitzvos, our observance sits on a much firmer and more everlasting foundation. Through it, may we merit the coming of Moshiach now.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS MISHPOTIM

Honour the Thief

The Torah stipulates that a robber who slaughters or sells a stolen sheep must pay four times its value, which is slightly less than the fivefold penalty imposed for doing the same to cattle. In explaining the “discount”, Rabbon Yochanan ben Zakkai states, “Hashem is considerate of human dignity. As cattle walk on their own legs, the thief is not humiliated by carrying it on his shoulder, and he pays fivefold. In contrast, a lamb must be carried on the shoulder, and the thief is thereby demeaned, so he pays only fourfold.”

The questions are obvious and numerous: Why is the Torah concerned about the dignity of a thief? After all, he brought his own humiliation upon himself by choosing to steal the lamb and thereby having to carry it on his shoulder. Moreover, he deserves to bear the badge of shame for his evil actions. Finally, the thief has already been caught and is being tried in Beis Din; by now he is undoubtedly infamous and ostracised. As a public pariah and community outcast, the additional indignity of transporting the lamb on his shoulder seems to pale in comparison, so why fuss over it?

The Rebbe finds the solution by reflecting on the character of the man who originated this explanation. Rabbon Yochanan ben Zakkai was a towering giant of a man who stood out even among the greats of his generation, the one that straddled the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash. Rabbon Yochanan served as the caretaker Nassi, and he crafted many Rabbinic enactments to preserve the continuity of Jewish life in the aftermath of destruction.

Despite his tremendous stature and overwhelming responsibilities, the Gemoro tells us that no one managed to greet Rabbon Yochanan before he greeted them. When Rabbi Yochanan would pass through the streets, along with his entire retinue, he took notice of every pedestrian or peddler and greeted them, Jew and non-Jew alike. Rabbon Yochanan’s greetings were not just perfunctory; they were intended to make the recipient feel valued and esteemed. He knew that the size of the deed did not matter, and even the smallest show of respect would be greatly treasured and perhaps even life-changing for the recipient.

Rabbon Yochanan ben Zakkai’s concern for the dignity of the robber is rooted in his broader worldview of treating every person with respect and honour. Yes, the thief fully deserves whatever consequences Halacha bestows upon him, and with it will necessarily come a degree of humiliation. However, Rabbon Yochanan teaches us that we cannot shower even one iota of extra dishonour upon the thief. There is no man who does not care about his honour, or what is being said about him, even when already deeply mired in a state of degradation. That is why Rabbon Yochanan regards the small indignity of carrying a lamb on the shoulder as a big deal, even in the context of a thief who has brought far greater disrepute upon himself.

Rabbon Yochanan ben Zakkai thereby teaches us the importance of respecting others, no matter their station in life. He reminds us that everyone cares about their dignity, and we must honour every person we encounter, even those who have acted wrongly. We need to make every person feel that they matter, and allow them to feel our appreciation for the value they bring to the collective table.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS YISRO

The Chosen Nation

We all know that the Jews are the “Chosen Nation”, but where does it actually say that in the Torah? The answer lies in this week’s Parsha. In the leadup to Mattan Torah, Hashem proclaimed (19:5): “You shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.” When recounting this episode in Sefer Devorim (7:6), Moshe spelled it out more plainly with the words: “Hashem has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth.”

Why did Hashem express His choice for us with the word ‘treasure’, or Segulah? This question captures the attention of many commentaries, and it is no surprise that Chassidus sheds light on this as well, with a rather innovative explanation. According to Chassidus, Hashem chose the Jews due to their ability to be like a Segol, as opposed to many other nations that are a Tzeirei. What does this mean?

In the language of Kabbalah, Tzeirei embodies the world of Tohu. In simple English, this means that Tzeirei represents polarisation, where an ideological perspective is embraced in the extreme, to the point that anything associated with the opposite side of the spectrum is completely rebuffed. This phenomenon becomes intensified in a nationalistic context, where the collective attitude of society becomes even more extreme than the initial inclinations of its individual members. Thus, some societies will find themselves on the right side of the Tzeirei, which represents unfiltered kindness, professing much love and tolerance for anything and everything (other than those who say otherwise). Other societies who find themselves on the left side of the Tzeirei will impose unrelentingly high standards, showing no tolerance for anyone or anything that represents a different perspective.

The Segol, on the other hand, personifies the world of Tikkun, or what we refer to as integration. The third dot represents the common goal that is greater than, and can thus harmonise, the two extremes. This is epitomised by the Torah, which fuses the extremes, “From His right hand (Chessed), Hashem gave us a fiery Law (Gevurah)”. For that reason, so much about Mattan Torah relates to the number three, the number of integration. Indeed, Chazal say: “Hashem gave the three-fold Torah (Tanach), to the three-fold nation (Kohen, Levi, Yisroel), through Moshe the third-born, on the third day of the separation of men and women, in the third month of Sivan.” In choosing us as His nation, Hashem underscored the attribute of Segol; the middle road which synthesises the extremes. And to help us in that undertaking, Hashem gave us the Torah.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS SHIRAH PARSHAS BESHALACH

The Greater Song

Shabbos Shirah derives its name from the songs of the Jews in both the Torah and the Haftorah. Upon closer examination, an interesting dichotomy emerges: In the Torah, the men’s hymns comprise a full 19 Pesukim, whereas the women’s chorus comes to a grand total of just nine words. One forms the impression that the women’s chants were totally subordinate to the men’s, almost like a mere afterthought.

This is all completely incongruous with the Haftorah, which showcases at length the stirring song of Devorah, chosen over all the other songs that appear in the Prophets. Why do the women take centre stage in the Haftorah, but seem completely eclipsed in the Parsha?

One explanation lies not in what the respective songs articulated, but in how they were sung. The men may have waxed lyrical with a full set of verses, but they merely said it. The women, on the other hand, not only sang, but danced and played tambourines. Their song didn’t require as many words because their emotional and immersive expression of their exultation in G‑d’s revelation was far richer and more impactful than words alone. This is why the Haftorah focuses on the song of the women, to underscore that their Shirah was truly superior.

Another explanation focuses on the respective missions of men and women: Men tend to project their energies outward, going to Shule to daven and learn, and spreading the wellsprings of Yiddishkeit and Chassidus in the streets and at the workplace. Women, however, steadfastly prioritise the home, putting family front and centre of whatever else is going on in their life, thereby ensuring that those closest to them – children, family members or close friends – are well nurtured in all respects, both physically, emotionally and spiritually. This all explains the focus on the men for the Shirah that celebrated our victory in foreign lands, whereas the women commanded the limelight for the Shirah that acclaimed victory in our own homeland.

Ultimately, the Rebbe observes that Shabbos Shirah derives its name from the song of the Haftorah, and not the Torah. The proof? There are three Parshiyos in the Torah which contain a Shirah (Beshalach, Chukas, and Haazinu) but only this Shabbos has a song presented in the Haftorah. This signifies that even if both missions are integral, the significance of the women’s song is by far the greater. May we merit to sing the ultimate Shirah with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BO

Why Rush?

If one must paint a picture of the atmosphere pervading Jewish households on the eve of the Exodus, urgency and haste would rank pretty high on the list. This was not a mere symptom of Jewish anxiety and impatience, but divinely commanded. Hashem explicitly told us to eat the Korbon Pesach in haste, with our loins girded, shoes on our feet, and walking staffs in our hands. Indeed, the next day, the Jews ran out of there without time for the dough to rise, and the rest is, quite literally, history. It is no surprise that the Rambam commences the Haggadah with one short sentence that says it all: “We left Egypt in haste.”

But why were we rushing? No one was chasing us. In fact, it is absolutely clear that there was no rush at all, because the Jews left only at midday, a full twelve hours after Pharaoh urged them to leave. A hasty departure would only seem to reduce the might of Hashem’s Hand, as if we were afraid that Pharaoh could somehow stop the Exodus if we didn’t get out quickly enough. In a broader sense, we know that haste can be a vice rather than a virtue, most often associated with reckless instinct and rash impulsiveness rather than unhurried composure, patient deliberation, and balanced purpose. So why promote haste?

The Rebbe explains that cautious consideration is indeed called for when charting the appropriate course of action, in order to steer clear from wrong. However, once past that stage and the point of action has arrived, that is the time to rush. Haste is imperative not only to get the thing done, but to maintain momentum and prevent any stall. Further contemplation will merely lead to second-guessing and allow doubt to set in; our Yetzer Hara and innate aversion to change will all but guarantee it. Thus, the Torah teaches that when we have a Mitztrayim to escape, don’t dilly-dally, for even just one moment of procrastination will unravel it all. Indeed, our Sages tell us that had the Jews delayed just another moment, they would have never left.

Hashem instructed us to manifest our haste in three ways: “Girding our loins” refers to our efforts in strengthening ourselves, “donning our shoes” represents equipping ourselves to interact with the earthiest parts of the world around us, and “staff in hand” denotes our efforts to touch places beyond our immediate reach. We must undertake all these missions with haste. In doing so, we will merit the future redemption, of which the prophet foretells, “You shall not go out in haste, nor shall you go forth in flight.”

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VOERA

Spoken With Conviction

Moshe did not regard himself as a good communicator. By his own assessment, he was “heavy of speech” and possessed a “blocked mouth”. So Hashem commanded Moshe to deliver the message to Pharaoh first, and Aharon would then repeat it in a way that Pharaoh could understand.

This seems so strange! If Pharaoh could not understand Moshe, what was the point of Moshe presenting the message in the first place? Why not have Aharon convey the message solo?

The Rebbe explains that even if Pharaoh could not understand Moshe’s words, there would be no mistaking the strength of Moshe’s convictions as he made his statement. As the consummate and deeply-caring leader of the Jews, Moshe’s passionate emotion and sincerity would speak a language much more powerful than the spoken word. So Hashem instructed Moshe to speak first. Only afterward could Aharon’s repetition stand a chance.

The message for us is obvious. An important aspect of Yiddishkeit is sharing its beliefs and values with those around us. Many people think that effective communication requires charisma, some training in public-speaking and maybe a degree in psychology. While those things can certainly help, the most important ingredient of effective communication is conviction and sincerity.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHEMOS

Redemption versus Redemption

The Haggadah speaks of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya being like seventy years old. It is that part of the paragraph which usually draws most of our attention when we sit around the Seder table. However, the overall paragraph speaks of the obligation to constantly remember our Exodus from Egypt, day and night, and even in the days of Moshiach.

To say that we should remember the Exodus at all times during our present exile makes perfect sense, in order that we can reflect on how we got here and how to forge a path forward. But when Moshiach comes? What is the point of commemorating the Exodus during an era which will utterly eclipse it? To do so would be akin to lauding the skills and talent of an accomplished academic or artist with a mere mention of some banal achievement back in their kindergarten days!

A basic answer draws on the fact that the first redemption would have been the final redemption, had the Jews only deserved it. Thus, the coming of Moshiach is the finale of what the original Exodus could have been, and our departure from Egypt remains relevant in the days of Moshiach.

However, the Rebbe presents a much deeper explanation: On the face of it, Golus and Geulah seem like polar opposites, so completely at odds with each other that they cannot coexist. According to this thought, there can be no element of Geulah during the days of Golus, nor any aspect of Golus during the times of Geulah. Indeed, the era of Moshiach will be so different from our current Golus reality that one could be forgiven for entertaining this thought.

However, it is the Egyptian Exodus specifically that does not allow us to make such a mistake. After all, the entire Golus infrastructure remained very much intact in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus; Pharaoh still presided over the throne and the social pyramid of Egypt still flourished. The first redemption makes it clear to us that the Geulah does not displace the Golus paradigm, but instead reveals its heretofore hidden and inner dimension. For that reason, Geulah has the very same Hebrew letters as Golah, with the mere addition of an Alef. This is why it is important to remember the Exodus even in the days of Moshiach, to underscore that the Geulah represents the apex of Golus, rather than its displacement. By the same token, this very notion empowers us in our present task of bringing Moshiach, by reminding us that we need to merely reveal that which is already here.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS CHAZAK PARSHAS VAYECHI

Bowing to the Fox

What father bows down to his son? In this week's Parsha, Yaakov did just that. He summoned Yosef and asked that he be buried in the land of Israel. Yaakov was not satisfied with a mere commitment, and he made Yosef promise. Once Yosef vowed, Yaakov then bowed. Why?

In addressing this incident, Chazal quote a folk saying: “To a fox, in its time, bow down.” The simple meaning is that the cowardly and deceitful fox does not deserve the kingship anywhere as much as the courageous lion. Yet, if by some stroke of luck, the fox has the good fortune of reigning, accept fate, and bow to him. Taken at face value, this suggests that Yaakov bowed to Yosef even though he wasn’t deserving of being the king. However, interpreting the intention of Chazal in this manner simply confounds the matter further, for why would they disparage Yosef as unworthy?

The Rebbe sheds light on this obscure statement by explaining that it means something else entirely: Yaakov knew that his request ran against the Egyptian national interest. Ever since Yaakov had arrived, the famine had ended, and the Nile always rose to greet Pharaoh. Therefore, the Egyptians wanted Yaakov buried in Egypt to ensure their continued economic prosperity. In asking Yosef to act against Egyptian interests, Yaakov knew that Yosef would face immense opposition from both Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Indeed, this is exactly what ended up happening. Pharaoh initially refused to grant permission until Yosef forced his hand, and even then, this episode culminated in Yosef losing the direct ear of Pharaoh thereafter.

This, then, is what Chazal meant: When someone faces a formidable task, and there is good reason to suspect that he might take the easy route and retreat in slyness or out of cowardice (“a fox”), but he is the suited for the mission ("in his hour"), give him your vote of confidence and show him how much you believe in him ("bow down to him"), rather than share with him your misgivings. By making the fox feel like a king, he will work up the confidence to overcome the challenges and succeed.

The lesson is obvious: In all our relationships, be it with our spouses, children, students, work colleagues etc, we inspire success by complimenting those around us and showing them that we truly believe in them. This is easy to do when success is all but guaranteed, but much more important when we sense the difficulties. By inspiring confidence instead of sharing our reservations, we will inspire those around us to defy the odds and achieve the greatest things.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYIGASH

Yosef’s reuniting embrace with his youngest brother is poignantly described in the Possuk, “He fell on his brother Binyamin’s necks and wept, and Binyamin wept on his neck”. Noting the plural expression, Chazal ask (Megillah 16b as explained by the Maharsha): “How many necks did Binyomin have?”

The Gemoro answers that the neck is a metaphor for the Mikdash, in keeping with the Possuk (Shir Hashirim 4:4) “Your neck is like the Tower of Dovid”. Just as a neck is the conduit that links the body with the head, so too, the Mikdash serves as our bridge to G‑dliness. Thus, Yosef wept over the necks of Binyomin in the plural, for there would be two Batei Mikdash in Binyamin’s territory that would ultimately be destroyed, whereas Binyomin wept over the neck of Yosef in the singular, for he perceived the Mishkan of Shiloh in Yosef’s territory that would eventually be destroyed.

The empathy the brothers exhibited towards each other is touching, but the question is an obvious one: Why did they cry only for the other’s Mikdash, and not bemoan the fate of the one that would lie in their own territory? The Rebbe explains that when a challenge or problem lies within one’s area of responsibility, his single-minded focus must me on resolving the issue. There is no place for crying because doing so will not yield any practical results, but to the contrary – its cathartic effect will alleviate the urgency of the problem, or delude one into thinking that the act of crying was already constructive enough. Thus, one who perceives the destruction of his own Mikdash should not mollify himself with sighing and crying, but rather, throw himself into the task of repairing and rebuilding. Only when one observes the destruction of someone else’s Mikdash, and circumstances are such where it is entirely up to the other person to correct, one will allow the matter to touch his soul and weep for his peer.

The lessons for us are manifold: First, when we have a task to fulfill, we must focus on getting it done, putting our emotions to the side if necessary. Even if the chance of success seems slim, there is much we can learn from the two brothers who remained fully committed to overturning the decree even after seeing with Ruach Hakodesh that their respective sanctuaries would be destroyed. Furthermore, when confronted with someone else’s challenge, and there is truly no way you can assist, the least you can do is empathise. Rather than coldly thinking “there is nothing to be done anyway”, share the other person’s pain and show that you care.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS MIKETZ

How on earth did the brothers not recognise Yosef? After all, they entered Egypt through ten different gates specifically to stake out the land for his presence! How much could Yosef have changed already, even in twenty-two years? Even if his beard had grown in the interim, his physical features would have made it abundantly clear that he was no Egyptian. Furthermore, Rashi tells us (based on Chazal) that Yosef bore a very strong resemblance to Yaakov. And then there were other giveaways: The sound of his voice could not have changed that much, and Yosef knew so many details about their background and upbringing!

The Rebbe finds the answer in yet another question: Why is it that all our forefathers, as well as all the brothers aside from Yosef, were shepherds? The explanation is that a shepherd is sheltered from the day-to-day realities of urban life and thus undistracted from Torah study and serving Hashem. The shepherd can wander into the remote wilderness, far from the diversions of civilisation, where he has the time and peace of mind to ponder life’s meaning and reflect on the purpose of his existence.

Yosef, in contrast, lived in the very midst of the materialistic world, and managed the affairs of Egypt, one of the most decadent societies of all time. Although his involvement in worldly matters did not weaken his bond with Hashem, his brothers could not fathom how such a thing could be possible. So much so that, despite all the clues pointing to the true identity of the Egyptian Viceroy, they simply could not bring themselves to believe that this man was Yosef, even if he exhibited all the hallmarks of their brother.

Who are we to emulate – Yosef or the Shevatim? The answer is that we all need to be both: On a daily level, we need to be like the Shevatim when we daven and learn, which will allow us to be like Yosef the rest of the day. On a weekly level, we need to emulate the Shevatim on Shabbos, in order that we can be like Yosef the rest of the week. And on a yearly level, we need to resemble the Shevatim on Yom Tov and other special occasions, so that we can be like Yosef the rest of the year.

Good Shabbos and a Freilachen Chanukah,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYEISHEV

Yaakov’s One Son

 There are Quick quiz: How many sons did Yaakov have? Everyone knows the answer – its twelve. But that is not what the beginning of our Parsha conveys. Rather, the second Possuk states, “These are the descendants of Yaakov: Yosef”. Why does the Possuk ignore all the other sons of Yaakov?

There are many answers to this question, but Chassidus offers one that is striking: Yosef was the gauge that demonstrated the efficacy of Yaakov’s influence. That the children of Yaakov remained true to the tradition of their forefathers does not come as any great surprise so long that they lived close to their father’s bastion of holiness and faith. The real test of Yaakov’s truth was precisely when a family member would be cast away far from the family, in a completely incongruous environment.

That is why the power of Yaakov’s influence was tested only when Yosef descended to Egypt, all alone. Yosef was exposed to the corrupt immorality of the Egyptian Empire. He had to fend for himself for well over a decade, far from any spiritual reinforcement his father would be able to provide. Had Yosef chosen to succumb at any point, none of his family would have ever found out, and he could certainly get away with it as the viceroy of Egypt. Yet, he remained loyal to the faith of his forefathers.

Even at the height of temptation, when Yosef was propositioned by Zuleicha, Potifar’s wife, Yosef prevailed. At this crucial moment, the image of Yaakov appeared, fortifying Yosef with the ironclad willpower he so urgently needed. At this trying hour, it was the image of Yaakov that Yosef saw; he remembered the education and truths he had received from his father so long ago. This is why Yosef is singled out of Yaakov’s children, because he alone retained Yaakov’s values even whilst in faraway Egypt.

This carries a pertinent message about the level of influence we ought to have on our children, both physical and spiritual. Education is not merely about how a child behaves in school and at home, or in some other controlled and supervised environment. Rather, real education is where the values imparted are so strongly embedded within that, even in completely opposite circumstances, the child follows in the path of his forefathers. Every parent or educator must bear this in mind, leading by personal example and seeking to shape not only the child’s mind, but his very soul.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYISHLACH

Leave it to the Angels

 There are two ways of interpreting the beginning of the Parsha, where Yaakov sends forth Malachim. This translates simply as messengers, and leads to a dispute in the Midrash as to whether Yaakov sent forth human messengers, or heavenly angels. Rashi embraces one side of this debate, explaining that these messengers were literally angels. This seems intriguing, for Rashi generally adopts the simplest and least dramatic way of interpreting the Torah. In fact, in other contexts, Rashi explains that Malachim refers to messengers of flesh and blood (such as Chukas 20:14, where the Posuk says that Moshe sent Malachim to the king of Edom). What motivated Rashi to take for granted that these messengers were angels? Furthermore, why would Yaakov have used supernal angels for a task that could have easily been delegated to his own servants?

The Rebbe finds the solution in the following Halacha: Shulchan Oruch states that when a messenger is killed during his mission, the one who sent him forth must seek penance for having a hand in his death, even if completely unintended. If this is always true, how much more so in a situation where the danger was clear and apparent at the outset.

Now, Yaakov was acutely concerned that Esav wanted to kill him and wipe out his entire family. Indeed, according to many opinions, that is exactly what Esav had set out to do. That is why Rashi finds it utterly untenable to suggest that Yaakov sent forth earthly messengers, knowing the certain danger he was exposing them to once Esav would realise to whose camp they belonged. This compelled Rashi to explain that Yaakov’s messengers must have been angelic, and no harm could befall them.

The Rebbe derives a practical lesson from this, one which is relevant to each of us in our day and age. We all know that a key part of our mission and purpose is to interact with the material world and transform it into a Dirah Betachtonim. However, when we engage the world around us, we must do so only with our “messengers”, our external faculties, while ensuring that our minds and hearts remain in constant union with Hashem. Therefore, before dabbling in any materialistic endeavours, we must assess whether they present any spiritual danger that might overpower our “messengers”, and through them, our very selves. If any such danger is present, we must cease and desist, instead relegating the circumstance to a superior force of the quality of Yaakov’s angels.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYEITZEI

When Leaving is Coming

Our Parsha starts and ends with the angels. At the beginning of the Parsha, there is a handover among them, for the angels of Israel cannot accompany Yaakov into the Diaspora. Yet, at the end of the Parsha, Yaakov encounters these very same angels who have come out of Israel to escort him back to the Land. The problem is that Yaakov is still abroad, and not quite home yet. These angels of Israel – do they leave Israel or not?

The Rebbe observes that angels aren’t the only ones bound to the land of Israel. The Rambam rules that Jews of Israel may not leave either, but for three exceptions – to study Torah, to marry, or to escape persecution. The problem is that there seems to be a fourth exception in the Gemoro – to greet and accompany one’s parents who are bound for Israel. Why didn’t the Rambam list this exception?

The Rebbe explains that travelling abroad solely for the sake of escorting someone back into Israel cannot be regarded as “leaving Israel”. Even though one momentarily finds himself outside the geographic borders of the Land, the entire goal of the excursion is to promote and augment the settlement of Israel. Thus, permission to leave for this purpose is not regarded as an “exception” to the Mitzvah of living in Israel, but rather, its preservation. The same can be said of the angels of Israel; although forbidden from leaving the Land, they were very much allowed to venture forth and protect Yaakov on his return journey to Israel.

In similar fashion, the Rebbe explains that how we approach Golus will influence the type of angels that protect us. If we recognise that our presence here is exclusively to repair and illuminate the world, with the ultimate goal of bringing Moshiach and relocating to the Land of Israel, then our stay outside its geographical borders is ultimately in order to to settle the Land. In this case, we will be accompanied by the angels of Israel even as we find ourselves outside its borders. These superior angels will watch over us, protect us, and give us all the strength we need to overcome the challenges we face.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TOLDOS

No Pain No Gain

Would you throw your own mother under the bus? Willingly and knowingly? Would you accept it if your own children turned around and did the same to you? [Answer guide for the perplexed: No, no and no.]

When Rivkah encouraged Yaakov to masquerade as Esav, Yaakov initially refused, fearing that he would be unmasked and cursed. To this, his mother replied, “My son, let those curses be upon me.” All of a sudden, Yaakov is ready to go.

Yaakov was a doting son, and his mother’s welfare must have been of paramount importance to him. If Yaakov was so afraid of Yitzchak’s curse, then Rivkah’s proposition should have disturbed him all that much more! Why did he heed his mother’s words?

The Rebbe explains that Rivkah, with her words, was not merely accepting the risk of Yaakov’s actions. Rather, she was imparting a much deeper message to her son. By her own example, Rivkah was teaching Yaakov the importance of going beyond one’s comfort zone. 

As humans, we all crave the comfort and security of a steady and consistent routine. Why step outside of it, opening ourselves up to stress and anxiety, and the insecurity and fear of not quite knowing how things will unfold? Rivkah’s answer was that the best things always happen outside the comfort zone; the deepest blessings come with sacrifice. There is a big risk when we try, but there is a heavy price if we don’t try. To achieve big things, we must risk failure. It’s as simple as that.

Yaakov understood her message. He realised that if his mother was willing to risk the consequences, so should he. Thus, he forged ahead – not because he didn’t care about his mother’s welfare, but because he now understood the value of risking everything for the sake of these special blessings. And, ultimately, that is what made Yaakov worthy of receiving them.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH

Tweaking the Message

The Torah is so concise that many Mitzvos are conveyed in just one or two Pesukim. Yet, our Parsha tells us at length not only the story of Eliezer’s travels and well-side proposal, but his recounting of it to Lavan and Besuel. From here, Chazal derive that “the ordinary conversation of our Forefathers servants’ is more beloved to Hashem than the Torah of their sons”. Still, what insight and lesson are we to gain from the additional 15 Pesukim which recount Eliezer’s recounting?

The Abarbanel presents an incredible insight. If we carefully examine the two versions of the story, we will discover more than 10 significant modifications, and it becomes clear that Eliezer “tweaked” his version of events. Eliezer did not falsify a single thing, but he drew more attention to some elements of the story and de emphasised, or even omitted, other parts of the story. Here are just two examples:

In his instructions, Avraham referred to Hashem as the One “Who took me from my father's house and from the land of my birth.” Eliezer repeated this as the One “before Whom I walked”. The Abarbanel explains that Avraham’s departure from Charan many years earlier was still a sore point for the rest of the family. In hoping to score a Shidduch, Eliezer appreciated that it was best to leave some subjects unbroached.

Another example is the one where Eliezer emphasised that he arrived at the well “today”, which teaches us that had been privy to Kefitzas Haderech, the miraculous shortening of the journey. The Rebbe explains that Eliezer broadcasted this in order to impress upon Besuel and Lavan how even Hashem regarded this matter to be of paramount urgency, and that they should therefore not withhold Rivkah for even one day.

From Eliezer, we learn how a true Shliach operates: Since the role of a Shliach is to represent the messenger, one might have thought that the Shliach should precisely adhere to the exact framing of his instructions, without taking any personal initiative to appraise the situation and craft the message to best leave its mark on the recipients.

Eliezer tells us otherwise. Eliezer was the consummate Shliach, introducing himself as “Eved Avrohom Anochi; I am Avraham’s slave”. Eliezer well understood that it was Avrohom alone who plotted the charts, and Eliezer was fully committed to achieving the goals and objectives of Avraham. Yet, Eliezer also understood the importance of exercising his own independent judgment in going about the mission. He did not perform his role perfunctorily, but instead invested much wisdom, perception and sensitivity to tweak the message so that his listeners would not resist or doubt, but rather, take heart and accept the message. And so shall all of us.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYEIRA

Bentch or Pay Up!

Avraham demanded of his guests to thank Hashem after they had eaten their fill. If they refused, Avraham would counter with an ultimatum; either bentch, or pay an exorbitant sum for the luxury of a meal otherwise unattainable in the desert. The obvious question: What value is there in an unwilling proclamation of thanks to Hashem when it is devoid of conviction?

The Rebbe explains that Avrohom perceived each human being for what he or she truly was. Since each person is fashioned in the image of the Divine, his or her acknowledgment of Hashem can never be deemed insincere. At times, a person might be so influenced by his environment that a certain degree of “pressure”– in an appropriate manner – may be necessary, to realign who he thinks he is with who he really is. This is exactly what Avrohom sought to accomplish.

This powerful lesson can have many applications. Let us think about those areas of Yiddishkeit in which we may have perhaps slackened. Davening all the tefillos each day at the correct times with the correct intentions, not speaking during davening, maintaining a suitable standard of Kashrus, dressing like a Chossid etc. In theory, everyone knows about the importance of these matters. However, in practice, they may somehow fall by the wayside.

The reason for this kind of disconnect can often arise from not “feeling like it”, despite knowing how things ought to be. The lesson we take from our forefather Avraham is to align our feelings, convictions and the way we do things with the Pintele Yid inside us, and not the other way around. Even if this means that the individual has to “pressure” himself or herself a bit.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS LECH LECHA

The Rambam recounts the major accomplishments of our forefathers, and he attributes the Mitzvah of Maaser to Yitzchok. The Raavad is gobsmacked! How could the Rambam have ignored the Maaser of Avrohom? For, in this week’s Parsha, after Avrohom wins the battle against the four kings, he expresses his immense gratitude to Hashem by giving a tenth of all his possessions. In fact, Avrohom’s deed seems greater, because he gave a tenth of everything – servants, livestock, produce, assets and cash – whereas Yitzchok tithed just his agricultural produce. Furthermore, Avrohom’s Maaser is written explicitly in the Possuk whereas Yitzchok’s is just hinted at!

The Rebbe explains that Avrohom gave Maaser after Hashem showered him with supernatural miracles. With just 318 men, or according to the Midrash, with just Eliezer, Avrohom vanquished the world’s superpower, using hay and straw as his weapons. He clearly saw the Hand of Hashem, and to give Maaser must have surely been instinctive; it was the least he could do to thank Hashem.

Yitzchok, on the other hand, worked hard to harvest his crops. As the Torah says in Parshas Toldos, the terrain was bad, and the year had been a difficult one. There were no overt miracles, and Yitzchok had to grapple with nature. Only after much toil did he reap a splendid crop. It would have been so understandable for Yitzchok to regard it as the fruits of his own hard work, but he knew better. Yitzchok knew that as hard as a person might work, success is in the Hands of Hashem, and he too, instinctively gave Maaser, in gratitude to Hashem. 

That is why the Rambam states that Maaser is Yitzchok’s achievement, because the truest form of Maaser is when one appreciates that all his successes, even the ones that he has worked hard for, all come from Hashem.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NOACH

When a Flood Event is an Act of G-d

The Flood was not just a punishment. Had that been the entire objective, Hashem could have destroyed the evildoers in an instant and let the world carry on. Rather, the Flood functioned as a cosmic Mikvah, purifying the world from the rampant evil that pervaded it. Beyond cleansing our planet, the Flood also had a therapeutic effect on the world, submerging it in spiritual awareness and making it permanently receptive to Divine consciousness, ensuring that universal corruption could never recur.

This echoes the power of a Mikvah. On the most basic level, its purpose is to purify the impure. However, Mikvah also has the power to elevate even the purest of people. That is why, according to Kabbalah, going to Mikvah is one of the most fundamental keys in one’s Avodah.

Rabi Akiva tells us: “Just as a Mikvah purifies the impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish People!” Why does Rabi Akiva need to demonstrate Hashem’s ability to purify from a Mikvah? If anything, Rabi Akiva should have said the exact opposite: “Just as Hashem purifies the Jewish People, so does a Mikvah purifies the impure!” After all, a Mikvah’s capacity to purify stems from Hashem, and not the other way around!

The Rebbe answers that the laws of Mikvah teach us something about our purification by Hashem. When a person immerses, the Mikvah waters must touch every part of the body, with no intervening substance whatsoever. The Mikvah relays to us that the same is true of Hashem’s purification of the Jewish People – He does not delegate this task to an intermediary, be it an angel or saint. Rather, he does so Himself, enveloping every part of every person, which is why the effect is boundless and limitless. This, in turn, informs us about the power of going to Mikvah: No matter how lofty or lowly a person may be, he will be utterly transformed through the waters of the Mikvah, for its purification properties are as boundless and limitless as Hashem Himself.

Aside from going to Mikvah, there are other steps that we must take to flood our own little worlds with spirituality. We do this on an annual basis during the month of Tishrei, on a weekly basis each Shabbos, and daily when we daven and learn Torah. At these times, we must totally immerse ourselves, ensuring that no “barrier” or distractions intervene, and we thereby become receptive to unlimited refinement by Hashem Himself. Through this, we fortify ourselves with the purity we need to transform the earthier parts of our lives.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS BREISHIS

Our Ability is Beyond

Midrash Shiur Hashirim tells us that the letter Alef protested vigorously, for a period of 26 generations, with the bitter complaint that Hashem chose to begin the Torah with the letter Beis. Hasham eventually placated the letter Alef by situating it at the very beginning of the Aseres Hadibros. Now, the Alef’s claim is all the more compelling when we recall that to begin the Torah with the word Breishis seems to create more difficulty than by beginning it instead with the word Elokim (see Rashi and other Meforshim), which begins with an Alef. If so, why did Hashem begin the Torah with the letter Beis?

There is a rather famous explanation presented by the Rebbe: The Torah begins with the letter Beis to remind us that there is a prerequisite which comes before Torah study. This prerequisite is the knowledge and recognition that Torah is not just a cultural study or academic field, but rather, Hashem’s Wisdom, which transcends our own intellect.

However, there is another, lesser-known explanation. The Rebbe explains that the Torah starts with the letter Beis to make it clear that we are not on our own. From the very get-go, Hashem actively partners with our Torah study, equipping us with supernatural ability to learn on a level which is beyond our own capacity. Not only that, but Hashem actually takes the first stride, so to speak, and we only need to follow along, much like the letter Beis follows the letter Alef.

The Chassidic adage is well-known: “The way we set forth on Shabbos Breishis, so goes the rest of the year.” We just experienced the beautiful month of Tishrei, and this fortifies us with the drive and wherewithal to reconnect with Hashem’s Torah. It is a time where every Jew naturally desires to rededicate himself to more extensive Torah learning, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But our cynical side intervenes and remind us that “all beginnings are difficult”; our Yetzer Hara assures us that we will quickly revert to our old ways. To counter this, we just need to remember that we are the Beis that follows the Alef; we must follow Hashem’s footsteps and that will give us all the power we need in order to succeed.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS CHOL HAMOIED SUKKOS

Thinner! Thicker!

Chabad Chassidim layer the Schach thickly. This practice originates with the Alter Rebbe. Each year, when his Sukkah was constructed in Liozhna, the Alter Rebbe would urge his workers, “Thicker! Make the Schach thicker!” Similarly, the Rebbe Rashab and Frierdiker Rebbe would not only insist on a thick layer of Schach, but they also made sure to emphasise this verbally, with repeated instructions to this effect.

Chassidus teaches that the Schach derives, spiritually, from the smoke of the Ketores on Yom Kippur. Based on this, the Rebbe draws a further parallel – just as the Beis Hamikdash workers were continuously urged “crush it thinner, crush it thinner” as they pulverised the Ketores, so too, the Rebbeim would urge their Sukkah builders to “make it thicker, make it thicker”.

Yet, despite the parallels, there is also a major difference. The smoke of the Ketores emanated from the very finest and costly incenses, and it billowed forth only in the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, in which no Jew aside the Kohen Gadol had permission to enter. To the other extreme is the Schach – it is comprised of cheap agricultural waste, and it is laid out in the open, outside the home, accessible to anyone and everyone. Yet, somehow, the Schach is derived from the Ketores. The message, the Rebbe explains, is that the highest and loftiest revelations must manifest themselves in the very lowest and mundane of things.

Although the Rebbe does not go on to connect the dots further, perhaps we can suggest that this is why the Ketores workers were urged to make it thinner, for the Ketores represents the most refined and intangible of levels, whereas the Sukkah workers were urged to make the Schach thicker, for it represents the lowest, most crass and dense level of mundanity. (On a number of occasions, the Rebbe noted that a thick layer of Schach is perplexing from a Halachic perspective. The above explanation gives us an insight from a Chassidic perspective.)

The practical lesson is a simple one. A Jew may regard himself as having reached a state of spiritual perfection. The true litmus test to determine whether this is so is to consider how he interacts with the simplest of Jews around him. If he does not exhibit any warmth towards them, nor does he take an interest in their lives, this is the surest proof that there is much lacking within himself. For, as the Rebbe explains, a person who has achieved the highest and loftiest revelations will instinctively endeavour to share them with every Jew he can, especially the simplest and lowliest ones. 

Good Shabbos and Gut Moied,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS HA'AZINU

L’chatchila Ariber 
 
This Shabbos is the Hilullah of the Rebbe Maharash, marking his passing 140 years ago. One of the most famous sayings of the Rebbe Maharash is L’chatchila Ariber. In its entirety: “The world says that if you cannot crawl under an obstacle, try to leap over it. However, I say, leap over it in the first place!” 
 
The earliest written record of this teaching is in a letter of the Frierdiker Rebbe, written 46 years after the Rebbe Maharash’ passing. The Frierdiker Rebbe describes how this teaching fortified him to stand strong against the might and oppression of the Bolshevik Regime. However, it is interesting to note that this aphorism received scant attention before our times. It is the Rebbe who really shone a spotlight on it and turned it into one of the foundations and cornerstones of Chabad activity.
 
The Rebbe asks: Why did the Rebbe Maharash find it necessary to commence his statement with the world’s perspective? Who cares about what the world says? The Rebbe explains that, with this introduction, the Rebbe Maharash meant to negate the world’s perspective even when it comes to worldly affairs. The motto of L’chatchila Ariber applies not only to matters of Torah and Mitzvos, but even to the way a person approaches his mundane worldly affairs and dealings.
 
What does L’chatchila Ariber mean in our personal lives, practically speaking? At times, we are often faced with a task that we know is right, but our minds work overtime to convince us that it is too hard or not worth the effort. Or, we might look to avoid doing these tasks in an effort to keep a low profile. Mivtzoim, Tahalucha, Shabbos Mevorchim Tehillim, going to Mikvah before davening, committing to learn Chitas and Rambam – these are just a few examples of spiritual matters. L’chatchila Ariber tells us to stop thinking and start doing. When the opportunity for a good thing presents itself, we should just do it, without overthinking it or becoming self-conscious about it. When we do that, we will see our efforts crowned with success.
 
Good Shabbos and Gut Yohr,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYELECH

This Parsha teaches us about the Mitzvah of Hakhel – the “assembly” of the Jewish nation. Once every seven years, immediately following the Shemitah year, the entire nation – men, women, and children – would gather in the Beis Hamikdash to hear the king read the Torah. Conducted on the second day of Sukkos, the magnificent event was compared to receiving the Torah on Har Sinai. All who attended were inspired with love and awe of Hashem, and a renewed commitment to keeping the Torah and its Mitzvos. 

In our times as well, the Rebbe called attention to the concept of Hakhel to an extraordinary degree. In fact, the Rebbe would describe the entire year as a Shnas Hakhel; a year of Hakhel. Even though the Hakhel event in the Beis Hamikdash took place on only one single day, the Rebbe explained that its power is not limited to Sukkos, but affects the entire year.

The Rebbe instructed that awareness of Hakhel be raised at every possible opportunity and in every possible way, involving each and every man, woman and child. Leading by example, the Rebbe went to unusual lengths to draw associations between Hakhel and virtually every important day of the calendar. The Rebbe urged that every opportunity be used to conduct both community and family Hakhel gatherings in order to foster greater Achdus, as well as to increase the study of Torah and the fulfilment of Mitzvos – especially the giving of Tzedakah.

Thirty-five  years ago, someone wrote to the Rebbe that he feels purposeless and bereft of a shlichus. In his response, the Rebbe circled the word shlichus and remarked: “?! – I am making a great commotion about Hakhel activities. Have you not heard about this?” Let us make our best effort in fulfilling the Rebbe’s Shlichus.

Good Shabbos and best wishes for a גמר חתימה טובה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NITZOVIM

Woodchoppers and Watercarriers

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Moshe describes how all the Jews stood together – leaders, elders and officers; men, women and children; converts, woodchoppers and watercarriers. The last string of three sounds intriguing. If we’re going to mention the woodchoppers and watercarriers, why not include the tailors and the cobblers, the street-cleaners and the rubbish-collectors? Why are woodchoppers and watercarriers singled out? Furthermore, why are they listed alongside the converts?

Rashi explains that these woodchoppers and watercarriers were Canaanites who pretended to have travelled from faraway lands, and presented themselves before Moshe to be converted. Although they accepted the Torah fully and their conversion was valid, they did so under false pretences and with deceit, securing for themselves benefits that they, as members of the Seven Nations, were not entitled to. When their dishonesty was exposed, Moshe penalised these Canaanites, relegating them to serve as woodchoppers and water drawers. That is why the Posuk lists these woodchoppers and watercarriers as part of the broader category of converts.

The question remains: Why did Moshe specifically make them woodchoppers and watercarriers, and not anything else? The Alter Rebbe answers by delving into the symbolism of woodchopping and water-drawing. A woodchopper represents one who hacks away at the many thoughts that distract him from serving Hashem, for eitza (counsel) is etymologically linked to eitz (wood). Similarly, drawing water means to drain away one’s appetite for physical pleasures and enjoyment, which are all derived from the element of water.

Put simply, this is the image of one who has attained a single-minded focus on Hashem and His desires, to the point that he ceases to derive any pleasure from the physical world. One might claim that such lofty Avoidah is reserved for assiduous Torah scholars and pious men who do not engage with the physical world. But for professionals or businesspeople? How could they possibly strive for such a level whilst simultaneously transacting with the world around them?

The Rebbe emphatically rejects this contention. After all, let us remember who it was that Moshe elevated – the pretentious Canaanites who were very much submerged in the physicality surrounding them. Moshe’s ambition was to elevate every Jew to the highest spiritual plane, even those whose entire affiliation with Judaism began on the wrong foot. Indeed, this is because Moshe, as the leader of the generation, has the power to uplift every Jew. Similarly, in every subsequent generation, we can all attain this goal by strengthening our Hiskashrus to the Tzaddik of the generation.

Good Shabbos and best wishes for a כתיבה וחתימה טובה לשנה טובה ומתוקה; may you be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year.

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KI SAVO

The Poor Get Poorer?

“Poverty follows the poor!” The Talmud derives this sad fact from the laws of Bikkurim. Wealthy people would bring their first fruits in hampers of gold and silver, whereas the destitute would bring their more meagre produce in humble wicker baskets made of peeled willow. The rich would have their baskets returned to them, while the poor would not. Ultimately, this is derived from the verse in this week’s Parsha which states “And the kohen will take the basket from your hand” – if a farmer brought a simple basket such as the one described in the Possuk, the Kohen kept it, whereas if the vessel was more elaborate, he did not keep it.

What is the sense in making the poor give up their basket as well? Why is more imposed upon them than on the rich? Many explanations are advanced: Some explain that the container represents a person’s Parnassah – the rich received their expensive vessels back to signify that they should retain their wealth and continue to prosper, whereas the poor were divested of their pitiable baskets in a sign that their impoverished Mazal should be taken away from them, to be replaced with something better. Others explain that returning the baskets to the poor would require them to be emptied in the Beis Hamikdash, and they would be shamed when all would see the inferior quality of their first fruits. Still others explain that the first fruits of the poor were so paltry that their gift could not be considered respectable unless coupled with the basket, whereas the fruit of the wealthy was honourable in their own right.

The Rebbe presents a refreshingly different explanation: The Bikkurim represent the soul of a Jew and his lofty spiritual experiences, whereas the basket represents a Jew’s body and his materialistic interactions with the physical world. Hashem desires that we serve Him not just with our soul, but with our body too. More specifically, He desires that we elevate the lowliest things in physical existence, revealing the G‑dliness within the earthiest things. Thus, only the lowliest baskets of all are worthy of remaining with the Kohen in the Beis Hamikdash, for in them lies the ultimate objective. May we, too, reveal G‑dliness in the lowliest places, thus meriting the culmination of the Dirah B’Tachtonim, with the coming of Moshiach Now.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and best wishes for a K'siva v'Chasima Tova L'Shana Tova U'Mesuka,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KI SEITZE

Prepaid or Postpaid?

Elisha ben Avuiah once observed a father telling his son to climb a ladder and shoo away the mother bird, but the boy fell to his death. Elisha was stunned! How could the boy have died while fulfilling the very commandments for which the Torah promises long life – honouring one’s parents, and the mitzvah of shiluach haken (in this week’s Parsha)? This episode was one of the triggers that led Elisha to heresy, for which he infamously become known as “Acher”. Acher was wrong because the goodness and long life promised by the Torah is reserved for the times of Moshiach, who will usher in an era which is endlessly good.

This explanation seems completely at odds with another Mitzvah in this week’s Parsha. The Torah mandates that one must pay a worker’s salary on the very day he completes the job. If so, why doesn’t Hashem grant us reward as soon as the Mitzvah is done? Why do we need to wait for the World to Come? Surely Hashem keeps what it says in His holy Torah!

The Rebbe answers that each time we do a Mitzvah, the job is not truly finished. The ultimate purpose of each Mitzvah is to create a dwelling place for Hashem on earth. Indeed, once this objective is achieved in entirety, we will be immediately rewarded for eternity.

This only serves to raise another question: If our “wages” are payable only when Moshiach comes, how do we explain all the reward that Hashem promises us in this world, such as bringing the rains at the right time and letting the grains grow? The Rebbe explains that there are two types of recompense. The more obvious one is the profit accrued at the end of the job, but the other type enables the worker to do the job in the first place, such as to buy work-clothes and equipment. In similar fashion, Hashem promises us reward in the present moment to enable us to serve Him properly. That is not the ultimate reward, which is reserved for the World to Come.

In the prelude to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we daven that Hashem grant us a full “advance” of the first type of reward – health and Parnassah, children and the means by which to support them – so that we can observe His Torah and Mitzvos properly. And through our hard work, may we immediately merit the second type of reward, with the coming of Moshiach.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and best wishes for a K'siva v'Chasima Tova,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHOFTIM

Do You Own Your Body?

There is an intriguing paradox in Hilchos Eidus, the laws of testimony. On the one hand, there is the famous principle that “the admission of the defendant is like 100 witnesses”. When a defendant acknowledges that he owes money to another, his admission is regarded as the sturdiest evidence in the world, and nothing will now exempt him, not even 100 witnesses who say to the contrary.

On the other hand, two Pesukim in this week’s Parsha teach us that “a person cannot deem himself to be wicked”. If a person admits to transgressing a sin, we cannot mete out corporal punishment (e.g. death or lashes) in the absence of independent evidence, because one does not have the ability to self-incriminate in criminal matters.

What happens when these two rules go head-to-head? For example, if someone admitted that he stole, there is both a financial element (he admits to owing money) and a criminal element (he admits to transgressing). One might have thought that one rule now overrides the other, but that is not the case. Rather, palginan ldibureih, “we split his words”. We accept that he owes money (the financial element) but not that he stole it (the criminal element).

How are we to make any sense of this dichotomy? The Radvaz explains that a person owns his money, but not his body. He therefore has the right to claim whatever he wants about his money, but not about his body. This is apparent in another Halacha – there is no prohibition against squandering one’s financial assets (even though it is frowned upon), but there certainly is a prohibition in harming or neglecting the wellbeing of one’s body.

At the end of the day, everything belongs to Hashem – both body and money. If so, why did Hashem grant a person full ownership of his money but not his own body? The Rebbe presents two explanations:

First, a reasonable person would never delude himself into thinking that the money he owns is inherently his, because he can easily be separated from his assets. He didn’t necessarily own it yesterday, nor does he have any guarantee that he will own it tomorrow. However, a person can’t be separated from his body, and this may therefore lead him to believe that his body is “his”. The above Halachos underscore that even one’s own body belongs to Hashem.

Second, every Jew’s body is inherently imbued with the sanctity of Hashem, as opposed to money, in which G‑dliness does not inherently manifest. Thus, a person cannot assert ownership over his own body, for that would detract from its inherent G‑dliness. However, money has no innate holiness, and a person is thus granted more leeway in using it.

Needless to say, if someone who harms his own body is guilty of assailing Hashem’s holiness, how much more so one who harms another Jew. There is no place for any sort of violence against a fellow Jew, even – and especially – those who are closest to him, who he might regard as “his own”. This is patently wrong and an offence to the sanctity of Hashem itself. Through love of a fellow Jew, may we merit the coming of Moshiach, when the collective Jewish “body” will become whole and healed.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and best wishes for a K'siva v'Chasima Tova,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS RE'EH

“You shall not test Hashem” is what we read two weeks ago. Most commentaries understand this as an admonishment against doing Mitzvos with an expectation of reward. Sefer Hachinuch explains the reason for this prohibition – because reward is not guaranteed in this world, and because serving Hashem in such a manner will discourage a person when he feels that he was not sufficiently rewarded for his past Mitzvos.

Tzedakah is the one and only exception to this rule. Chazal derive from our Parsha that one should “give Maaser in order to become wealthy”. Similarly, Malachi prophesied, “Bring Maaser … and test Me with this, says Hashem; I will open for you the streams of heaven and pour down for you blessing until there be no room to suffice for it.” Why can we test Hashem with the Mitzvah of Tzedakah? Meforshim explain that the reward for Tzedakah is guaranteed in this world, and serving Hashem in such a manner will actually encourage a person to give more, when he beholds the dividends that he netted.

This, in turn, begs a more profound question: Why does Hashem reward us for Tzedakah in this world? Furthermore, we know that Tzedakah has a special association with the High Holiday season. For example, Elul is an acronym for a number of Pesukim, one of the most prominent ones alluding to Tzedakah. Similarly, the Rambam singles out Tzedakah when describing the conduct of Jews during the Period of Judgement.  What is the exceptional power of Tzedakah?

The Rebbe explains that we all face an insurmountable hurdle as Rosh Hashanah approaches. We are all to be judged on the basis of our merits, but which of our achievements can we truly call our own? If we learned Torah, it was with the intellect that Hashem gifted us with. If we davened with fervour, it was with the passion and spiritual sensitivity He imbued within us. If we walked or drove to Shule, it was with the legs or vehicle he provided us. And so on and so forth. Indeed, the Posuk says, “Everything is from you, and you gave it to us from your hand.” On what basis can we claim that we “deserve” blessing?

This is where Tzedakah comes in. We share our finances and resources with another person who does not have any inherent claim to it. We do so with altruistic kindness and do not demand of the pauper that he prove his worthiness or put forth a reckoning. This act allows us to turn to Hashem and request that He do the same for us, not only in the next world, but even in this.

This Elul, let us strengthen our adherence to calculating and distributing Maaser properly. Let us ingrain this Mitzvah in our children when they are still young, so that it will be easier for them to maintain as they grow older. Let us focus on the Halachic requirement to give Tzedakah prior to each Yom Tov, a practice which the Rebbe constantly emphasised. Through this, we should merit the ultimate charitable act from Hashem – the speedy coming of Moshiach.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS EIKEV

There is a well-known Segulah which involves 40 women baking Challah for the same cause. It seems there is no clear source for the Challah-baking part (which doesn’t necessarily negate the Segulah). Even so, there is a lot in Yiddishkeit about the number 40.

In the Torah, the first mention of 40 is in the context of the Mabul, which is linked to the purifying 40 Seah of the Mikvah. There is also the 40-year sojourn in the desert. Yet, the number 40 is showcased in Chumash nowhere more than in this week’s Parsha, where we learn that each of the three times Moshe ascended the Mountain, he was there for exactly 40 days and nights. What’s with the number 40?

Before arriving at the answer, the Rebbe notes that Moshe’s conduct has its echoes in our own Avoidah. Each of Moshe’s stints on the Mountain successively targeted another objective – Torah, Tefillah and Teshuvah. For us, too, the number 40 is ingrained in each of these quests. With regards to Torah, Chazal state that “a person realises the full intent of his teacher only after 40 years”. Similarly, the preferred age of ruling matters of Halacha is 40, and one acquires Binah at the age of 40. With regards to Tefillah, Chazal tell us (Brochos 34a) that the maximum time frame to daven for a specific request is 40 days. As for Teshuvah, the days of repentance (from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur) number 40, and various Rishonim state that Viddui must contain at least 40 stanzas.

What is it about the number 40? The Rebbe explains that 40 is the number of transformation, corresponding to the 40 days of the embryonic stage, i.e. from the moment of conception to the moment of formation. It takes a full 40 days for all the organs of a fetus to develop out of the seeds of conception, and a similarly-numbered timeframe of development is necessary in every single one of the examples listed above, which are all ultimately about achieving lasting change. This explains why Moshe spent 40 days on the Mountain, in order to fully develop his progression in the realms of Torah, Tefillah and Teshuvah.

Each year, the month of Elul ushers in a special prospect. The King comes into the field and awaits us, in order that we forge a renewed connection with Him. We are granted a full 40 days to achieve this, until Yom Kippur. True improvement is not defined by changing one’s habits for the better just once or twice. Only after 40 continuous days of complete engagement, focus and commitment, can we be certain that our newfound ambition has been sufficiently developed, and that our improved trajectory is authentic and sustained. This year, let us make the most of this opportunity.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VOESCHANAN

One of the most unnerving prohibitions of the Torah appears in this week’s Parsha: “Beware and watch your life very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life.” From here, the Sages derive the transgression of forgetting even one iota of Torah that he has ever learned. The Alter Rebbe codifies this in Shulchan Oruch (Talmud Torah 2:4): “Whoever forgets even one matter of his studies, i.e. he did not review his studies adequately, the verse considers it as if he forfeited his life.”

Why does the Torah prescribe such a severe punishment for such a seemingly small infraction? Could it possibly be that the Talmudist who forgot just one Daf of the 2711 he mastered is so much worse than a lowly robber or swindler, who does not forfeit his life for the offence he committed?

The Rebbe reminds us that “Torah is our life and the length of our days”. Every bit of Torah that one learns becomes part and parcel of his life. Forgetting any of it is thus akin to shedding a bit of one’s lifeforce. Thus, the consequences of forgetting one’s study is not retributive or punitive, but a simple matter of cause and effect.

This message appropriately coincides with the 15th of Av. Despite marking many events, Shulchan Oruch contains only the instruction to omit Tachanun, and the exhortation to increase one’s Torah study. As the Gemoro explains, this is because the summer days in the Northern Hemisphere begin to shorten, and the nights, which were “created for study”, grow longer. Thus, the lengthening nights usher in a new period of increased Torah study. Although, in Australia, we live in the opposite hemisphere, the mandate is the same. We must utilise every moment we can to increase our Torah knowledge, and to reinforce our recall of all that we have previously learned. Through this, may we herald in the era where “a new Torah will emerge from Me”, meriting a true Nechama with the coming of Moshiach now.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS DEVORIM

Josephus personally witnessed the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash, and he claims that Titus did not mean to destroy it. Rather, as the Roman army occupied the Beis Hamikdash, Titus hastily convened his war council to ponder strategy. Several generals vigorously pursued a scorched earth policy, championing the Beis Hamikdash’ destruction to subdue the Jewish revolt for good. However, other commanders cautioned against sacking the Beis Hamikdash, for it would cast the Romans as religiously intolerant, whereas leaving it intact would cement their standing as a cultured and enlightened people. Supposedly, Titus opted for the latter approach, proclaiming that he would never destroy the Beis Hamikdash, and that its destruction would be an incalculable loss. According to Josephus, it was the Roman infantry who could not contain their pent-up fury after five years of protracted struggle. It was they who defied their commander-in-chief in setting alight the conflagration that engulfed the Beis Hamikdash.

No one really takes this version of events too seriously. Josephus’ detractors believe that he distorted history in a vain effort to curry favour with his Roman warlord. His defenders assert that Josephus tempered his narrative in order to safeguard his own life, and in order to retain his good standing with the Roman government which he used to favourably intercede on behalf of his oppressed brethren.

Regardless, this question of the Beis Hamikdash’ fate has its echoes in Chazal. The 79th Chapter of Tehillim begins: “A song of Asaf… Nations have come into Your heritage, they have defiled Your Holy Temple, they have made Jerusalem into heaps.” Rashi cites the Gemoro’s question, “What is this song? Is it not a lamentation? … [The answer is that] this is a song and an occasion for singing, for He poured out His fury on the wood and stones and did not utterly destroy His children.” In other words, we thank Hashem for destroying the Beis Hamikdash and allowing our nation to survive, as opposed to the other way around.

In this light, the Rebbe demonstrates that Tisha B’Av contains two messages. On the surface, Tisha B’Av is a day which reminds us how we were severely censured and castigated for our sins. However, more subtly, Tisha B’Av conveys a deeply consequential message – that even at our lowest moment, Hashem chose us over the Beis Hamikdash. That is how the Keruvim, representing the relationship between Hashem and the Jews, lovingly embraced at the very moment that the structure surrounding them burned and collapsed.

Most years, the 9th of Av is devoted to openly mourning our loss, and the outward message of Tisha B’Av is the more overt one. However, this year, when the 9th of Av coincides with Shabbos, we do not display any signs of grief. In fact, in many respects, we must demonstrate our usual Shabbos joy, and then a bit more. On such a Kvius, the inner message of the Churban takes centre stage. We celebrate the glorious fact that Hashem chose us over all else, and we eagerly await the day when Hashem will make that profoundly obvious to all.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS MATOS MASEI

When was the last time a reserve bank crafted policy that improved every single citizen’s financial position and prospects, without exception? When was the last time a national medical or disability scheme truly catered to every individual circumstance? When did it happen that industrial relations produced only winners and no losers? And the list goes on.

One of the biggest challenges in leadership is driving the needs of a nation or community without trampling on the interests and welfare of any individuals. The larger or more diverse the collective, the harder this is to achieve, and there always comes a point at which compromise is necessary. The usual method is to accommodate as many people as possible, and to acknowledge the minority whose interests were compromised, reassuring them (or whoever will listen) that their sacrifice was well worth it for the sake of the greater good.

Matos-Massei describes the division and inheritance of the Land of Israel. To facilitate this process, a representative was appointed to act for each tribe. The curious thing is that these representatives were not appointed by their respective tribes, nor by Moshe Rabbeinu. Instead, their appointment came from Hashem himself. He even elevated them to the status of Nesi’im, conferring upon them the highest position of leadership. Why did Hashem so invest in a process that was essentially nothing more than a division of assets?

The Rebbe explains that dividing the land of Israel presented the type of challenge described at the outset. Every Jew surely wanted the best portion of the land – the one that personally suited him most. For leaders to accommodate every single person’s best interest was nothing short of a gargantuan task. In fact, it was humanly impossible. That is why Hashem intervened and personally appointed the leaders to represent their tribes, because with Hashem’s backing, everything is possible, and the division accommodated everyone’s personal situation perfectly.

From this, the Rebbe derives an important message about the directives of a Nossi to his followers. A Rebbe cares about the spiritual state of the community at large, and instructs his Chassidim to go all-out in achieving this mission. No Chossid should be so disillusioned as to think that his own welfare is being sacrificed in the process. With time and patience, he will eventually realise that, of all the people he impacted by following the Nossi’s instructions, it was his own self who was helped the most.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS PINCHOS

There is a census in this week’s Parsha, and Rashi explains its purpose with a parable. “A flock was attacked by wolves, and some sheep were killed. The shepherd counted the flock to know how many remained.” In similar fashion, Moshe counted the Jews to determine how many endured the punishment brought on by the sin with the Midianite women.

Many decades earlier, there had been another census, soon after the Golden Calf. Rashi there (Shemos 30:16) presents a somewhat different analogy, “A flock of sheep, treasured by its owner, was stricken with pestilence. When the plague died down, the owner instructed the shepherd to count the sheep, to know how many had survived.”

These parables are largely parallel, but there are some differences. One concerns the mode of attack – the punishment for the Golden Calf is likened to a plague, whereas the punishment in our Parsha is compared to a pack of wolves. Another, perhaps more notable, difference concerns who instigated the census. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, it is the owner, or Hashem, who asks the shepherd to conduct a census. However, in our Parsha, it is the shepherd himself, Moshe, who initiates the census.

The Rebbe explains the differences as follows: In the saga of the Golden Calf, Moshe wasn’t even present. Hashem had commanded him to be elsewhere, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the calamity. That situation is thus likened to sheep who are stuck with a deadly virus, which the shepherd is powerless to ward off. Since nothing at all could be expected of the shepherd, the owner feels the loss more acutely than the shepherd. That is why Hashem ordered that census, and not Moshe.

However, in our Parsha, Moshe was very much present at the time of the sin, and his role as a leader was to inspire the Jews for the good. The situation was thus akin to a flock attacked by wolves, where the entire role of the shepherd is to save his flock from beasts of prey. If a shepherd is not successful in fending off the marauding wolves, he will feel the loss more acutely than the owner, even if the attack was too relentless to defend against. That is why Moshe ordered this census, and not Hashem.

The Rebbe derives from this an important message, one which is most appropriate for the Three Weeks: Let us remember who these people were, the 24,000 who died in the plague. They were the very antithesis of Moshe and the morals that he stood for. They indulged in idolatry and debauchery, and then had the impudence to draw a parallel between their deeds and Moshe having wed a Midianite wife. Had Moshe adopted an “us versus them” mentality, he would have surely exulted in their downfall. But he didn’t rejoice at their loss. He was pained by their deaths, and sorely felt their absence. Moshe was clearly a leader who prized the life of a fellow Jew over all else. 

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BOLOK

Many a Shule around the world will likely boast a well-rounded group of highly intelligent people in attendance for Krias Hatorah – rabbis, scholars, philosophers, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants. And each year, at the height of Parshas Bolok, they will all sit still and listen in rapt attention to … a donkey’s speech. At the surface, it seems entirely out of character with every other story recounted in the Torah, which all project a certain aura of dignity, grace and gravitas. In this instance, it almost appears as if the Torah has veered into the arena of folk fable! Why would Hashem have wrought such a miracle and then have it transcribed for prosperity?

This problem seems all the more compounded when we remind ourselves that the whole episode seems to have accomplished nothing! Bilaam persisted in his journey to curse the Jews even after the Angel sought to stop Bilaam in his tracks! For what purpose did Hashem open the donkey’s mouth and allow the subsequent angelic revelation to Bilaam, when nothing was achieved thereby? This is especially problematic when we are reminded that Hashem performs miracles with scarcity, only as absolutely required and to the barest minimum.

The earliest glimmer of an answer can be gleaned by observing that, earlier in the Parsha, the name Elokim is used in all of Bilaam’s interactions with the Divine. It is only when the Angel sets out to obstruct the donkey that the name Hashem is used instead. Why the change? Rashi explains that Elokim denotes Hashem’s attribute of severity, whereas Hashem is associated with His abundant mercies. Hashem initially took a heavy-handed approach with Bilaam, and hence the usage of Elokim. But when He saw that Bilaam persisted in his evil mission, Hashem shifted His approach to one of mercy.

And it is at this point of the story that Hashem sends signal after signal for Bilaam to stop. The Rebbe explains that the signals started small and not overtly miraculous – Bilaam’s trusted donkey inexplicably veered off the path, then pressed into the wall, and then crouched and refused to move at all. With each time that Bilaam refused to reflect on why this was happening, Hashem sent a successive signal which was somewhat sharper and more pointed. And when the natural signalling didn’t lead anywhere, the signs started to become supernatural – first the donkey speaking, and then the Angel being revealed. With the donkey talk, the supernatural even swerved into the seeming surreal, as if Hashem was telling Bilaam, “Look at the ends I am going to in trying to shake some sense into you. See, even a donkey understands that you are heading towards self-destruction.”

The Rebbe explains that the eternal message is Hashem’s refusal to “give up” on a man as terribly wicked and vile as Bilaam. Hashem went out of His way, as it were, again and again, to save Bilaam from his own terrible decisions. How much more so, then, are we to never give up on a fellow Jew. Even if we feel that we have already tried, and perhaps tried again, the Torah tells us that we are never exempt from further tries – even if each successive try will require more effort than the previous one, and even to a point that is beyond our own nature and somewhat “unusual” or undignifying. Of course, no Jew is rotten the way Bilaam was, which means that the effort we expend will certainly lead to a positive result.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS CHUKAS

The Jews complained … yet again. This time, Hashem sent a swarm of venomous snakes to strike the Jews, and many died. In great haste, the Jews turned to Moshe and professed their regret, beseeching Moshe to intercede with Hashem. Hashem instructed Moshe to fashion a serpent and mount it on a pole, “and whoever is bitten may gaze at it and live.”

There can be no doubt that their healing came exclusively from Hashem. Indeed, the Gemoro explains, “Did the snake cause death or life? Rather, when the Jews fixed their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed, but if not, they would waste away.” Clearly, it was the Jews’ renewed focus on Hashem that wrought the cure. If so, what was the point of the copper snake?

The Alter Rebbe explains that when one faces sorrow and pain in life, he can react in one of two ways. The more impulsive response is to “be bitten” and wallow in the misery of the situation, or to try and run from it. These approaches will invariably lead one to “waste away”. The other response is to “gaze heavenward” and recognise where the suffering stems from. From our limited earthly vantage, the challenge is toxic and debilitating. However, when we remind ourselves that all our experiences arise from a higher reality, where all is G‑dly and good, we will be healed.

That is why the cure came about through the copper snake, the very viper that inflicted all the carnage in the first place. When the snake “down here” is disengaged from its source, it indeed looms noxious and nefarious. However, when we elevate and unify the snake with its source, it is no longer a destructive force of existence, but rather, a potent part of the G-dly reality. In similar vein, if we ever encounter painful realities around us (may we not!), we must remember that their true purpose is for the advancement of positivity.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KOACH

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Rashi remarks that “this portion is beautifully expounded in the Midrash of R’ Tanchuma”. Such a comment seems entirely out of character for Rashi. What triggered it? The Rebbe explains that Rashi is thereby signalling to us that we should not appraise Korach in too superficial of a manner. Yes, on the most basic level, Korach’s mutiny was one of the worst travesties committed by the Jews in the desert. Even so, Rashi reminds us that we should look beyond the basics, and delve deeply into Korach’s psyche and outlook. In doing so, we will discover that “this portion is beautifully expounded in the Midrash of R’ Tanchuma”. Indeed, the Midrash elucidates how Korach was driven by the noblest and loftiest of aspirations.

 =A subsequent Rashi analyses Korach’s lineage. In our Parsha, it is traced all the way back to Levi, and no further. Rashi explains that this is because Yaakov prayed that his name not be associated with conflict and discord. Yet, Rashi hastens to add, “And where is Yaakov’s name mentioned in connection with Korach? In Divrei Hayamim, which provides the pedigree of his descendants, Levites who worshipped Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash.” Here too, Rashi is not content with casting Korach as the absolute antitheses of Yaakov. Although Yaakov’s name cannot be associated with Korach in the context of the rebellion, we will eagerly conjoin their names in other contexts.

And then, several Pesukim later, Rashi asks: “Why did Korah, who was so astute, commit this folly?” The Rebbe challenges the premise of this question: On what basis does Rashi presume that Korach was wise and astute? After all, everything we know of Korach is recounted in this week’s Parsha, and it is entirely a story of attack against Hashem and Moshe, which doesn’t seem too prudent. The Rebbe explains that Korach’s acumen can be perceived within his very folly. If we evaluate Korach’s objectives, we will easily see that they were lofty and well-placed, so much so that even Moshe conceded to Korach, “You seek the kehunah gedolah! I too desire that!” True, Korach’s ambitions did not manifest themselves in the wisest of ways, but they ultimately stemmed from a place of wisdom.

All of these insights reflect the same message: Don’t judge a Jew superficially. Again and again, we are reminded that Korach was not the irredeemable rascal he is commonly made out to be. In similar fashion, the Rebbe teaches us that whenever we interact with a Jew who seems spiritually challenged, we must love him and embrace him, cherishing him and showering him with warmth and affection. We must view him as a great human being, simply because he truly is. Even if it is not initially obvious, it will come to the fore if our interactions affirm this.

This Shabbos is Gimmel Tammuz, when all of us will reflect upon the Rebbe’s leadership, and what it means to us. At every step of the way, the Rebbe concerned himself with the plight of all individuals, communities and broader society, promoting every kind of outreach and support to Jews of all stripes. In the course of this, the Rebbe saw each and every single one of us as the unique, precious, individuals that we truly are. As his Chassidim, the Rebbe empowers us to do the same.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS MEVORCHIM TAMMUZ PARSHAS SHLACH

Nowhere in this Parsha is there actually any reference to spies, or spying. Rather, there is a group of men who are instructed to “scout” the land. Only in Parshas Devarim, when Moshe recounts the saga some forty years later, does he describe them as “spying”. It is solely based on Moshe’s retelling of this story that these men are perpetually remembered as Meraglim. Why the shift in language?

Although appearing to be similar, scouting and spying are very different. Scouting is purely about reconnaissance, where one gathers data and transmits it back to headquarters, and nothing more. Espionage takes intelligence to a whole new level, wherein the spy uses his own skills and shrewdness to achieve the objective, and in fact, often uses his own discretion to adjust the objective. The mistake of the Meraglim was that they were appointed as scouts, but they acted as spies. Thus, Parshas Shlach, which spells out their mission, describes them as scouting, whereas Parshas Devarim, which identifies their mistake, portrays them as spying.

The Rebbe explains that the difference between scouting and spying starts off subtly enough, but leads to results which could not be more starkly opposite: A scout accepts that the mission is fixed and unchangeable, and he is solely focussed on aligning the facts on the ground to the mission. A spy, on the other hand, utilises his own judgement to realign the core mission to the facts on the ground.

The Meraglim were tasked with implementing the Word of Hashem to conquer the land, but they needed to contend with the reality of an unconquerable land. Their role was to act as scouts, aligning the physical reality with the truth of Torah. Instead, they did the reverse; they sought to bend the truth of Torah to match the physical reality. In doing so, they acted as spies, using their own prudence to change the charter of their mission. Thus, although these erstwhile men of distinction had not set out to sin flagrantly, they wound up contravening the Word of Hashem and denying the truth of the Torah.

This contains a supremely important message for our times. There is so much in the world around us that doesn’t easily conform with the world of Torah. It would be all too easy to live in only one of these worlds and ignore the other. However, our mission is to bridge these two realms. And in doing so, we must at all times align the world’s reality to Torah’s reality, and not the other way around.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BEHA'ALOSCHA

Who made the Menorah? He did. That is what the Posuk affirms at the outset of our Parsha: “He constructed the Menorah, according to the design that Hashem showed Moshe.” But who is he?

Rashi’s two explanations only seem to confound things. His first explanation is that “he constructed the Menorah” refers “to the one who made it”. For real? It was known all along that someone made the Menorah, and the question was who? How do Rashi’s words clarify anything? Rashi’s second explanation is that the Menorah “was made by itself, through Hashem.” This phrase seems oxymoronic – if Hashem made it, then it was not made “by itself”!

The key to decrypt this enigma is to remind ourselves that, in tasking us with constructing the Menorah, Hashem was asking us to do the unattainable. As the Midrash spells out, even after Moshe was shown a fiery image of the Menorah, he could not fabricate it, because its design was an engineering impossibility. That is why, at the end of the day, Hashem produced it. If so, why did Hashem instruct us to fashion it in the first place?

The Rebbe explains that this episode portrays our respective missions in the world. Hashem charges each of us with a task so grand that it is humanly impossible to execute. Nevertheless, all Hashem wants of us is to do our truest best. We need to fulfil the mission to the fullest extent that we can, at which point He will step in and crown our efforts with success. At no point are we absolved from seeing the mission through, and we will triumph only if we do our part. This modus operandi personifies the inherent bond between each Jew and Hashem, one in which Hashem craves the “partnership” of each Jew.

This collaboration can be easily construed from the words of Rashi. His first explanation is that “he constructed the Menorah” refers “to the one who made it”. Here, Rashi is referring to the person most involved in its production – Betzalel. Even so, Betzalel is not mentioned by name, for he didn’t create the Menorah independently, and thus cannot take the credit for bringing this project to its fruition. But neither did Hashem cast His involvement as an open act of G-d, for that would have completely eclipsed the human role. Rather, the Menorah’s fabrication seemed “routine”, and Hashem’s hand was not overtly apparent. This leads into Rashi’s second explanation, that the Menorah “was made by itself, through Hashem.” Although the Menorah was ultimately the work of Hashem, He nevertheless allowed the perception that “it was made by itself”, so as not to detract from Betzalel’s role.

A Chossid embodies this doctrine. On the one hand, he undertakes to do all the impossible things demanded of him, and he appreciates that he must achieve truly supernatural results in all the manifold, and sometimes contrasting, tasks at hand. At the same time, when he does achieve success, he does not assume personal credit, but rather attributes his successes to Hashem.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NASO

In this week’s Parsha, the Nesi’im donated six wagons and twelve oxen to transport the Mishkan. Relatively speaking, the wagons were tiny. The Gemoro analyses the dimensions of the wagons against the components of the Mishkan, and demonstrates that the loads protruded from the wagons on every which side. In fact, had the wagons been even a drop smaller, the loads on top would have come crashing down.

The Nesi’im were considerably wealthy, and one would expect them to have donated generously. Surely, they could have obtained many more wagons – and bigger ones too!  Why was their donation so meagre?

The Rebbe explains that making a Sanctuary for Hashem requires its components to be used to the utmost. Any underutilised item is simply not serving Hashem completely, to its fullest capacity. Therefore, the Nesi’im limited their donation to the smallest six wagons feasibly possible, since any more would mean that each wagon was not being used to its fullest potential.

This message is especially appropriate for our generation. Boruch Hashem, we live in an age where so much can be achieved with our strengths and talents by maximising our time and energy. Our mission is to utilise all of our resources to elevate and sanctify the world, and it is not enough to do this most of the time, or with most of our ability. True service of Hashem means to push ourselves, and our resources, to maximum capacity.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS Bamidbar & Shavuos

Achitophel was famous for his profound wisdom – he served as an advisor to Dovid Hamelech and led the Sanhedrin. Indeed, Tanach portrays his sagacity this way: “Now, the advice Achitophel gave in those days was like that of one who inquires of the word of Hashem.” 

But he is also infamous for joining Avshalom’s revolt and deserting Dovid Hamelech. When Achitophel eventually concluded that the revolution would end in failure and its ringleaders would be punished, he escaped to his family home to commit suicide. Before committing this fatalistic act, Achitophel instructed his children three things: Do not quarrel. Do not rebel against the house of Dovid Hamelech. And if Shavuos is a clear day, sow wheat.

One can certainly appreciate the sentiment behind Achitophel’s first two pieces of advice. He was warning his children not to repeat his own mistakes in his pursuit of ambition. But what on earth did he mean with his third piece of advice? Right before he strangled himself, the best legacy to bequeath his family was agricultural advice? In any case, Shavuos is the time of the wheat harvest – clearly a little late to think about sowing the wheat.

In a letter penned in 5709 (1949), the Rebbe explains that Achitophel always placed his own personal view and agenda ahead of his commitment to Hashem’s Will. This was even true of his Torah learning. Although Achitophel was renowned for his wisdom, he would often utilise it to trump tradition. On his deathbed, he finally realised the folly of his ways. And this is how he told it to his children:

Wheat is a metaphor for wisdom. As the Midrash says, the Tree of Knowledge was wheat. Similarly, until a child has partaken the taste of grain, he cannot engage in speech, which is the hallmark of human intelligence. Shavuos, however, cannot be just about wisdom, for the Torah was already studied by our forefathers in the generations prior to Mattan Torah. Rather, Shavuos is about commitment and submission to the Higher Will; to learn Torah the way He wants and not the way we want. Shavuos is about our pledge of “Naaseh V’nishma – we will do, and we will listen”, prioritising our acceptance of the yoke of Heaven as a prerequisite to learning His wisdom. So, Achitophel told his children that only after “Shavuos is clear”, i.e. only after you have internalised Kabbolas Ol and the innate humility it represents, only then will your “wheat” – your wisdom – grow successfully

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS MEVORCHIM SIVAN PARSHAS BECHUKOSAI SHABBOS CHAZAK

The beginning of the Parsha reads somewhat repetitiously: “If in My statutes you walk, and you observe My commandments … I will give your rains in their time.” Isn’t walking in Hashem’s statutes synonymous with observing His commandments? To resolve this anomaly, Rashi explains that “walking in My statutes” refers to toiling in the study of Torah, whereas “observing My commandments” refers to fulfilling the Mitzvos.

In addressing one problem, Rashi seems to usher in another problem. Although the Posuk indicates that it contains two imperatives – studying Torah and keeping Mitzvos – on what basis does Rashi add that one must toil in their study of Torah? Perhaps the Possuk speaks of one who learns Torah constantly, deeply and thoroughly – but without strenuously overexerting himself?

The Rebbe answers this by pointing to an obvious fact – the study of Torah is itself a Mitzvah. Not only is there a Mitzvah to learn Torah every day, but at every available moment. Now, had our Possuk merely meant the general Mitzvah of studying Torah, there would have been no reason to single it out at all, as it would have already been implied from the second part of the Possuk which speaks of observing all of the commandments. Rather, the Torah study referred to in the first part of this Possuk must be something beyond the general requirements of this Mitzvah. That is how Rashi deduces that the Possuk refers to toiling in the study of Torah, to a degree which goes above and beyond the core Mitzvah of Torah study.

But why does everything have to be so difficult? Why is it not good enough to learn Torah at a calm and measured pace, and only to the complexity that one finds pleasurable? After all, the objective of study is the result it culminates in – knowledge and expertise – which may or may not require strenuous effort! If someone who is academically inclined can achieve much depth and breadth even without toil, is there really so much more to be gained by pushing beyond his natural aptitude? One is still discovering the Word of Hashem and connecting with Him!

This question is answered by the very next word of the Possuk – “If in My statutes you will walk.” Learning Torah without effort may satisfy one’s academic curiosity, but it will not lead him to walk – to advance and reach new heights. Only through toil will the Torah become deeply engraved within him, giving him the boost to keep on advancing from level to level. One’s focus will no longer be on “how much Torah did I study?”, but rather, on “what did the Torah teach me?”

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BEHAR

The opening of the Parsha reads like a paradox, “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbatical year for Hashem. For six years you may sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbatical year for Hashem.”

The first sentence makes it appear that Shemitah is observed as soon as you come to the land. For, before even saying anything at all about working for six years, the Torah is already talking about observing Shemitah. On the other hand, it is clear from the continuation that Shemitah is not observed until the seventh year. What are we to make of this?

More often than not, our spiritual achievements are attained only through a lot of physical legwork. Before embarking on any such project, it is imperative to ponder the ultimate spiritual purpose of the entire physical exercise. Only then will our physical undertakings be infused with the proper inspiration and self-motivation, and only then will the outcome meet expectations, or even surpass them. That is what our Parsha is telling us. “When you come to the land, before you set out to do any sowing or pruning, think about the seventh year. It will be a ‘Sabbatical year for Hashem’, a year when all the fruits of your physical labour will be elevated, allowing your own relationship with Hashem to be upgraded. Only after you have given this your full consideration may you proceed to work the land for six years, for only then will your hard work and effort indeed consummate in the Shemitah year.”

This message is applicable to so many aspects of our lives, where our spiritual achievements materialise from the physical: Every single week, we work for six days, and this gives us the boost we need to intimately connect with Hashem on the seventh day. When raising our children, we focus on their physical needs at first, but with the aspiration of developing them spiritually at the right time. When someone turns to us for assistance, we first concern ourselves with his physical necessities before worrying about their spiritual insufficiencies. The message of this week’s Parsha is the importance of prior reflection about the ultimate objective. For only then will we be fortified with the devotion, passion and commitment that the task requires, and only then are we assured of eventual success.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS EMOR

This week’s Parsha contains the imperative of burying a Meis Mitzvah, a corpse that no one is tending to. Although the Torah has strict prohibitions against certain individuals (Kohen Gadol, regular Kohen, Nazir) becoming impure, these prohibitions are all pushed aside to bury a Meis Mitzvah.

There is a fascinating story about Rabbi Akiva, which he later described as one of the most defining moments of his life. The episode took place at the very beginning of his association with the Torah sages, when he still knew very little of Torah and its laws. “One time I was travelling along the road and encountered a Meis Mitzvah. I devoted myself to it, carrying it for four Mil (approximately four kilometres) until I reached the closest cemetery, where I buried the corpse. When I relayed this deed to my teachers, R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua, they rebuked me, ‘Every step you took caused his blood to be spilled anew.’” Their sharp reaction was owing to the fact that a Meis Mitzvah must be buried at the very location where it is found. By bringing the corpse to the closest cemetery, R’ Akiva delayed its burial and prolonged the agony of its soul. 

The most captivating part of this story is R’ Akiva’s reaction. A lesser person would probably have felt deep shame, which might then give way to self-pity, and ultimately bring him to question whether it had been worthwhile to enter the world of the Torah and its Sages. Even if one persevered, he would probably seek to bury the incident for good. But not R’ Akiva. He would retell this story to his students, pronouncing at its conclusion, “This was the beginning on my merit!” For it was this saga that made R’ Akiva realise just how much knowledge and dedication is required to get things right. He saw firsthand how, despite the most noble of intentions, he had actually committed an unwitting wrong. R’ Akiva looked at this failure as the stepping-stone to success.

R’ Akiva’s attitude is apparent in the Lag B’Omer story. 24 years of hard work earned him 24,000 students. Yet, in a span of just a few weeks, they all passed away, and not a single one remained alive. In one fell swoop, the fruits of 24 years of exertion vanished! Thus, the Pri Chadash questions why Lag B’Omer is a cause for celebration, given that the end of the plague left R’ Akiva completely bereft, with absolutely nothing to show for all his hard work! 

The answer is because R’ Akiva was not defeated. He did not give up. He did not succumb to feelings of denial, anger, defeat and despair. Quite the contrary! On the very day that the last of his 24,000 students died, he went forth and sought five new students. They were destined to become the leaders of the next generation, to whom all of subsequent Jewish practice owes its existence. And that is most certainly a cause for celebration!

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS KEDOSHIM

When a tree is planted in the land of Israel, its fruit will progress through three stages. For the first three years, one may not derive any benefit from the fruit, and it is designated as Orlah. In the fourth year, the fruit is conferred with the sanctified status of Revai, and must be eaten within the hallowed walls of Yerushalayim. From the fifth year onward, the fruit may be consumed without any restrictions or requirements. In conveying this last detail, the Torah states (19:25) “And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, in order to increase its produce for you.”

The language of the Posuk indicates that the Torah is not merely assuring us a reward. Rather, the entire purpose of all three stages is in order to increase the produce of the fifth year and beyond. On the surface, this seems perplexing – why is the aim of this long process to increase the unsanctified produce? If anything, it would seem that the sacrosanct fruit of the fourth year is far more important than the mundane fruit of the years that follow!

The Rebbe explains that although the fruits of the fourth year are the holiest, they are not the ultimate objective. This is because Hashem did not put us in this world merely to revere the holy, but rather, to sanctify the ordinary. Consequently, the Torah is more fixated on the produce of the fifth year.  When one freely chooses a way to utilise this mundane fruit in his service of Hashem, the Torah extolls “in order to increase its produce for you.”

The same three-stage process is true in our own lives as a whole, and indeed, applicable to every day of our lives. The Orlah fruit tells us that we must first undergo a stage of abstinence to disassociate from the Kelippos, in order to avoid becoming bogged down when engaging them later. Then, the Revai fruit tells us that we must “journey away” from day-to-day life and fortify ourselves within the hallowed walls of Torah study and Tefillah, to the point of experiencing spiritual ecstasy. Nevertheless, the entire goal is the fruits of the fifth year, and the first two stages prepare us to be successful in that bid. We must always remember that Hashem did not put us in this world merely to revere the holy, but rather, to sanctify the ordinary.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS MEVORCHIM IYAR PARSHAS ACHAREI MOS

What happened on the 28th of Nissan? Every Lubavitcher surely knows the answer to that one! On this day, in the year 5751, the Rebbe urgently instructed us to do everything we can to bring Moshiach. “All that I’ve done until now has not yet attained the goal of Moshiach’s arrival. The only thing I can do is to give this over to each and every one of you! Do everything you can – activities driven by the intensity of tohu, but expressed through the framework of tikkun – to bring Moshiach immediately!”

Another pivotal event of this day occurred many centuries prior. When the Jews entered Eretz Yisroel for the first time, they marched around the fortified walls of Yericho for seven days, with the kohanim sounding the shofar and carrying the Aron. On the seventh day, the 28th day of Nissan, the walls crumbled and the city was conquered. The beginning of this seven-day-period coincides with the 22nd of Nissan, the day on which a ray of Moshiach is revealed and we celebrate the Seudas Moshiach, and the last of these days coincides with the 28th of Nissan, the day on which the Rebbe urged us to bring Moshiach.

The Rebbe explains that Yericho is etymologically related to the word Reyach, which means smell. In Kabbalah, the sense of smell is regarded as a transcendent faculty, yet one which is intimately connected with one’s very core. A simple manifestation of this: When a person smells something, it does not become a part of him in the same way that food does; it cannot be “captured” by the body. Nevertheless, the sense of smell has the power to revive someone from a strong faint, reconnecting the core of his soul with the core of his body.

Our task on the 28th of Nissan is to first complete the conquering of Yericho – to extract that firm attachment we may have towards matters of worldliness. Then, we must imbue our core, the level of Yechida, with the qualities of Moshiach, about whom it says, “he will smell and judge”. By serving Hashem with not just our intellectual and emotional faculties, but by immersing our very core in matters of Torah and Moshiach, we will bring Moshiach now!

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS acharon shel pesach

"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. May we speedily recite Shehecheyanu for the coming of Moshiach!

Wishing you a good Shabbos and Kosher un Freilichen Pesach, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PESACH

One of the most eagerly anticipated guests at the Seder is Eliyahu Hanavi. He visits every single venue where the Seder is conducted, and a special cup of wine is poured for him, the Kos Shel Eliyahu. His only other regular advent is at every single Bris, where a special chair is reserved for him, the Kisei Shel Eliyahu, earning him the title Eliyahu Malach Habris. What is so uniquely special about these two Mitzvos?

Let us preface by noting several other unique qualities shared by the Mitzvos of Bris and Korbon Pesach. 1) They are the only two positive commandments for which the punishment is Kares. 2) One may not partake of the Korbon Pesach if any male family member does not yet have a Bris. 3) Korbon Pesach and Bris were the two Mitzvos that the Jews kept as a prerequisite to departing Egypt. This is why the liturgy of both the Seder and the Bris contains the verse (Yechezkel 16:6): “And I passed by you and saw you downtrodden with your blood, and I said to you, ‘With your blood, live,’ and I said to you, ‘With your blood, live.’” The repetition at the end of the Posuk refers to two types of blood – that of the Korbon Pesach and that of the Bris.

In a letter dated 11 Nissan 5730, the Rebbe sheds much light on the connection between these two Mitzvos. More than any other, these Mitzvos characterise the intergenerational family link. The Bris is a Mitzvah which an eight-day old can perform only with the logistical help and care of his parents. In reverse fashion, the Korbon Pesach can be consumed by an adult only if every male family member – even the babies – have a Bris. In similar fashion, the entire Seder revolves around the parents focusing on the children – the Four Questions, the Four Sons, and the Mitzvah of telling the Pesach story to the children.

This conveys an important message: Chinuch, Jewish education, does not evolve organically, nor can it be cultivated exclusively by the influence of the immediate environment, or even the school that the child attends. More than anything, Chinuch requires the direct involvement and investment of the parents. Nothing can match the inspiration provided by the immediate family.

More specifically: The Bris teaches us that the parents are the one who need to etch Jewish identity into the very physique of the child, and bring him into an eternal covenant with the Creator, from the very youngest of ages. The Korbon Pesach teaches us that the special protection it afforded against the damaging forces unleashed the night before the Exodus, as well as the freedom that it culminated in, is available only to those who have introduced their children into the fold. The relevance of these blessings is not limited to the year 2448, but to our own times as well, when we still battle the turbulence of Golus.

May we all merit the ultimate appearance of Eliyahu Hanvi, as he tangibly reveals himself before us to herald the imminent arrival of Moshiach!

 

Wishing you a good Shabbos and Kosher un Freilichen Pesach, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS METZORA

Afflictions can be a source of good news. That is what emerges in this week’s Parsha, where Rashi frames home-afflictions as a means through which to discover the treasures that the Emori people hid in advance of the Jewish conquest.

Yet, the Emori are only one of the seven nations conquered by the Jews. Why does Rashi single them out? The Rebbe explains that this is because the word Emori is etymologically related to the word Emor, which conveys a general directive: “Speak!”

Speech is inextricably linked with Tzoraas, as it is the tool for gossip, slander, put-downs and defamation. There are many prohibitions related to speech – Lashon Hara, Motzi Shem Ra, Rechilus, Halbanas Panim, Onaas Daas, Gneivas Daas etc. In our times, we do not have to look too hard to witness the great harm caused by too much prattling on all forms of media. Hence, it comes as no surprise that one approach to managing speech hinges upon the aphorism “I have found nothing better for the body than silence”. Or, as Mishlei puts it, “In an abundance of words, transgression will not be avoided, and he who holds back his lips is wise.” If speech is irredeemable, just shut it off. Be quiet!

However, the Rebbe explains that taking such an approach to the extreme short-changes the value of speech, and at the same times, does not adequately solve the problem. Instead, the Rebbe postulates an entirely different way of channelling speech: In addition to remembering that malicious speech represents the lowest impurity, we must recall that speech leads to the richest treasures. If we would only realise the power of the words we say, and the treasures wrought through them, we would speak incessantly – for the good.

One obvious way to channel speech positively is through Torah and Tefillah. Less apparent, but no less important, is the tremendous power of our praise and compliments. This is not too hard; the only thing required is to truly pay attention to others, and then you are bound to perceive their gifts, talents or potential. The favourable words you share will awaken within others a desire and determination to live up to your kind and honest belief in them. Your words will fortify them with the confidence to overcome hurdles, and you will inspire their greatest successes. Speech, the very instrument that can wreak such havoc, is also the means through which to uncover the greatest treasures.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and Kosher un Freilichen Pesach, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TAZRIA

“There is no greater evil than leprosy,” proclaims Sefer Yetzirah. According to the Gemoro (Pesachim 67a), that is why a leper must sit outside the city, away even from those afflicted with other forms of impurities. Most in Tanach who were afflicted with Tzoraas were rotten to the core – Kayin, Naaman, Geichazi and King Uziahu. Similarly, the Gemoro (Yoma 11b) tells us that leprosy of the home can be a punishment for one who claims to have no possessions to lend others; they are now all removed from his home into the public eye.

In light of the above, the Rebbe explains why the laws of Tzoraas are divided into two Parshiyos. Parshas Tazria details all the types of afflictions, but by the Parsha’s end, we still have no idea how to purify any of them. This is purposeful, to convey that these contaminations are inherently unfixable, maladies that are truly without a remedy. Then comes the major novelty of Parshas Metzorah –Kedusha has the power to rectify these inherently irredeemable problems. This explains the split into two separate Parshiyos – Tazria closes the chapter on Tumah to indicate that these problems are incurable, and Metzorah then teaches how to overcome such malevolence through the power of Torah.

 There is a major problem with this, something that doesn’t quite fit this pattern. For, after the Torah finished describing, in Parshas Metzorah, how leprosy is purified, the Torah then goes on to tell us about the affliction and purification of houses. This spawns many questions: Why do the home-afflictions appear after the purification process of all other forms of Tzoraas, confounding the above pattern? Why are the afflictions of the home immediately followed, without interruption, by its own purification process? By extension, why do home-afflictions appear sandwiched between purification – that of the regular Metzorah and that of the home? Lastly, unlike other forms of leprosy, which the Torah regards as completely bad, the status of home-afflictions seems more nuanced: On the one hand, Rashi tells us that home-afflictions were a means through which to discover the treasures of the Amorites. On the other hand, the Zohar says that home-afflictions are caused by a very lowly spirit of impurity. How could both be true?

 The Rebbe explains that it is all a matter of perspective. When it comes to the afflictions on a person’s own skin, or on his own clothing, he is either “inside the problem” or “close to the problem”. From that viewpoint, the problem is perceived as completely debauched and incorrigible, and the fact that the Torah has a fix comes as a complete surprise.

A house is more transcendental, further away from the person. It represents a look at the problem from “high above”. A high-level perspective allows one to perceive that the raison d'être of the lowly impurity was, all along, to lead to a great treasure. From this vantage point, afflictions are not only fixable, but that is their entire purpose. This is why the lowly impurity of home-afflictions is inextricably linked with finding treasures, and that is why it appears in the Torah sandwiched between two passages of purification.

 Although unstated in this Sicha, we can perhaps draw a lesson from this about the importance of perspective. At times, we may perceive things as irredeemably bad. That is usually because we are “inside the problem”, or at least “close to the problem”. To arrive at a solution, we need to tap into a higher perspective, one which is conveyed to us by Chassidus.

 We are currently navigating turbulent events worldwide. This has the flow-on effect of challenging many people, both in their personal lives as well as in profoundly shaping their worldview. The Rebbe gives us the tools to see it all as a preparation for Moshiach. By learning Chassidus in general, and the Torah of the Rebbe specifically, we can trade in our own narrow and depressing “within in the problem” perspective for a broader, far more optimistic and uplifting, high-level perspective.

Wishing you a good Shabbos, 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHEMINI

There is so much mystery and enigma that surrounds the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah. Why does a dead person impart impurity? Why is this rectified only through ashes? Of a Cow? Which is red? Actually, completely red? And why are the ashes effective only when mixed with water? Specifically, spring water?  In an earthen vessel? And why must it be sprinkled exclusively with hyssop? It is little wonder that even Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, described his intellectual encounter with this Mitzvah with the assertion, “I said, ‘I will become wise,’ but it remained far from me.”

Perhaps the most startling facet of this Mitzvah is its capacity to render so many people impure. Which people? The very people who expend so much effort to prepare the ashes of the Parah Adumah in the first place! As the Mishnah states, “All who are involved (in the slaughter, burning and gathering of ashes) of the Parah Adumah become impure until evening.” What is the logic, or fairness, in this? Why should the very people who work so hard to purify others themselves become impure?

The Rebbe explains that there is a powerful lesson here. Circumstances often put us in a position where we can help “purify” others who are battling an “impurity” – be it difficulty with relationships, with Yiddishkeit or Chassidishkeit, a workplace struggle, mental health or physical health battles, etc. In stepping up to the plate, one might choose to come from a place of “purity” and give (usually unsolicited) advice, or worse, pour on the rebuke and criticism. The problem is that this will generally come across as sententious and sanctimoniously smug, and no one likes to take their advice from the pretentiously preachy or those who are holier-than-thou.

The surest way to offer a helping hand is not through your own good ideas and advice, and not even through your sympathy that remains aloof and remote. The needed prerequisite is true empathy. Share the other person’s pain and sorrow. Step into their shoes and get a sense of what it means to battle their demons. To be part of the solution, you first need to be part of the problem. It is for this reason that the Kohanim, whose goal it was to purify others, all became impure in the process – because it is impossible to heal another without first experiencing an iota of their malady.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS Tzav

“The Kohanim were never too lazy to remove the ashes from the Mizbeyach,” declare our Sages. With provokes the question: Why would we have thought otherwise?

The explanation is that clearing the Mizbeyach’s ashes and depositing them outside the camp was not really part of the Avoidah. It was performed only when required to free up space at the top of the Mizbeyach. That is why, although not the only “messy” job in the Mishkan, the Torah instructs the Kohanim to change into garments of lesser value so as not to soil their regular Kohen attire. Our Sages provide a parable: “The clothes worn by a servant while cooking a pot of food for his master are not worn when he mixes a glass of wine for his master.” The clothes worn “behind the scenes” are not worn “before the master”.

Preliminary work is normally performed not only in a different set of clothing, but also, by a different person. To draw on the parable above, chefs cook and waiters serve. Yet, in Hashem’s palace, the very same Kohen who cleared the ashes performed the Avoidah as well. Not only that, but as we saw above, no Kohen ever sought to shirk this responsibility. This demonstrates that a true Kohen – and every single Jew is part of the “kingdom of Kohanim” – devotes himself to the preparation of a Mitzvah to the same degree as the Mitzvah itself. A true servant’s ultimate concern is that Hashem’s desire is fulfilled, so he is prepared to assume any role necessary to facilitate it.

This is embodied in the story of Rabbi Chiya, who would plant flax, reap it, ret it and then weave it into nets. He captured deer with the nets, slaughtered them, and tanned their hide to produce the finest parchment. He wrote upon them the five books of the Torah and went from village to village teaching students who were otherwise without a teacher. Rabbi Chiya did not have to grow the flax. He did not have to make the nets, catch the deer, tan the hides or even write the scrolls. He could have purchased them ready-made from a Sofer. However, Rabbi Chiya was profoundly aware that the preparation of a Mitzvah is as important as the Mitzvah itself. Rabbi Chiya’s efforts succeeded in no small part because he sanctified each step of the preparation.

This message is especially pertinent as we enter the Pesach season. Shulchan Oruch describes the minimum requirements for Pesach preparations, but concludes with a statement originating with the Rosh: “All of this is the letter of the law, but Jews are holy and are accustomed to be stringent and scrape away the slightest vestiges of Chometz…” We eagerly go overboard in preparing for the festival and certainly don’t complain about the herculean effort. Our ultimate concern is that Hashem’s desire is fulfilled, so we are prepared to assume any role necessary to facilitate it, and we devote ourselves to the preparation of a Mitzvah to the same degree as the Mitzvah itself.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS vayikrA

Being a leap year, the last time we read Parshas Zachor was thirteen months ago. Yet, we know that forgetfulness sets in after twelve months. For example, Chazal state that “the deceased are forgotten from the heart after twelve months”, which means that the departed are no longer the centre of attention. Similarly, if one finds property that was clearly lost for more than twelve months, there are opinions who allow the finder to keep it because the owner surely forgot about it by now. If so, how could we allow a gap of more than twelve months to elapse from the time we last read Parshas Zachor?

One answer is that forgetfulness does not apply to something which remains uppermost in one’s mind. For example, we accept a person’s cross-examined testimony even after many years, for the matter must have been important enough to keep returning to his mind. In similar fashion, even without reading Parshas Zachor, the Mitzvah of remembering Amalek requires us to remember Amalek every second. Thus, the thirteen-month gap poses no problem, for even if there has been a large gap between public readings, we have still been thinking about this Mitzvah all the time.

However, this explanation just serves to emphasise another problem. The Halacha is that one must imbibe on Purim to the point that he does “not know between blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman”. One who reaches such a state obviously cannot know the difference between Amalek and the Jews. During those hours, how will he fulfil the Mitzvah to always remember to blot our Amalek?

Chassidus explains that this Halacha carries much deeper meaning. The point is not necessarily to get drunk to the point of intoxication. After all, you would be hard-pressed to find a Jew who truly confuses Mordechai and Haman, even when he is as high as a kite. Rather, the goal is to attain a level where one senses that all of creation – both the good and bad, the Mordechais and Hamans – are equally important in the Divine master plan. Thus, there is no contradiction to remembering how we must blot out Amalek, yet remaining aware that they also play an equal role in Hashem’s master plan.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS PEKUDEI

The expression “cloud management” probably makes you think of technology and cybersecurity. Somewhat differently, the cloud managed the Jews’ travels back in the desert. The concluding passage of our Parsha informs us that when the cloud rose away from the Mishkan, the Jews embarked on the next phase of their journey, and when the cloud remained above the Mishkan, the Jews stayed put. Which makes the very last Possuk of the Parsha seem highly peculiar, “For the cloud of Hashem was upon the Mishkan … in all their journeys.” How could it say that the cloud of Hashem was on the Mishkan when the Jews journeyed?

Rashi seeks to address this issue by telling us, “The places where the Jews encamped can also be referred to as journeys”. In other words, when the Posuk says that the cloud rested upon the Mishkan in all their journeys, it really means that the cloud rested upon the Mishkan in all their encampments. Which is all very good and nice but for the obvious problem – how can something be called its very opposite? Travelling implies a temporary state, a momentary journey, and is the polar opposite of an encampment, whose hallmark is permanence.

The Rebbe explains by noting an interesting paradox. True, we associate travel with transience and camping with permanence. Yet, when an encampment is just that, static, and does not flow on towards the future, it actually becomes a short-lived moment, one with no lasting impact or enduring significance. When is an encampment truly perpetual? When it leads to a lasting journey. Rashi captures this sentiment in his follow up remark, “Since they resumed their journeys from the place of their encampment, the encampments themselves can be called journeys.” The interminable value of the encampment is guaranteed only by the ensuing journey that unfolds from it.

The Parsha’s conclusion thus contains a powerful message about all the “stops” in our lives. Some may seem meaningless, even counterproductive. When they appear that way, it is likely because we are probably viewing them as isolated moments, instead of what they truly are – essential instalments that move us forward in the continuing journey of our lives.

This end of the Parsha also conveys a powerful Chinuch message: More often that not, it is the “little things” you say or do that will leave the most lasting and indelible impact on your children. In the future, your children or students will turn around and say, “Remember when you said this or did that?” You might not remember. Even if you do, it may very well seem trivial to you – just a little “stop” so long ago. However, the reality is that your little “stop” had the power to ignite a whole journey for them.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYAKHEL

The Mishkan was fashioned by a team of extremely capable, talented and skilled artisans. The Torah lists all the items they created, from the Mishkan itself to the vessels it contained. At the end of the list, we are told that they even made the copper pegs and ropes which secured the Mishkan’s drapes and cloth walls, so that they would not sway in the wing.

Hang on! Pegs and Ropes? Why did the artisans need to be preoccupied with something so rudimentary? They could have sent someone to pick up the ropes and pegs at Bunnings! And even if they couldn’t find Bunnings in the desert, why not delegate the task of creating them to amateurs instead? The Rebbe derives from this a very simple yet very profound message: When assigned a task, one must focus on every aspect of it. Not just on the intricate and delicate aspects, but also on the mundane and insignificant minutiae. No detail is too trivial.

In this, there is a powerful message for each of us, one which is all too often overlooked. When “building” our physical and spiritual children, i.e. when educating and inspiring others, we cannot satisfy ourselves with imparting a sophisticated edifice of knowledge, for there is no guarantee that it will hold up in the face of storm winds. One must also develop the child’s other seemingly more mundane characteristics, such as restraint, willpower and strength of character. These qualities must be cultivated with at least the same amount of patience, perseverance and wisdom as the actual edifice.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS Ki SISA

It is the age-old question – how could the Jews stoop to serving the Golden Calf just forty days after the most immense divine revelation that mankind ever witnessed? But to be frank, it is not for us to judge, because we simply can’t relate. The raging desire to worship idols flared mainly in the days of yore, and this temptation was stamped out through the prayers of the Anshei Kneses Gedolah. Ever since, the average person does not experience the urge to serve idols in the same way we battle our other impulses. However, this point triggers a different but bigger question – what is the relevance of the Golden Calf in our times, when none of us craves the worship of idols?

The classical explanation is provided by the Rambam’s son, in the name of his revered father: True change is a slow and internal process. Miracles and great events may temporarily wow a person, but the experience will inevitably recede. As its aura fades, a person will return to his old self. There are no shortcuts to real change – it is a process which requires introspection, self-assessment, commitment and stamina. As the famous saying goes, it took one second to take the Jews out of Egypt, but forty years to take Egypt out of the Jews. That is how the Jews made a Golden Calf forty days after Mattan Torah, and that’s also how a Jew of today might falter when he relies on external stimuli for inspiration.  

However, there is another pertinent explanation, one that the Rebbe often returned to, in many contexts: Humans are driven to innovate and invent, to revolutionise and reform. It is the human way of making what is hopefully a lasting contribution. Although this drive is a gift, it can also manifest in unfortunate and misguided ways.

This was the sin of the golden calf. The Jews were not looking to divest themselves of their relationship with Hashem; rather, they were looking to further it through the intermediary of the Golden Calf, which mirrored the supernal Ox of the divine chariot. To a degree, they felt it was too hard to relate to an invisible G-d who defies every definition, and who is too abstract to conceptualise. They believed they would be more committed to an intermediary which was better defined and seemed more real. They were wrong because Hashem’s greatness does not negate the possibility of a real and deep relationship directly with Him. However, even more fundamentally, the crux of their mistake was that it was not for them to adjust and modify the framework that Hashem created for this relationship.

“Let me just tweak this Mitzvah of Hashem and then it will be perfect.” It sounds absurd when pronounced in such blatantly spoken words, but it easily happens ever so subtly. The message of the Golden Calf for our era is that we must serve Hashem exclusively on His terms. Hashem is the one who decides exactly how Shabbos is kept, how Maaser should be given, how Jewish family life is lived and so on. Just do what Hashem wants in the exact way He asked us to do it.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TETZAVEH

Sibling rivalry was one of the reasons that Moshe did not want to lead the Jews. He worried that this would cause his older brother Aharon to be resentful, even ever so slightly. However, Hashem declared that Aharon was made of better stuff than that, “He is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.” Our Sages teach that because of Aharon’s goodwill towards his younger brother’s ascension to greatness, he merited to wear the Choshen over his heart.

Yet, Aharon was bestowed with eight garments to wear, four of them unique to the Kohen Gadol. Why is the Choshen specifically the reward for Aharon’s goodwill? True, the Choshen was worn over the heart that displayed such magnanimity, but one could argue that some of the other garments, such as the Meil, were also worn over the heart, and even closer to it.

One of the unique things about the Choshen was that it contained the names of all the tribes. Additionally, it was held in place by the Avnei Shoham, the stones that rested on the Kohen Gadol’s shoulders. However, unlike on the Choshen proper, where each tribe had its own precious stone, the Avnei Shoham grouped the names together. Why the difference?

Chassidus explains in numerous places that there are two types of unity, both fundamentally important. The first dimension of unity is to recognise that we are all equal – and none more or less equal than the other. This can only be truly achieved by completely discounting the differences that invariably exist between us, regarding them as completely unimportant. The Avnei Shoham represented this kind of unity, for on its stones, all the tribes were lumped together. This dimension of unity guarantees that one does not become too haughty over another, but it can’t guarantee that we will appreciate the value of each other.

The second dimension of unity recognises that each individual possesses unique abilities and perspectives that have no equal, and which cannot be replicated by another. This gives us a compelling reason to stand united and share our unique contributions with each other, in order that everyone can benefit. The stones of the Choshen represented this kind of unity, where each tribe took its own place on its own uniquely coloured stone, but alongside all the others. It is the synergy of both dimensions that leads to true unity, where one regards himself as a true equal to all others and vice versa, while at the same time recognising what it is about each person that makes them unparalleled and worthy of respect.

In summary, the message of the Choshen is that every single person is a leader in his or her particular field, a fact which should be acknowledged and celebrated by everyone else. And that is the exact characteristic that Aharon demonstrated when he met his newly-appointed younger brother. It is thus little wonder that he was rewarded with the stones of the Choshen that represent this exact quality.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TERUMAH

There was no Bunnings in the desert, but the Jews were still able to procure whatever provisions and supplies they needed from the numerous non-Jewish merchants who crisscrossed the desert. According to many Meforshim, that is how the Jews acquired all the Shittim wood required for the Mishkan. Alternatively, according to others, the Jews felled the trees that grew at Har Sinai in honour of Mattan Torah.

If so, why is it that specifically Rashi, renowned for giving the simplest explanations, presents the most unlikely one – that Yaakov planted Shittim wood in the land of Egypt over two-hundred years prior, in anticipation of the Mishkan’s construction, which the Jews then lugged out of Egypt? The Rebbe explains that Rashi infers this from the words at the outset of the Parsha “Veyikchu Li Terumah” – “you shall take for me an offering”. Hashem did not say to donate, give, obtain – but take. This implies that the Jews were expected to merely take that which was already in their possession and allocate it for the Mishkan’s construction. The only explanation that would account for the Jews already having so much wood in their possession is the Midrashic one.

Still, why did Yaakov need to plant Shittim wood in the land of Egypt two centuries before the Mishkan’s construction? Why couldn’t he just leave it to his descendants to order from the gentile traders who eagerly sought Jewish business?

The Rebbe explains that Yaakov wasn’t merely preparing for the Mishkan. Rather, he was also concerned about the morale of the Jewish People as they slaved away in Egypt. He knew that redemption would seem a million light years away as the Jews buckled under the strain of Egyptian oppression, and he sought to give them something tangible by which the redemption would seem imminent. So, he planted groves of Shittim trees, and instructed his descendants to lovingly tend to them. In doing so, their thoughts would constantly remain focussed on their redemption, and they would be uplifted as they looked forward to the special Sanctuary they would one day create for Hashem.

Similarly, the Rebbe explains, as we struggle to overcome the present Golus, there are Shittim trees in our midst too. These trees are the Tzaddikim in each generation who encourage us to remain focussed on the redemption, and who uplift us by describing the special Dwelling that we are creating for Him. May we merit it speedily today.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS MISHPOTIM

This Shabbos Mevorchim, we usher in the first month of Adar. To our minds, observing two months of Adar instead of one means doubled joy and happiness. But it wasn’t always that way. It is well documented that, during leap years, our Rebbeim were much more apprehensive than usual. And for much of the Jewish world, the blessing for the new month receives two additional words – “uLechaparas Posha”; may the new month be renewed in atonement for sin.

The reason for this concern finds its source in the Shelah, who invokes the famous rivalry that existed between the sun and the moon during the Six Days of Creation. Hashem had initially created the sun and moon as equals in every way. But the moon, wanting to be superior, complained that “two kings cannot wear the same crown”. In response, Hashem reduced the moon in size, removed the moon’s light, and changed its orbit so that it would wax and wane as it reflected the radiance of the sun.

Had the moon not been punished, the solar and lunar orbits would have corresponded perfectly, and no adjustments would ever be required to align the solar and lunar years. According to the Shelah, it follows then that each leap year recalls the moon’s jealousy, and for this reason every leap year evokes a special need for repentance.

This was the conventional wisdom for centuries – all the way until our generation, when the Rebbe turned matters on its head. The Rebbe pointed out that although the cause for a leap year is the misalignment of the sun and moon, the purpose of the leap year is to realign the two. In other words, the leap year does not represent the problem, but rather, the solution. Therefore, a leap year is no time for worry and apprehension, but rather, a time for increased joy and happiness – especially in the two months of Adar!

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS YISRO

The Mattan Torah light and sound show was epic. The Jews saw the sounds and heard the sights. But for what purpose? The Rebbe addresses this by drawing on some contrasts between seeing and hearing:

Seeing is believing. That’s what they say, but it really is much more than that. A person accepts what he sees as the absolute reality to the point that he does need to invoke faith. Even so, there is a limitation to vision – a person can only see tangible matter, but not intangible things such as soundwaves, electromagnetic waves, gravity, magnetism and invisible gases. These two aspects of vision make it the perfect metaphor for describing our interaction with the physical reality – the world seems very tangible to us, and a person does not need to resort to faith to accept its existence.

Our sense of hearing does not have quite the same sway over us. People often doubt what they hear or wonder whether the sounds represent something other than they thought. Even when we accept what we heard, it does not leave as deep an impression as seeing something. Yet, there is an advantage to our sense of hearing – we can perceive soundwaves which are intangible and unseen to the human eye. These two aspects of hearing make it the perfect metaphor for describing our interaction with the spiritual reality – it does not always seem very tangible to us, and a person must invoke faith to banish all doubts about its existence.

The revelation of Mattan Torah reversed this phenomenon. The Jews were able to see the sounds – they were able to perceive the ordinarily ethereal reality of Torah as absolute and undeniable. At the same time, they only heard the sights – they had diminished regard for the ordinarily palpable physical realm, as if its existence became distant and questionable. This experience was an expected outcome of Mattan Torah, when the Jews connected with the spiritual and receded from the physical.

The Rebbe observes that Rashi tells us only one side of the coin – that the Jews saw the sounds. Rashi omits the part about hearing the sights. The Rebbe explains that it is not within everyone’s ability to hear the sights; i.e. to have diminished regard for physical existence. But it certainly is within everyone’s ability – and is indeed our mission – to see the sounds; i.e. to regard the Torah reality at least as concrete as the physical reality.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BESHALACH

“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.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BO

One of the most famous comments of Rashi is his very first remark on the Torah: “The Torah should have begun with the passage of Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem” (i.e. the Mitzvah of determining and sanctifying the months of the year)”. Instead, this Mitzvah is finally relayed in this week’s Parsha.

Let us examine Rashi’s proposition that the Torah should have begun with the Mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh. Why is Rashi so sure about this? The simple explanation is, as Rashi himself indicates, that the purpose of the Torah is to communicate the Mitzvos, and the Torah should have therefore begun with a Mitzvah. Still, why is the emphasis that the Torah should have begun with the Mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh specifically?

The Tzemach Tzedek explains that, in a certain sense, the themes of Breishis and Kiddush Hachodesh represent polar opposites – self-regard versus selflessness. With the world’s creation, everything came into being from nothing, a process which gave rise to the centrality and importance of each individual creation in its own right. This is in contrast to Kiddush Hachodesh, where the months are established according to the moon’s light – the moon has no true light of its own, and its entire worth derives from its total self-effacement and subservience to the luminous sun.

Thus, the Torah begins with Breishis in order to inspire us to emulate Hashem’s ways and create “something out of nothing”. However, in doing so, we must always remember the idea that the Torah should have begun with the Mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh, for the objective of a Torah Jew is to achieve a deep sense of humility and Bittul which, like the moon, will truly allow him to shine.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS Voera

The saga of the Ten Plagues makes for a great narrative, and provides striking imagery for a wide array of illuminated Haggados. But for what purpose? Hashem could have easily taken us out of Egypt without all the protracted drama. Certainly, the on-again off-again nature of Pharaoh’s surrender in the face of Hashem’s force would have triggered an emotional seesaw for the Jews. Given that Hashem does not perform miracles for naught, what was the point of the time-consuming monthslong spectacle?

There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of explanations. Even in Chassidus generally, and the Rebbe’s Sichos and Maamarim specifically, there are many different answers. The one presented here addresses not only the great number of plagues, but why it spanned such a long duration of time – anywhere between six months and twelve months.

The Rebbe explains that the purpose of the Makkos was not to take the Jews out of Egypt just yet, but to bring about human change – that Pharaoh should change, that the Egyptians should change, and that even the Jews should change. Peoplebuilding does not happen overnight, or in one session. Peoplebuilding requires Time! It requires Patience! It requires Persistence! And it requires Repetition! That is why all Ten Plagues were needed, each driving the same message albeit in a different format, with loads of time in between for everyone to contemplate and digest what they had experienced.

We too are all Peoplebuilders! Starting with ourselves, and then our children, our protegees, and whomever else we have the good fortune to impact. When we observe another person failing to “get the message” – it is all too human to respond with a frustrated overreaction, causing more harm than good. Alternatively, one might just throw in the towel and accept the status quo. The message of the Makkos is that both of these are approaches are false. There is no such thing as a “failure to get the message”. Rather, the message just has to be reinforced again and again, sometimes in a different format, with a healthy dose of all the above ingredients – Time! Patience! Persistence! And Repetition!

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS SHEMOS

We have all heard this Midrash many times, and we are probably so conditioned to it that we no longer think to question it. But the Midrash really does seem very puzzling:

Moshe ran away from Egypt when he was around twenty years old. By the time he returned, he was already eighty. The only information about Moshe we can glean from the Pesukim during those intervening years is that he was a shepherd! Was that the entire extent of Moshe’s achievements during those sixty years? Of course not. Anyone who has read through Meam Loez or other sources will learn of the many travails Moshe endured and the many achievements he attained. If so, why does the Torah tell us only that Moshe was a shepherd?

The Midrash answers that it was precisely during this stint that Moshe demonstrated the qualities of a true leader: “When Moshe shepherded Yisro’s flock in the desert, a young lamb ran away. Moshe ran after it until the lamb reached a pool of water and began drinking. When Moshe arrived, he said, ‘I did not know that you were running away because you were thirsty. And now you are surely tired.’ With that, Moshe lifted the lamb onto his shoulder and began walking back to the flock. Hashem proclaimed, ‘You lead the flock of a mortal with mercy; you are destined to shepherd my flock, the Jews.’”

It is certainly a heart-warming story. However, upon reflection, it doesn’t seem to stack up. What is so noble about a shepherd who gives chase to a straying animal? Who wouldn’t do the same, whether to preserve one’s assets or to discharge one’s obligations towards his employer?

The Rebbe explains that Moshe’s greatness lay not in chasing the lamb, but in his reaction once he caught up to it. Yes, most other shepherds would have also run after the lamb. But upon catching up to it, they would have surely utilised the moment to vent their own frustration – yelling, and perhaps even striking it: “Why aren’t you conforming; why aren’t you with the program”? The shepherd would naturally look at the situation from his own perspective, and not care much about the lamb’s perspective.

Astonishingly, when Moshe caught up with the lamb, he did not berate it, nor did he express how he felt. Rather, Moshe shifted into “learning mode” and fully focused on what the lamb had been trying to express all along – “I did not know that you were running away because you were thirsty.”

The same is true of a fellow Jew who doesn’t seem to be conform. It may be easy to assign him all the blame and then write him off. However, a true leader does not pass judgment nor label him as a defector. Rather, the true leader takes notice of him, acknowledges him, and does his best to listen to what is being conveyed.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYECHI

If you were to take a poll about who comes in as #1 in Tanach, you might get answers such as Avrohom or Moshe – but I doubt anyone would say Efraim or Menashe! If you then asked for the top three, they might answer the Avos, or Moshe, Aharon and Shmuel – but I doubt anyone would include Efraim and Menashe! If you asked for the top seven, you would probably get the Ushpizin – and I still doubt that anyone would think of including Efraim and Menashe! Even if you asked for the top twelve, some might invoke all the children of Yaakov – but, still, I doubt anyone would include Efraim and Menashe! Why then, does Yaakov foretell of parents blessing their children to be like Efraim and Menashe specifically? We know so little about Efraim and Menashe; how did they become the ultimate paragons of righteousness, virtue and blessing? What exact qualities of theirs are we hoping to bestow upon our own children through this blessing?

One answer, presented in the classic commentaries, is that Menashe and Efraim are the first pair of siblings in the Torah who did not quarrel when the opportunity arose. Breishis is rife with the sibling rivalry that flared between Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchok and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, Yosef and his brothers – and the catastrophic consequences. When Yaakov prioritised Efraim over his older brother, Menashe would have had so much to be jealous of had he so chosen. Yet, he was not resentful in the slightest. Yaakov was overawed with the humility and brotherly unity unfolding before him, and he immediately followed on with the blessing that all his descendants should be like them.

Another answer can be gleaned from a Sicha of the Rebbe: Nearly all of Yaakov’s children and grandchildren grew up, both literally and figuratively, in his presence. Even Yosef, who was torn away from him for 22 years, still spent the first 17 years of his life in the shadow of Yaakov. The only exceptions were Efraim and Menashe. Their formative years and much of their adolescence evolved at the very apex of the most powerful and immoral society of their time. Egypt, the antithesis of all that Yaakov represented, was all too real for them. Conversely, their heritage and history was essentially hearsay, and they were quite remote from the centre of their religion. Yet, they persevered and flourished. In them, Yaakov beheld the ultimate triumph of Yiddishkeit. Seeing how G-dliness and holiness prevailed in alien environments, he wished for the same blessing to be conferred on all of his descendants.

These are indeed the greatest qualities we can wish for our children – genuine unity, and remaining true to our faith and tradition even in foreign surroundings. But maybe we shouldn’t suffice with merely conferring this blessing on our children. Rather, we can show them how, by example. The summer holidays are the perfect opportunity – even as we change environs, whether literally or figuratively, we can demonstrate that our commitment to Torah and Halacha prevails over all else.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYIGASH

Would Rashi contradict the very Possuk he explains? That is what seems to occur in this week’s Parsha. Hashem appeared to Yaakov as he travelled to Egypt and assured him, “Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt for there I will make you into a great nation.” It can be inferred from this Possuk that the emotion Yaakov felt was fear, and the catalyst of his fear was the descent to Egypt.

But Rashi says something else entirely. He states that Hashem came to Yaakov because he was “pained at being forced to leave the Holy Land”. According to Rashi, the emotion Yaakov felt was pain, and the trigger for his pain was his departure from Israel.

While they often coincide, pain and fear are not the same thing. Pain can manifest without fear, and fear can manifest without pain. Thus, Rashi seems to confound things, rather than assist, for the Possuk implies that Yaakov feared his descent to Egypt, whereas Rashi informs us that he felt pain for his departure from Israel. On what basis does Rashi present new information not implied by the Possuk? Furthermore, if Yaakov indeed felt both ways about his journey, why did Hashem not assuage his pain over leaving Israel, and addressed only his fear of Egypt?

The Rebbe points out that Rashi had a simple proof that Yaakov was plagued by both sentiments. For, if Yaakov felt only fear for his descent to Egypt, why did Hashem appear to Yaakov only midway through the journey? If anything, He should have addressed Yaakov’s fear before he even departed. This compelled Rashi to perceive something deeper here; that there was more than what meets the eye. If Hashem appeared to Yaakov only at this precise juncture, there had to be another trigger for that. And the only obvious clue was that the revelation happened in Beer Sheva, which lies at the Southern border of Israel. From this, Rashi deduced that the “trigger” prompting Hashem’s revelation was the fact that Yaakov was leaving Israel, and not the fact that he would later arrive in Egypt.

But this only magnifies the second question: If Hashem’s revelation was a reaction to Yaakov’s pain over his departure from Israel, why did Hashem not talk to him about that, and instead allayed Yaakov’s fear of Egypt? The Rebbe answers that when a Jew feels pain over his absence from Israel, such a feeling should never, and can never, be alleviated. A Jew should always feel that Golus is not his place, and always feel the pain of not being in Israel.

At the same time, Hashem tempered the pain with another message: Just as the pain over leaving Israel stems from the understanding that Golus is not our place, that very understanding can lead to something else – the recognition that there is no reason to fear Golus. The shackles of exile can intimidate us only if we believe that we belong to it,

are subordinate to its power, and bound by its paradigm. However, when we apprehend that our destiny and power rises above Golus, and our true place is only in the Land of Israel, then Golus cannot dominate us, and we have no reason to fear it.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS MIKETZ

The phrase “I told you so” is arguably one of the most harmful expressions in all of existence. You can count on it to produce a negative response, and it will often rupture friendships and relationships. Driving the point home only adds insult to injury, and does nothing to help the recipient recover from their failure. Broadcasting that you were right in hindsight makes you sound like a gloating know-it-all who needs the whole world to know about it.

But that is exactly what Reuven seems to do in this Parsha! When the Egyptian viceroy put the brothers in an impossible situation, their soul-searching led them to a reckoning of their past misdeeds, “Indeed, we are guilty for our brother Yosef; we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us but we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” Inexplicably, just at that very moment, Reuven retorts, “Didn’t I warn you not to sin against the lad? But you did not listen! Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded.” How could Reuven respond in such a tactless manner? If anything, now that his brothers were finally showing some remorse, it would have been the perfect time for Reuven to demonstrate solidarity and support!

The key to this mystery lies in an enigmatic Midrash, which teaches that Reuven was the very first to do Teshuvah. The obvious question is that we clearly find earlier instances of Teshuvah in the Torah, such as Odom for the sin of the Eitz Hadaas and Kayin for the murder of his brother. Why does the Midrash state that Reuven was the first?

The Rebbe explains that Reuven was the first to do Teshuvah out of his own free will. In every case prior, Teshuvah transpired only after Hashem reprimanded the sinner, or unleashed such suffering and hardship that the sinner was stirred to review his past and make amends. In the case of Reuven, however, life continued on as usual for him after his error. Even so, he had the perception and earnestness to own his mistake and fix it, even though there was nothing forcing him to do so.

For twenty-two years, Reuven waited for his brothers to do the same. When the moment finally arrived, he was bitterly disappointed that their Teshuvah was not self-motivated, but a mere reaction to their sorrowful circumstances. Furthermore, he recognised from their words that they did not truly regret their actual sale of Yosef, but only the heartless manner in which they had executed it. That is why Reuven admonished his brothers, so that they should appreciate the gravity of their sin and atone in a genuine and principled way. And, of course, whenever applicable, we should do the same!

Wishing you a good Shabbos a good Chodesh and a Freilachen Chanukah,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYEISHEV

Do you keep a diary? Imagine there is a pivotal event you would like to remember decades later. So, you open up the diary, and log the following entry, “Dear diary, on Wednesday, at 3:00pm, in St Kilda East, something happened.” And that’s it. Without specifying any further details, you close your diary and put it away. A diary entry like that doesn’t seem too helpful! But that appears to be exactly how Yaakov reacted to Yosef’s dreams. As the Midrash says: “Yaakov took a quill and he wrote down the day, the time and the place.” Huh?

Another question: The Possuk says, “His brothers envied him, but his father awaited the matter.” The juxtaposition seems to imply that there is an inherent link between these two reactions – the very thing that caused the brothers to be jealous is exactly what made Yaakov await the dream’s fulfilment. How?

The Rebbe notes that for the first three generations, all of Yiddishkeit revolved around one solitary person. It was literally a one man show. Each of the Avos implemented everything that needed to get done, and they also earned all the credit, prominence and fame for all that was achieved.

A monumental shift occurred in the generation of the Shevatim. Yiddishkeit was no longer unilateral, but the combined efforts of many people. Each of Yaakov’s children served Hashem in his own unique way, and each brought something different to the table. For example, Shimon and Levi served Hashem with zealousness, Yehudah through his leadership skills, Yissachar as a Talmid Chochom and Zevulun as a businessman.

But that led to an inherent problem. Division breeds unequal prominence – which is exactly why all the other brothers felt jealous of Yosef. They all perceived the value of their own specific Avodah, and could not fathom why Yosef’s dream foretold that he, specifically, would merit all the distinction and status. The brothers were jealous, because they were not focussed on the overarching shared cause, but rather, on the value of their own specialised role.

However, Yaakov, still of the “old generation”, remained focussed exclusively on the overarching cause. The different roles of his sons didn’t matter in the bigger picture, for the central objective could be realised only through their collaboration, and could not be achieved if any of them were missing.

That is why Yaakov and his children reacted so differently to the very same piece of news. It was all a matter of their own perspective. The dreams made the brother envious because they were lone players, whereas Yaakov anticipated the dreams’ outcome because he was a team player. And this explains why Yaakov recorded the incident in general terms only. He did not delve into the details, because that would only highlight the differing roles of the different brothers, turning attention away from the collective cause.

The message for us is simple. When we, as individual, are focussed on our own selves, and consumed with social comparison, this can ultimately sabotage the group effort. Only by remaining focussed on our collective mission can we attain the best outcomes for all of us, including our very own selves. 

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYISHLACH

What spurred Esav to abandon the land of his forefathers and settle in the territory of Seir? Chazal explain that Esav was deterred by Hashem’s decree at Bris Bein Habesarim that “your descendants will be strangers in a land which is not theirs”. Esav knew that Avraham’s offspring would bequeath the land of Israel only after paying this heavy price, and he chose to forfeit it all, saying, “I have neither a share in this land, nor in the price that will be paid to earn it.”

This is completely astounding, because Esav seems to have paid the exact toll that he sought to avoid! By moving to the land of Seir, Esav and his family were now essentially living as “strangers in a land which was not theirs” and subject to the very fate Esav spurned. Why was his move to Seir not the fulfilment of the Bris Bein Habesarim?

The Rebbe explains that the Bris Bein Habesarim foretold of Avraham’s descendants living as strangers in a foreign land, and not as citizens or permanent residents. In other words, the Jews would merit the land of Israel precisely because they would refuse to become comfortable outside its borders and would always pine to return to their homeland. This was a far cry from Esav’s conduct, which the Possuk records as “Esav settled on the mountain of Seir”. In other words, he fully integrated with and assimilated into the nation and culture of Seir, and in that sense, he never truly discharged the edict that “your descendants will be strangers in a land which is not theirs”.

The same is true for us. A Jew can never be comfortable in Golus, and must constantly yearn for the coming of Moshiach and the ingathering of the Diaspora. Until then, we ought to feel as strangers in a foreign land, and never settle into the Golus regimen. Precisely through awaiting and longing for Moshiach’s coming, we will merit his speedy revelation, whereupon he will lead us back to the land of our forefathers.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VAYEITZEI

Given that Yitzchok and his family lived in Beer Sheva, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Yaakov departed from Beer Sheva when he set out for Charan. Nevertheless, the Torah emphasises this point at the beginning of this week’s Parsha: “And Yaakov went out from Be’er Sheva”. According to the Midrash, the Torah draws attention to this fact to indicate that Yaakov was desperate to leave Beer Sheva. He could not tolerate what it represented, because Beer Sheva drew its name from the treaties that Avrohom and Yitzchok struck with Avimelech, with each side committing not to antagonise the other. Avrohom’s pact with Avimelech deferred the Jews’ conquest of Eretz Yisroel for seven generations (until the times of Moshe), and Yitzchok’s subsequent pact with Avimelech deferred the Jews’ conquest of Eretz Yisroel for another generation (until the times of Yehoshua). Yaakov ran away from all that.

The question is obvious: If a pact with the Plishtim was good enough for Avraham and Yitzchak, then why not for Yaakov? Or to ask it the other way around, how could Avraham and Yitzchak enter into such a covenant, given the negative outcome for their descendants?

The Rebbe explains: When setting out to achieve a goal, we often consider it expedient to adopt a “live and let live” strategy. We will eagerly bring our message to all who are receptive, and maybe even to those who are apathetic or ambivalent. But we may steer clear of those who are antagonistic, as bringing our message to them may backfire, inciting them to attack and disturb our mission. In other words, we may prefer to lose some battles in order to win the war.

This was the Avoidah of Avraham and Yitzchak. They spread G-dliness wherever they could, but “made peace” with their antagonists. This explains why Avraham didn’t try to rehabilitate Lot, and why he just let his son Yishmael be, just as Yitzchak did with Esav. For the same reason, Avraham and Yitzchok forged a treaty with Avimelech – they agreed to leave him alone in order that he would leave them alone

There is a downside to that approach. Although Avimelech would not disturb Avraham and Yitzchok, neither could they transform him. Avimelech and his society would remain unchanged, and the consequences would haunt the Jews in the future. For seven-eight generations, the Plishtim retained the power, wherewithal and inclination to prevent the Jews from entering Eretz Yisroel.

Yaakov heralded a new type of Avoidah, pioneering the age of “live but don’t let live”. He was not prepared to make any concessions at all because he understood that engaging the rival allowed for the possibility of transforming them. Yes, his approach was tougher and invited pushback, but Yaakov understood that it was worthwhile in the long run. Thus, Yaakov ran away from Beer Sheva and all that it represented. He headed straight for Charan, “the place of divine anger”, the most wicked place in the world. He “grabbed the bull by the horns”, challenging, daring, and dueling with the fraudster Lavan, in order to extract from him all the sparks of Kedusha he contained.

As Chassidim, we engage the world around us through Mivtzoim and spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus. When we get some pushback, we may think to ourselves that further engagement is just not worth the consequences. We might be tempted to just adopt the “live and let live” strategy and move on to the next opportunity. Our Parsha tells us that although such an attitude was acceptable in the times of Avraham and Yitzchok, from the time Yaakov left Beer Sheva to set out for Charan, the strategy changed.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS TOLDOS

Imagine your child asked you whether a Shehecheyanu is required when blowing the Shofar on Shvii Shel Pesach. Or how to prevent Matzah from becoming Gebrochtz whilst eating in a rainy Sukkah. Would you be impressed by his devout Tzidkus, or would you tell him to stop clowning around?
 
How then are we to make any sense of the fact that Esav “fooled” his father with his “righteous credentials” by asking how to separate Maaser from straw and salt? Esav grew up in a home where the Mitzvah of Maaser was observed. In fact, according to the Rambam, Yitzchok’s tithes in this week’s Parsha is the first example in the Torah of Maaser. Moreover, Pireki Drabbi Elozor claims that this was Yitzchok’s sole intent in taking up farming: “Do you think Yitzchok sowed grain for the sake of grain? Heaven forbid! Rather, he sowed grain so he could fulfil the Mitzvah of Maaser.” Surely, growing up in such a home, Esav should have known that Maaser is not taken from straw and salt. Asking how to do so should have been seen as the greatest display of ignorance, and the surest sign that he was not truly paying attention to anything his father was doing.
 
Some further issues: When one examines Rashi (25:27) properly, it is clear that Esav did not ask whether to separate Maaser from straw and salt, but how! But then, what exactly was his question? Just calculate 10%! Furthermore, in describing Yitzchok’s impression, Rashi does not say that he thought Esav was being Machmir or Mehader (strict or virtuous) about keeping the Mitzvah, but that he was Medakdek – precise! Where exactly do we see a dimension of precision?
 
The Rebbe answers that our forefathers had adopted the stringency of separating Maaser from every single item that came into their possession. This was limited not just to agricultural produce or cashflow, as the Torah requires, but literally every single item (14:20, 28:22).  Yitzchok practiced this Chumra too, and Esav emulated that.
 
Thus, the novelty was not that Esav wanted to separate Maaser from straw and salt, but how. His dilemma was that these items, in and of themselves, are almost valueless, but their usefulness as an additive is manifold. Salt makes food tasty; straw is a vital component of bricks. Esav’s question was: Do you value the salt and straw as per their own lowly apparent worth, or for their potential resourcefulness in vastly enhancing other items. This is why Rashi emphasises that Yitzchok was impressed with the precision of Esav’s tithes.
 
It is no coincidence that Esav was the one who asked about the value of salt and straw. As we are all aware, Esav was a kind of salty guy himself. Superficially, he did not seem to contain much value, but Chassidus explains that he was ripe with potential, reflecting the lofty source from which he originated. The message of Esav’s question is not to value people and events for how they superficially appear, but for the potential that is surely present within them.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH

Many refer to the upcoming Shabbos as Shabbos Chevron. In Israel, many thousands of people will converge on the site of the Me’aras Hamachpela, whose purchase is recorded in this week’s Parsha. Efron initially offered Me’aras Hamachpela to Avrohom as a freebie. Yet Avrohom insisted on paying for it – not just a token sum, but top dollar! Why?

The Rebbe provides two reasons:

1. Me’aras Hamachpela is one of the holiest places in the world, and it is the reason why Chevron is referred to as “Ir Hakoidesh” (holy city). Had Avrohom not paid top dollar for it, he would have thereby discounted its true worth. When something is served up on a silver platter, it is taken for granted, and its true value is not appreciated.

2. Today’s society tends to place much emphasis on equality, be it equal rights, equal freedoms or equal opportunity. Of course, this is a good thing. But what should not be lost in the process is the awareness that we are not the same; each of us possesses unique gifts and talents. I am special in a way that you are not, and you are special in a way that I am not. If we all ignore our uniqueness, and pretend that we all share the same abilities and aptitudes, we reduce the unique contribution that each of us can make. That is why Avrohom paid for Me’aras Hamachpela – to make it an exclusive possession of the Jewish People, and to make it clear that our unique association with it is unparalleled amongst the other nations.

The lessons are obvious. To achieve success in Yiddishkeit, be it our own or of those in our surrounding environment, we must invest ourselves and put in the hard yards. We must also pay close attention and cultivate our unique abilities, putting them to good use in enhancing the world around us, each one in our uniquely individual way.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS VaYeira

Hashem appeared to Avraham and then… we are left hanging. The Torah does not actually spell out any communication that transpired between Hashem and Avraham, unlike every other time that Tanach reports on Hashem revealing Himself to a human. Is so, for what purpose was this revelation? Chazal answer that Hashem did not come to tell Avraham anything, but just to be there with him. Since Avraham was recuperating from the Bris, Hashem was fulfilling the Mitzvah of visiting the sick. An invalid is most uplifted by the mere fact that others care for his wellbeing, and this Mitzvah is thus fulfilled when visiting the sick, even silently.

If so, what delayed Hashem for three days? Why did He come only after the post-operative pain had already reached its climax on the third day and began to subside? Seemingly, He should have revealed Himself immediately! This would have seemed appropriate regardless the situation, but especially for Avraham who was renowned for his diligence in fulfilling Mitzvos at the earliest opportunity, engendering the Talmudic catchphrase Zrizuseih d’Avraham, the diligence of Avraham. Accordingly, the tenet of Midah kNeged Midah should have dictated that Hashem repay him in kind, and visit Avraham immediately!

The Rebbe gives an astounding answer: It is self-evident that when Hashem reveals Himself to the sick, they are immediately and entirely relieved of their pain. However, when it came to Mitzvos, Avraham did not seek nor desire shortcuts. If a Mitzvah involved inconvenience or pain – whether physical, financial, emotional – Avraham embraced them wholeheartedly. Thus, Hashem did not visit Avraham immediately, because Avraham did not want that! Only after already experiencing the height of the Milah’s pain was Avraham ready to be visited by Hashem.

In our own Yiddishkeit, we are not expected to be angels or Tzadikim. However, there is an expectation to be real. One litmus test is our reaction in situations when studying Torah or performing Mitzvos is difficult. Do we become more lenient, navigating the path of least resistance? Or do we persevere because “they are our life”? The latter demonstrates that the opportunity for Torah and Mitzvos is dearest to us, and outweighs any hardship!

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS LECH LECHO

In this week’s Parsha, Avrohom worried whether his reward had been diminished by the miracles that Hashem had wrought for him. Hashem assured him, “Do not worry … your reward is exceedingly great.” 

Could it be that Avrohom was money-hungry? Certainly not! It goes without saying that Avrohom recognised the value of serving Hashem for His sake alone, and not for any ulterior motives. In fact, the Rambam (Teshuvah 10:2) describes Avrohom as the ultimate example of one who “devotes himself to Torah and Mitzvos and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive – not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true.” If so, why did Avrohom care for reward?

The Rebbe presents a truly novel answer. Avrohom’s desire for reward was itself for the sake of serving Hashem without ulterior motives. Avrohom desired reward not so that he could benefit personally, but rather, in order to show and convince others that worshipping Hashem is desirable and beneficial. That is why Avrohom was worried that his reward had been reduced; he was concerned lest others view that as a weakness on the part of the Creator.

In our lives too, besides thanking Hashem for all the Brochos we receive, we must commit ourselves to utilising all those Brochos for the sake of serving Him even more, and by inspiring others to follow our lead.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NOACH

What polar opposites! Tishrei, with all its festivals, is a nonstop month of action and activity. Because there is so much to do, our more mundane life pursuits are, at least partially, pushed to the side. But now, after a full month of extra Tefillos, unique Mitzvos and Mivtzoim prospects, and having devoted so much time and energy to celebrate, it all comes to an absolute and complete standstill in the month of Cheshvan. In fact, appended to the name of the month is the word Mar, which means bitter, to signify the difficult transition into a month without a single Yom Tov or commemorative day to break the monotonous routine.

The question is obvious: Hashem could have easily arranged the calendar so that there would be a gradual winddown from the peak of Tishrei. If so, why the sudden shift? Why go from a hundred to zero? Why not reassign one of the special Tishrei occasions to Cheshvan instead? And even if there was some reason to have a month entirely devoid of special days, why could it not have been relegated for later in the year? The Rebbe devoted (at least) an entire Sicha to this question, and addressed it with a timely explanation:

True and lasting change does not come from the outside, but from within. The Tishrei festivals surround us with warmth and light, they raise us up, but at the same time, all the excitement is generated outside of us, and not within us. Our souls and being are merely responding to external stimuli.

The moments that truly reflect our spiritual standing happen on the “empty days”, when the routine is humdrum, and there is nothing in particular to motivate us to even get out of bed in the morning. Our efforts to mobilise extraordinary ambition on ordinary days is what demonstrates true perseverance and determination. More than that, it is when are true selves are revealed, for in creating something from nothing, we mirror our Creator, in whose form we are all fashioned.

That is why the month of Cheshvan follows Tishrei – it is all deliberate. The empty month gives us the opportunity to implement, through our own initiative, what we only superficially absorbed in the festival season. It is now the time to “unpack the merchandise” and use it to drive our independent spiritual growth. Thus, Cheshvan is the journey of initiative and internalisation. This journey requires much effort, there are no shortcuts, but it is the only way to transformation. 

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS BEREISHIS

Parshas Breishis tells us the stories of two people named Chanoch:

Chanoch I: To say this Chanoch didn’t come from the best home is an understatement. His father was the wicked Kayin, infamous for perpetrating the world’s first hit-and-run; he murdered his brother and then pretended that he didn’t. For that crime, Kayin was eternally banished from Hashem’s presence. How did that saga end? With a “happily ever after”! Kayin goes on to have a son, calling him Chanoch. Kayin then builds a city, calling it Chanoch, in everlasting honour of his son.

Chanoch II: The second Chanoch, great-grandfather of Noach, was so lofty and spiritual that the Torah describes him as “walking with Hashem”. But there is no fairy tale ending there. “Chanoch,” says the Torah, “is no longer, because he was taken by Hashem.”

What are we to make of these two twisted tales of Chanoch? The Rebbe explains that each represent two paths to life. One path is to live in the spiritual clouds and “walk with Hashem”. This approach is privileged, but doesn’t leave an imprint on our world. At the end of the day, nothing of it remains down below. The other path is to live with two feet firmly planted on the ground. This type of material existence can lead a person to travesty, but is also the only way to “build cities” that last.

So, if each approach leads to failure, what should one strive for? The answer is a blend of both. The only way to get the best of both worlds – to both walk with Hashem yet leave a lasting impact on this physical world – is to have our heads in the clouds, yet our feet firmly on the ground.

That is why both our protagonists are called Chanoch, rooted in the word Chinuch, which means “inauguration” or “initiation”. The beginning of any successful Avoidah requires this dual approach. Let us dwell on this thought as we inaugurate and initiate the year ahead this Shabbos Breishis.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

CHOL HAMOED SUKKOS

Rabbi Menachem Recanati was an Italian rabbi who flourished at the close of the thirteenth century. He devoted the chief part of his writings to Kabbalah, and in his commentary to Chumash (Emor), he recounts the following vignette:

“One year, I had the privilege of hosting a prominent German Rabbi for the festival of Sukkos. On that first night of Sukkos, I had an upsetting dream. I was shown a vision of my guest, Rabbi Yitzchok, writing the four-letter name of Hashem. In writing it, he left a clear gap between the first three letters and the last, thus profaning Hashem’s great name. I confronted Rabbi Yitzchok, asking how he could possibly do such a thing. Rabbi Yitzchok merely responded, ‘This is how we do it back in my hometown.’ I immediately objected to his practice, and I wrote the four-letter name properly.

“I awoke from my sleep, astounded. Was my guest perhaps not the person he projected himself to be? However, my confusion was soon cleared up. When it came time to recite Hallel, my distinguished guest did not put the Esrog together with the Lulav, thus waving about only three of the four kinds in all directions. I immediately understood my dream’s interpretation, for the Midrash teaches that each of the Four Kinds represents one letter of Hashem’s name.”

The very same Midrash teaches that the four species parallel the four directions of the world and the four seasons. But perhaps most importantly, the Midrash clarifies that the four species mirror all types of Jews, from those who excel at both Torah and Mitzvos all the way to those who perform neither. Taken all together, the Midrash teaches that only when all Jews unite, Hashem’s great name is unified in a revealed manner. This special unity is manifest throughout Tishrei, and especially on Sukkos, which is why both the Mitzvos of Sukkah and Daled Minim are so symbolic of unity.

That is one reason why the Rebbe encouraged us to do all within our power to ensure that every Jew bentches Lulav and Esrog each day of Sukkos. Some people hesitate to fulfil this directive, out of fear that the beauty of their Daled Minim will diminish as a result. However, the Rebbe taught us that one should be far more concerned with ensuring that those without Daled Minim fulfil the Mitzvah. That is the truest beauty, as well as the most appropriate way of actualising the unity symbolised by the Daled Minim.

Let us ensure that this message of unity is realised not just during Sukkos, but throughout the entire year, thus paving the way for Moshiach’s speedy revelation.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a good Moed,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS HA'aZINU

Three times in total, the Torah refers to this week’s Parsha as “Hashirah Hazos – this song.” The incongruency is glaring: How is Haazinu a song? Most of this “song” focusses on our sins, our wayward conduct, and the divine retribution that results. The only uplifting parts appear at the very beginning, which glorifies Hashem’s justice (הצור תמים פעלו), and at the very end, which culminates in the salvation of the Jews and the coming of Moshiach (וכפר אדמתו עמו).
 
The Ramban answers that although the theme gives us nothing to sing about, Haazinu is still arranged in movements and its words written in prose. Since it appears in the form of a song, it is accurate to describe it as such. However, the Rebbe searches for a deeper answer, because Haazinu still seems to lack the most vital ingredient of song – joy and exultation. As the famous quote goes, “Ein Odom Shor Shira Ela Mitoch Simcha – One does not sing a song but through joy” (Rashi Erchin 11a).
 
The Rebbe explains that it all comes down to one’s perception. One who perceives Haazinu as many separate and disparate Pesukim will indeed be forced to conclude that it is not very songlike. After all, event after event accentuates our sins and divine retribution, and there is precious little that is favourable. However, if one approaches Haazinu as one long cohesive read, a flow which exhibits how everything that happens is part of one chain of events, then he will rejoice and sing at every step of the way. For then he realises how every negative event emanates from the opening line of the song, Hashem’s glorious justice, and additionally, is an important stepping-stone in approaching the culmination of the song, the salvation of the Jews and the coming of Moshiach. When looked at in that light, then indeed, all of Haazinu reads like a song. It celebrates the entire process of our national destiny, and demonstrates how every single stage is integral and worthwhile.
 
This is a powerful message to remember when we face challenge and difficulty. If we view such an event in isolation, it can be crushing and demoralising. However, when we remember that everything that happens flows forth from Hashem’s justice, and is a vital step leading to the coming of Moshiach, we will sing and rejoice in the greatness of Hashem.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYELECH

Being that this Parsha is the shortest, it was a very brief daily Chumash this week, and Rashi was relatively scarce. As such, it was impossible to overlook a Rashi which seems glaringly problematic. Rashi tells us that Moshe instructed Yehoshua to rely on the assistance and counsel of the elders in leading the nation. However, Hashem told Yehoshua the exact opposite – to lead the nation on his own, and compel the entire nation, including the elders, to follow his commands. How could Moshe have initially thought the exact opposite of Hashem? 

The Rebbe explains: Moshe’s own leadership had indeed been a consultative one, in which he led the nation with the support of the seventy elders. However, each leader has a different pathway and destiny, and Yehoshua’s leadership needed to be different. Hashem was telling Moshe not to assume that his student should lead with a leadership style similar to that of his teacher. In fact, it would have to be totally different.

This contains a very important message for us. Just because something was not done in previous generations does not mean that it is misplaced or misguided in our times. We have to focus on the Avodah of our generation, and not that of times bygone, even if they seem to be at odds with each other. In the past, the greatest emphasis may have arguably been placed upon spiritual self-development, but this does not in any way detract from the current emphasis on revitalising Yiddishkeit and spreading Chassidus outwards, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of time and effort we could have expended to develop our own selves.

There are two names for this Shabbos – Shabbos Shuvah and Shabbos Teshuvah. The Rebbe points out that Shuvah is a command, instructing us to do Teshuvah, whereas Teshuvah is a noun, which could imply that this goal has already been achieved. The dual names of this Shabbos remind us that although “Teshuvah” – we have already achieved a level of Teshuvah, nevertheless, “Shuvah” – we are still instructed to aim for a further level of Teshuvah. Here again, the message is that what was good for the past is not necessarily sufficient for the future.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and גמר חתימה טובה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS NITZOVIM

The month of Tishrei conjures up numerous associations – apple and honey, new fruits, Shofar, Machzor and Kittel – and the list goes on. For many a Lubavitcher (and I am sure others as well), Tishrei in the modern era evokes the tiresome experience of plane travel. Along with the mingling odour of jet fumes and strong coffee comes a bizarre mix of unsorted emotions – excitement and nostalgia, anticipation and anxiety, adventure and planning the unknown. It is all worthwhile, of course, in order to spend Yom Tov at 770, or with one’s family, as the situation may have it. Alas, this is just one of the many possibilities we in Australia will forego this year, with all our borders (both internal and external) shut tight.

This week’s Parsha speaks of borders – or rather, about how to bypass them. The Torah tells us that when we do Teshuvah, “Hashem will bring back your exiles... He will once again gather you from all the nations in which He dispersed you. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, Hashem will gather you from there... He will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed...”

On the basic level, the Torah is foretelling the ingathering of exiles when Moshiach comes. However, Chassidus explains that each of us is expected to oversee our own ingathering of exiles. How so? Well, none of us is immune to fragmentation, with our attention relentlessly being pulled in every which direction, and our energy invested in so many dissonant spheres. This is how the power and energy of our soul becomes “exiled” and “scattered in the four corners” of our own little world. For those fragmented bits and pieces, there is no automatic return from behind whichever border they became trapped.

Nonetheless, each of us, with the power of that spark of Hashem that is our essence, can bring those disjointed pieces back. To that end, we celebrate the day of Shabbos, when we take a step back from all the demands of the world in order to focus inward. Even more frequently, our davening every single day serves as a “mini-Shabbos”; a sanctuary within the daily grind to introspect, stand at attention before Hashem, and strive for wholesomeness. The end goal is not just to sanctify those islands of time, but to pervade the rest of our activities so that they, too, fuse and amalgamate with G‑dliness. That is how we return our “exiles” to the “land of Israel”.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the “davening hubs” of the year, with the Aseres Ymei Teshuvah as a whole bestowing our prayers the greatest potency. Although we are at the mercy of border restrictions on the global scale, we can certainly control the border traffic in our own little worlds this time of year. May we thereby usher in a sweet, new year, and merit the speedy ingathering of exiles.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and כתיבה וחתימה טובה לשנה טובה ומתוקה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS KI SAVO

“In Judaism, we celebrate thanksgiving every day,” goes a popular adage. We thank Hashem the moment we wake up. Davening is peppered with phrases thanking Hashem, climaxing at Modim, and we thank Hashem each time we Bentch. There are the four who bentch Gomel to show their appreciation to Hashem, and we are all known as Yehudim because we’re always acknowledging our thanks to Hashem. And, in this week’s Parsha, we are commanded to thank Hashem by bringing Bikkurim to the Beis Hamikdash, and we are promised that our gratitude will be the very conduit to channel further blessings from Hashem! Why does gratitude matter so much?

First, gratitude demonstrates that we treasure the blessings that are given to us, and are thus deserving of more. This is expanded upon in a sobering letter of the Rebbe (4 Shevat, 5716), and although the exact circumstances may not be relevant to everyone, the core message is: “You write of the current state of your affairs, adding that ‘all my life, no good has befallen me,’ … It seems that you are unaware of the contradiction in your letter. For a man whom the Creator has provided his partner in life, and has blessed them with children, to say that, ‘all my life, good has eluded me,’ is ingratitude in a most shocking manner... Perhaps the reason for your weak health and your difficulties in earning a living is your utter failure to appreciate Hashem’s blessing to you in a far more basic matter than perfect health and abundant sustenance – the blessing of sons and daughters who follow the ways of Hashem. When one does not recognise the explicit good bestowed from Above, particularly when one’s lack of recognition is so extreme that it results in statements such as you express in your letter, is it any wonder that blessings are not forthcoming from Above in other matters? … When you begin to serve Hashem with a true and inner joy, surely He will increase His blessings also in regard to health and sustenance...”

This idea is reflected in a fascinating observation of the Sefas Emes concerning the Tehillim (Kappitel 107) that the Baal Shem Tov instituted we recite before Friday’s Mincha. Four times, the same verse repeats itself, “They shall give thanks to the Lord for His kindness and for His wonders to the children of men.” The Posuk initially speaks of Hashem’s “kindness” in the singular, but then refers to His “wonders” in the plural. Why the switch from singular to plural? The Sefas Emes explains: When a person takes the time to pause and reflect about even a single kindness that Hashem has bestowed upon him, he automatically starts becoming attuned to many more wonders he was heretofore inattentive to.

Our Parsha grants us another, deeper, insight into gratitude. In the immediate aftermath of the Bikkurim thanksgiving ceremony, the Torah says, “You will then rejoice with all the good that Hashem has granted you and your household.” The cause-and-effect between gratitude and joy is clear: When we take the time to be thankful for what we have, we become happier beings.

The flipside can be observed towards the end of the Parsha. In the Tochecha, the Torah tells us that those terrible curses are brought on “because you did not serve Hashem with happiness and gladness of heart when you had an abundance of everything.” The Torah talks of people who did not appreciate what they had, which, in turn, made them bereft of joy.

Here in Melbourne, as we hunker down in lockdown 6.3 (or thereabouts), it is all too easy to wallow in the misery. But that will only sink us. This Parsha’s message is to focus on the blessings – especially the ones we take for granted. So every single day, take the time to focus on thankfulness. There are so many ways to do this. You can reserve five quiet minutes within your daily schedule to jot down a list of your latest blessings. You can get a gratitude app for your phone or device. You can resolve to thank a minimum number of people each day, and do it for real, not just in a perfunctorily courteous way. It will make you all the happier, and G-d willing, be the conduit to channel further blessings from Hashem!

Wishing you a good Shabbos and כתיבה וחתימה טובה לשנה טובה ומתוקה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS KI SEITZE

This week’s Parsha states, “You shall not keep in your pouch two different weights, one large and one small… you shall not keep in your house two different measures, one large and one small”. Curiously, the Torah does not simply prohibit inaccurate weights and measures. Rather, it focusses on having two measures that are inconsistent with each other. Why?

Another question: The Torah goes on to warn that using inconsistent measures and weights invites Amalek to attack. What is the connection?

The Rebbe explains that the two measures discussed in the Torah represent the double-standards of a person who applies different emphases to different parts of his life. A Jew may aim for the stars when it comes to the quality of his physical life and his social standing, but may pay precious little attention to the cultivation of his spiritual identity and fulfilling the purpose of his creation.

Having double standards makes a very easy target for Amalek – the evil inclination. The Torah teaches that by having the same high standards for the spiritual parts of our life, we will be protected from spiritual downfall. Of course, the same is true of our dealings and relationships with others – do we sometimes have the same failings that we accuse others of? Let us always remember to judge ourselves before – or perhaps instead of – judging others.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and כתיבה וחתימה טובה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS SHOFTIM

The Rambam presents three precedents in Chumash for the concept of Moshiach. The first proof, in Parshas Nitzavim, is the most explicit: “Hashem will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you. He will gather you from among the nations. Even if your Diaspora is at the ends of the heavens, Hashem will gather you up from there and bring you to the Land.” The Rambam’s second proof finds its source in the prophecy of Bilaam who foretold of two anointed kings – Dovid and Moshiach.

The third and final proof is in this week’s Parsha. In the words of the Rambam: “With regards to the Orei Miklat (cities of refuge), the Torah says, ‘When Hashem will expand your borders... you must add three more cities.’ This command was never fulfilled; surely, Hashem did not instruct this command in vain.” In other words, since the Torah foretold of three more cities becoming Orei Miklat, and this has never happened, the only viable option is that this will occur when Moshiach comes.

Given that the first two proofs are far clearer, why did the Rambam deem it necessary to present this third proof, which is more obscure? The Rebbe presents two different explanations in two different Sichos:

1. Everyone knows that the revelation of Moshiach will perfect our lives, and indeed, the world as a whole. But what about the Torah itself? Surely, it is so perfect and complete in every respect that the Messianic Age has nothing to contribute towards it. Our Parsha debunks this misconception by demonstrating that one of the 613 Mitzvos, that of the Orei Miklat, has been incomplete all this time, and will achieve a state of consummate completion only when Moshiach comes. By extension, Moshiach will uplift the rest of the Torah too.

2. In another explanation, the Rebbe demonstrates that nothing in existence parallels the eternity of Mitzvos. Not only is this true vis-à-vis the rest of creation, but even when compared to the rest of Torah itself. Although Torah as a whole is no doubt eternal, there are various levels within that. For example, the prophecies are certainly Torah, but their practical application may be limited to a specific time and place. Similarly, spiritual and mystical paradigms of the Torah may manifest themselves differently in different eras. In contrast, Mitzvos are absolute in their physical application, remaining constant and unchanging in all places and for all time, representing the ultimate eternity of Torah. That is why Hashem embedded the concept of Moshiach into the Orei Miklat, to fully infuse Moshiach and what he represents with the truest form of eternity. May we merit to immediately behold it with our own eyes.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS RE'EH

This week’s Parsha speaks about the sanctity of both the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash. One of the key differences between them was that the Mishkan sat on one flat level, whereas the Beis HaMikdash, situated atop a mountain, featured four successive points at which a person was required to climb steps. Unlike the Mishkan, the Beis Hamikdash imbued the actual physical terrain with holiness, and the varying physical ascents mirrored the corresponding spiritual topography.

But if so, why is it that the holiest place of all – the Holy of Holies – was not physically higher than the rest of the Beis Hamikdash? The Kodesh Kodoshim represented the ultimate peak of sanctity within the world; the place where Hashem’s Essence was manifest! Why wasn’t this dimension reflected in a physical rise of the Holy of Holies’ altitude?

The Rebbe explains that the sanctity revealed in the Kodesh Kodoshim was of a totally different sort than that of the other places in the Beis Hamikdash. The other levels of holiness were limited, and a parallel could therefore be mapped between them and the physical areas they occupied. The Holy of Holies, by contrast, was home to a manifestation of Hashem so high that, even as revealed in this world, it transcended all limitations of physical time and space.

This concept captures what the month of Elul is all about. The Arizal taught that the very highest of levels – that of the thirteen attributes of divine mercy – is revealed during the month of Elul. Precisely because it is such a tremendous revelation, it is not limited to the holy Days of Awe, but also accessible during the mundane days of Elul. The king, the very same king who generally inhabits the royal palace, is now just as approachable in the lowly field. Although these days of Elul may not feel “higher” to us, we must appreciate their potential and utilise this special opportunity to draw ever closer to Hashem. 

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS EIKEV

What does the Torah say about Chinuch? Last week, in Parshas Vaeschanan, we read the first paragraph of Shema, and this week, in Parshas Eikev, we read the second paragraph of Shema, which both contain the instruction to teach our young children (under Bar/Bas Mitzvah). In both instances, it is apparent that the Biblical obligation of teaching our children applies only to Torah study and not to Mitzvos observance. [Nevertheless, there is a Rabbinical obligation to train one’s children to keep the Mitzvos as well.]

On the face of it, this seems counterintuitive, because young children have greater capacity for action and deed than study. Even very young children can be trained to do all sorts of Mitzvos, well before they have the maturity and depth to engage in serious Torah study. Furthermore, we are all familiar with the adage, “The main thing is deed.” If so, why does the Torah charge the parent to teach their child Torah and not Mitzvos?

The Rebbe addresses this by focusing on a core difference between Torah and Mitzvos: Mitzvos change the world, whereas Torah changes the person. From the standpoint of Dirah B’Tachtonim, Mitzvos performed with the physical and material are superior, because they refine and elevate the lowest rung of creation (including the most physical parts of our own selves). Still, Mitzvos do not compulsorily command the person’s inner presence; it is quite possible to perform a good deed whilst one’s mind is somewhere else. The Mitzvah can remain entirely external of its performer, and there is nothing to guarantee that it will resonate with his inner being.

Study is a different matter entirely. When learning, one’s mind is stimulated and becomes united with the subject, and the process of absorbing and acquiring knowledge invariably touches the learner and ignites a deep passion and curiosity within. Torah learning animates us and injects everything we do with meaning because, unlike deed, study takes place inside the person, and not on the outside. It may be possible to perform a deed while your mind is elsewhere, but it is impossible to ponder an idea or probe a concept while your mind is wandering.

Thus, it really should come as no surprise that the primary focus of Chinuch is directed at Torah study and not Mitzvos, because the ultimate goal is to engender within the child a love and fire for Yiddishkeit, and to evoke their allegiance, devotion, pride, attraction, respect and feeling for the religion of their fathers. The journey to achieve this must necessarily tap into their minds and hearts, conjure up their vivid imaginations, and gift them an ideology to ponder.

Let us admit it; it is often far easier to tell a child what to do and what not to do, than to sit down and engage them in a fascinating Torah conversation. The Parsha’s message is that we should really be reversing our priorities – putting a little less focus on the Shalls and Shall Nots, and a little more focus on sharing Yiddishkeit through inspiring ideas, attractive abstracts, mesmerising Parsha time, enchanting stories and soul-stirring melody.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VOESCHANAN

This year, Shabbos Nachamu coincides with the 15th day of Av. Despite celebrating so many events, there is precious little in the way of actual observances or customs. Shulchan Oruch contains only the instruction to omit Tachanun, and the exhortation to increase one’s Torah study. As the Gemoro explains, this is because the summer days begin to get shorter, and the nights grow longer. Since “night was created for study”, the lengthening nights usher in a new period of increased Torah study.

This raises a simple enough question: The commandment to learn Torah encompasses every single available moment, and demands that one apply himself to the fullest extent of his abilities. If one is always expected to constantly learn Torah at his very maximum, both quantitatively and qualitatively, how is it possible to increase one’s Torah study from the 15th day of Av? Furthermore, why is night-time especially opportune for Torah study?

The Rebbe explains that, even when throttling full steam ahead through the passageways of Torah, there is always room for a particular type of improvement. This extra addition is not so much about one’s investment of time and effort, but the honing of one’s self. Successful Torah study requires Bittul, self-effacement, in order that the focal point of one’s study be more about the Torah and less about one’s self. The objective of learning is to mould our minds in the shape of the Torah, and not the other way around. In this regard, there is always room for improvement, because there is no end to the depths of Bittul that we can plumb – it is literally a life-long journey.

This is why Torah study is particularly propitious at night, for the darkness represents a void of light and vacuum of human activity. The entire world is in a greater state of Bittul; it is the time when people are clearly more subdued, culminating in periods of sleep, when one’s conscious faculties recede. For this reason, the lengthening of the nights on the 15th of Av coincides with the time of month that the moon’s light starts diminishing. This, too, represents the idea of Bittul, as the light of the moon progressively wanes precisely on account of its journey to its closest conjunction with the sun. The moon’s waning light may appear like a decline, but it is really on a journey of progression to unite with something higher than itself.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Shabbos Nachamu and the 15th of Av occur at the height of the summer. In cloudy and rainy Melbourne, the distant summer is likely the last thing on anyone’s mind. However, the mandate is the same. Through our increased Bittul and commitment to Torah study, may we experience the ultimate Nechama – the rebuilding of the Third Beis Hamikdash.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS DEVORIM

Eicha is the book of lamentations, and the opening word of each of its chapters. This week’s Parsha also contains the word Eicha; it appears at the beginning of the second Aliyah. The custom in many communities is to begin Sheini one Possuk earlier, so as not to start the Aliya on a negative note. In fact, this is the custom recorded in Sefer Haminhagim. Nevertheless, the current Chabad practice, based on the Rebbe’s Minyan, is to open the second Aliyah with the word Eicha, as if its negative implication does not concern us. Why?

An answer can be drawn from the Midrash, which points out that the word Eicha simply means, “How is it!?” This expression is not inherently bad, says the Midrash, and it serves as an expression of astonishment, either to celebrate abundant good or to bemoan raging evil. In the book of lamentations, the word is used in a negative sense: “How has the city that was once so populous remained lonely!” However, in this week’s Parsha, Moshe uses it in the positive sense, “How can I, alone, lead such a populous nation!” Moshe celebrated the fact that the Jews had reached such a high state of accomplishment and activity that he could no longer lead them alone, and he needed to appoint many more judges to help him.

In similar vein, Shabbos Chazon, the Shabbos of Vision, has a dual meaning. At the simplest level, the name Chazon originates from this week’s Haftorah, which describes the devastating vision of destruction beheld by the prophet Yeshayahu. However, according to R’ Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Shabbos Chazon also signifies that every Jew is shown a vision of the third Beis HaMikdash on this day, arousing us to do all that is necessary to realise this vision.

There are a number of lessons we can take from this, but one is the power of Positivity. Everything that exists and transpires is ultimately for the good. When you come across an “Eicha”, see celebration and not lamentation. When you come across “Chazon”, see a vision of construction and not destruction. Let us our positivity illuminate the darkness surrounding us, and we will thereby merit to speedily see the revelation of the third Beis Hamikdash.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS MATOS MASEI

When learning this week’s Parsha, I am reminded of a maths teacher who constantly drilled into us the mantra “Maths is Fun”. That’s because our Parsha lists the spoils the Jews captured from the Midianites: 675,000 sheep. 72,000 oxen. 61,000 donkeys. 32,000 people. Hashem commanded that half this amount be given to the soldiers who waged the war. In case you can’t figure out the maths, don’t fret – the Torah spells it out: 337,500 sheep. 36,000 oxen. 30,500 donkeys. 16,000 people. Hashem then commanded that the soldiers be taxed one-five-hundredth of their share, or one-thousandth of the total. In case you can’t figure that out either, have no fear. The Torah spells that out too: 675 sheep. 72 oxen. 61 donkeys. 16 people.

Why is it so important to know how much booty there was? Furthermore, even if there was some reason to eternally enshrine the total amounts that the Jews captured, why does the Torah need to spell out how much one-five-hundredth of one-half (i.e. one-thousandth) equals? Anyone with basic arithmetic skills can easily work this out!

The Rebbe explains that the detailed numeracy sheds light on something absolutely astounding: The Jews captured spoils in amounts that were perfect to a thousand – 675,000, 72,000, 61,000 and 32,000. The odds of this happening are so statistically improbable as to be practically impossible. Yet, this is exactly what happened!

Why did Hashem orchestrate this? The answer: Since Hashem commanded that a tax of one-thousandth be given to the Kohen Gadol, He caused the Jews to initially capture amounts perfectly divisible by a thousand, in order to allow them to subsequently fulfil His command properly. To underscore this point, the Torah itemises all the calculations comprehensively.

The eternal message is that we can truly fulfil any task that Hashem gives us – even one that may seem nigh impossible. If He tells us to do something, He thereby guarantees that it is certainly achievable, and He will even go so far as to orchestrate events as necessary.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS PINCHOS

Only twice in the Torah do we find that an already-taught Halacha eluded Moshe. The first incidence appears at the end of last week’s Parsha, where Moshe was stymied concerning the proper response to Zimri’s flagrant immorality. The second occurrence appears in this week’s Parsha, when Tzelofchod’s daughters sought their father’s inheritance, whereupon Moshe felt the immediate need to consult with Hashem instead of adjudicating the matter himself. What, specifically, is it about these two episodes that eluded Moshe?

The Rebbe explains that these were the two rare occasions where Moshe was solicited to determine the Halacha for a matter in which he was personally involved, even if somewhat remotely: In the first instance, Zimri and his henchmen confronted Moshe with the insolent claim, “Moshe, are the Midianites forbidden or permitted? If you say they are forbidden, who permitted for you the daughter of Yisro?” Thereby, Moshe’s own integrity came under attack.

A similar problem presented itself in the case of Tzelofchod’s daughters, albeit more subtly. In their proposal to Moshe, these women emphasised that Tzelofchod had not been part of Korach’s mutiny against Moshe and Aharon’s leadership so many years ago (38 to be precise). “Our father died in the desert, but he was not in the assembly that banded together against Hashem in Korach’s assembly, but he died for his own sin, and he had no sons.” Although not their intention, they thereby tainted Moshe’s absolute objectivity by emphasising their family’s loyalty and allegiance to Moshe in the face of his adversaries.

Therefore, in both instances, Hashem caused the Halacha to elude Moshe. This would bar him from delivering a verdict in which his judgement might be clouded, even ever so slightly, whether consciously or subconsciously.

This is surely something to ponder! Moshe was one of the wisest men of all times, a spiritualist so G‑dly that he did not require food and drink on Mount Sinai. He was the greatest prophet who ever lived, the humblest man upon earth, and the greatest Torah scholar of his generation, having been taught by Hashem Himself. Yet, even this most perfect of men could no longer trust himself to provide objective direction for a matter in which he had become personally implicated. All the more so for lesser mortals such as ourselves. We would be wise to heed the advice of this week’s Pirkei Avos: Assei Lecha Rav! Make for yourself a mentor. As the Rebbe often underscored, the benefit of a mentor is not so much for his wisdom and smarts, but his ability to retain the one quality that necessarily escapes our own biases and agendas – objectivity!

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BOLOK

“I had a dream,” a gentile recounted to the great and venerable R’ Yishmael son of R’ Yosi. “In it, I swallowed a star!”

“Wicked one, may you be cursed,” countered R’ Yishmael. “Your dream discloses that you murdered a Jew, each of whom is compared to the stars. As Bilaam said, ‘There shall come forth a star from Yaakov.’”

This tragic anecdote raises some simple enough questions. First of all, there are so many Pesukim which incontrovertibly describe all Jews, without exception, as stars. For example, Hashem informed Avrohom, “Look heavenward and count the stars… so will be your descendants.” Similarly, Moshe declared to the Jews, “Behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance.” Yet, R’ Yishmael ignored all those Pesukim, instead citing the one which does not refer to us all, but rather, to one specific Jew – Moshiach.

It is for this reason that R’ Akiva coined the title “Bar Kochba” for Shimon bar Koziva, commander of Beitar and leader of the Third Jewish Revolt against the Romans, for R’ Akiva regarded him as Moshiach, and hence the fulfilment of the verse, “There shall come forth a star (Kochav) from Yaakov.” If so, why did R’ Yishmael apply specifically this Posuk to all Jews?

Furthermore, there seems to be nothing more contrary to this Posuk than the above episode! The Posuk portrays a Jewish leader at the pinnacle of power, commanding tremendous authority and influence – the exact opposite of the downtrodden, persecuted, murdered Jew!

The Rebbe resolves these issues through a teaching he often cited from Meor Einyaim, in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, positing that every Jew, without exception, bears a spark of Moshiach. The Rebbe explains that this is uniquely evident in the star metaphor: What makes a star unique is that it seems so tiny, yet at the very same time, so majestic and exalted, radiating light that serves as a navigational guide to all who are lost. This is wholly reminiscent of Moshiach who, whilst exceedingly humble, is at same time so majestic and exalted, and a guiding beacon to all. The empowering message of R’ Yishmael is that, to some degree, the same is true of every single Jew – even one so seemingly powerless as to have fallen victim to the murderous deeds of anti-Semite.

Interestingly, in the modern vernacular, describing someone as a star is suggestive of a person who is smart, admired, talented, wealthy, famous… in other words, someone at the very apex of success. However, what happens when we preface the word star with another word – Jewish Star? All of a sudden, haunting images are conjured up – ghettos, death camps, crematoria, ashes. The message of R’ Yishmael is that even in our most crushing moments of exile, each Jew is Moshiach’s star.

Let us remember that in our own personal lives. Even in moments of great personal challenge, and perhaps even of forced submission, always remember that we are the stars of Moshiach, with the dominating power to overcome all.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS CHUKAS

There is a gigantic leap of 38 years in this week’s Parsha, where the Torah fast-forwards from the second year of the Jews’ sojourn to the fortieth year. Sadly, we learn about the passing of Miriam and Aharon HaKohen, as well as the sentence meted out to Moshe Rabeinu. In relation to Aharon, the Torah says that he was interred at Hor Hahar.
 
What is the meaning of this double-expression? Rashi clarifies that it was a mountain situated atop another mountain. To ensure we fully understand, Rashi describes it as a small apple on top of a big apple. Come again? How does portraying it as “a small apple atop a big apple” afford us any additional insight in envisaging one mountain atop another? Does the image conjured up in our mind somehow change as a result of this metaphor? If not, why does Rashi present it?
 
The Rebbe links this Rashi with a Possuk in Shir Hashirim, which depicts the Jewish People as an apple tree. According to the Gemoro (Shabbos 88a), the fruit of an apple tree begins to grow before its leaves, and is emblematic of the Jewish people who always preface Na’aseh (“we will do”) before Nishma (“we will hear”).
 
The ultimate objective of a tree is to produce its fruit. However, in order to achieve that, a lot of supporting infrastructure is required – branches, stems, blossoms, leaves. Most trees produce the entire framework first, and concern themselves with the ultimate objective all the way at the very end. What makes an apple tree unique is its ongoing focus on the end product from the very get-go. This is similar to the way a Jew ought to conduct himself, keeping his eye on the decisive goal from the outset, and placing primary emphasis on HaMaaseh Hu Haikar the entire time, even as he embarks on building the complex framework that is required to nurture and support the goal.
 
Through this, we can gain understanding into Rashi’s insight. Each of us is a “mountain” to our surroundings, serving as a landmark to others who are navigating their own pathways to Yiddishkeit, and overseeing their journeys. But from where does a Jew find the resolve and boldness to serve in such a capacity, when cognisant of his own limitations and shortcomings? Perhaps it is counter-productive to assist others before fully perfecting one’s own self. Perhaps it is better to first become fluent in the Torah’s wisdom, keep every detail of the Mitzvos meticulously, and hone one’s character-traits and emotions.
 
Rashi empowers each of us to serve as a mountain by reminding us that we are also like an apple tree, which first focuses on the fruit – the crop produced for the benefit of others – even before sorting out the logistics and supporting infrastructure – one’s personal knowledge and character perfection. Furthermore, Rashi emphasises that, whether as an apple or a mountain, we may indeed be small, but we sit atop a larger apple or mountain. In other words, each Jew serves as a guide to others not only in his or her own right, but by sitting atop the larger apple or mountain – the Nassi of the generation. Thus, the impact we have on others is not constrained by our own limited reservoirs, for each of us conveys the power of the Nassi of the generation.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS KORACH

“The entire congregation, they are all holy, and Hashem is in their midst. So why do you exalt yourselves above the congregation of Hashem?”

Unlike most of the desert uprisings and insurrections against Moshe, Korach’s mutiny commanded the attention of the nation’s elite. Leading scholars and heads of Sanhedrin were utterly enthralled and captivated by Korach’s ideology: Every person is valuable, each Jew has a soul-spark that is part of Hashem’s Essence, so what right does anyone have to assume a leadership position over another? We are all equally connected to the divine, and each of us should therefore be empowered to lead ourselves in whatever way we personally see fit. Each of us can be our own religious authority, and it is precisely that which will allow us to live as absolute equals.

In a sense, Korach was the first Jewish egalitarian. He believed that since all people are equally important, they all deserve exactly the same functions and opportunities. He saw no need for unique spiritual roles – such as teacher and student, leader and follower, Kohen and Yisroel, man and woman – and discounted the value of family customs and tribal affiliation. Korach aspired for a religion free of identity differences; he believed they imposed segregation and barriers. And let us admit it, Korach’s ideology comes across as noble and ethical.

Moshe’s response? He deferred the showdown to the next morning. As Rashi explains, in doing so, Moshe was driving home a deeper point, “Are you able to transform morning into evening? As impossible as it is for you to cancel that kind of separation, ingrained as it is in creation, so too will you fail in your campaign against Aharon the Kohen!”

As the Rebbe explains it, Moshe was admonishing Korach against confusing diversity with disunity, or conflating differentiation with inequality. If anything, the profoundest equality and unity is precisely the product of diversity, with the realisation that each of us has something that the other does not, and by extension, that only by coming together can we attain a perfection that eludes us as individuals. Which is exactly why Hashem ingrained diversity in creation, humanity being no exception.

The other side of the coin is that Korach’s creed ultimately fails in exactly what he set out to accomplish. Unity fails when it is built on the notion that nothing of significance differentiates us. If that were truly the case, then every other person would cease to be important to one’s own self, given that no one else has anything unique to offer. And once we longer truly matter to each other, it is a short road to anarchy.

This message is one of the hallmarks of the Rebbe’s leadership. At every step of the way, the Rebbe concerned himself with the plight of all individuals, communities and broader society, promoting every kind of outreach and support to Jews of all stripes, and to non-Jews as well. Yet, precisely along with that, the Rebbe taught that humanity suffers by the blurring of lines, and vigorously championed the uniqueness of each person’s distinct role and mission.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS SHLACH

We stand now at the threshold of the month of Tammuz. Its name is puzzling, because Tammuz is the name of a Babylonian form of pagan sun worship. In fact, the word Tammuz appears only once in the entire Tanach (Yechezkel 8:14), in a passage depicting in vivid detail the sacrilege of the Jews in worshipping this ancient Mesopotamian sun-deity in the very Heichal of the Beis Hamikdash. How could this be the Jewish name of the month?

The answer lies in the literal translation of Tammuz, which means heat. Although the name Tammuz was adopted by ancient idolaters to describe the character of their worship, the Rebbe explains that, on a profounder level, the name also represents the blazing heat of the summer sun – metaphoric of an intense revelation of spiritual energy in this world, and the warmth of our cherished relationship with Hashem. The very name which is reminiscent of blasphemy and paganism from one perspective is the same name which, from a deeper vantage point, reminds us of the heat and passion of our relationship with Hashem.

Chassidus advances a similar message regarding the outwardly gloomy nature of the current Jewish month. Some of the most calamitous events to befall the Jewish People – such as the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaching of the walls of Yerushalayim – all occurred in the month of Tammuz. Yet, as we come closer to the time of the redemption, the month of Tammuz has become synonymous not only with destruction, but with the Chagei Hageulah of Gimmel and Yud Beis-Gimmel Tammuz. Tammuz is thus a most apt name for this month, for it reflects the duality of the Jewish experience in the month of Tammuz; the rise of evil at the surface, yet Hashem’s guiding hand beneath it all.

Each year, as the month of Tammuz arrives, we must remind ourselves of what this month is all about: To seek out the warmth and heat in the pervasive blackness of Golus. The Torah dares us to always see through the gloom and doom, and to uncover the bright opportunity inherent within each challenge. This attitude is vital in achieving our own personal Geulah, which will collectively bring about the ultimate Geulah.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS BEHA'ALOSCHO

Killing time. Passing time. Idling time. It’s what you do – or don’t do – while waiting for something else to happen. Such as the end of lockdown. What’s the Torah’s take on “in-between time”?

This week’s Parsha tells us that the Jews stopped and set up camps in many places as they travelled through the desert, and there was no fixed period for each stopover. Sometimes they stayed for months or years on end; at other times they stayed but for a single night. Nevertheless, no matter how short or long they camped, the Mishkan was always erected.

Clearly, the Mishkan was a temporary structure; it was always assembled with the full knowledge that it would eventually be dismantled as the Jews moved on, sometimes very soon. The problem is that the 39 Melachos of Shabbos are derived from the Mishkan. Since Melachos are derived from the Mishkan, why does the Torah prohibition of construction on Shabbos apply only to permanent structures? The building of even a temporary structure should be a Torah prohibition, and not just Rabbinic?

The answer is found in a Possuk in this week’s Parsha: “By the Word of Hashem they camped and by the Word of Hashem they travelled.” When a person sets up a structure of his own, knowing full well that he will soon dismantle it, this cannot be considered a permanent structure. However, when Hashem commands us to build a structure, even if only for a few hours, there is nothing more permanent than that. The Mishkan assumed the full significance of a lasting structure, because Hashem wanted it up!

We too are on a sojourn through life. At times, we stop to set up tent temporarily. We put the pressures of life on hold for a few moments as we daven Mincha, learn a little, or share an inspiring moment with others. Or when we have 5 spare minutes here or 10 extra minutes there, we quickly smuggle in a short Vort or a quick act of kindness. Often, we view such moments as trifling and insignificant in the bigger picture. After all, how can only fifteen minutes of spirituality compare with eight uninterrupted hours devoted to the latest work project? However, Torah tells us this is not so. These moments of spirituality, however short in time duration, are the ones which are truly lasting. For they are by the Word of Hashem.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS NASSO

It is the longest Parsha, but Nasso also seems overly repetitious. Sixty-six Pesukim are essentially the same six Pesukim repeated again and again, twelve times in total. Each set of six Pesukim contains the same list of Korbonos, with the only significant variation being the name of the Nassi at the beginning and end of each arrangement. Seemingly, it would have been far more expeditious for the Torah to list all of the Korbonos once, and specify that the same list was offered up by all of the Nessi’im. Why are all the details of the Korbonos repeated twelve times?

An answer to this question can be gleaned from the Midrash, which explains that each day’s Korbonos was accompanied by a completely different set of intentions. So much so, that the Torah regards each set of Korbonos as a unique and novel contribution worthy of its own elaboration, and not merely a recurrence of the same action twelve times. To each tribe, the Korbonos represented completely different themes:

Yehudah saw glimmers of royalty and kingship in all the details of the Korbonos, whereas Yissachar perceived in them aspects of the Torah they so diligently toiled over, and Zevulun saw a reflection of their partnership that supported Torah scholars. For Reuven, the details of the Korbonos represented the sincerity of Teshuvah. Shimon, who stood for morality, recognised the properties of the Mishkan, whose purpose is to similarly uphold morality. Gad, renowned for the prowess of their troops on the battlefield, beheld the birth of the Army of Hashem at the time of the Exodus. Efraim and Menashe saw the blessings of Yosef and their fulfilment, whereas Binyomin apprehended the blessings conferred upon their matriarch, Rachel. Dan discerned the might of Shimshon, and Osher, meaning fortunate, envisaged the praise and redemption of the Jews. Naftali, who excelled at the Mitzvah of honouring parents, glimpsed the power of our patriarchs and matriarchs. [See the Midrash at length.]

Still, if the perspectives of each tribe diverged to such a great degree, why did they all offer up exactly the same Korbonos? Would it not have been more apt to bring different Korbonos, to more readily exemplify their individualised motifs? The Rebbe explains that true unity is comprised of two dimensions, each one equally important. The first dimension is to recognise that we are all equal – and none more equal than the other. The second dimension is to recognise that each individual has unique abilities and perspectives that have no equal, and which simply cannot be replicated by another.

The first dimension guarantees that one does not become too proud for another – but it, alone, can’t guarantee that we will appreciate the value of another. The second dimension ensures that we seek out the unique contribution of others – but it, alone, doesn’t prevent one from perceiving his own gifts as superior to those of another. It is precisely the synergy of both these dimensions that leads to true unity – where one regards himself as a true equal to all others and vice versa, while at the same time recognising what it is about each person that makes them unparalleled.

And that is why the Nesi’im all offered up exactly the same Korbonos, even though their connotation meant something so inherently different to each of them. This was to emphasise, in the one act, the inherent equality of all Jews, and at the very same time, the absolute exclusivity of every single Jew. 

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS bAMIDBAR

Rosh Chodesh Sivan has begun; the month in which the Torah was given. Why Sivan? The Midrash tells an intriguing tale: A king was planning the wedding procession of his daughter, with all the ceremony and pomp that would befit her royal highness. The king conferred with his advisors for their thoughts on how she would best make her grand entrance. One advisor suggested that she ride in lofty splendour atop an elephant, so that she would be exalted way above the throngs and masses. Another advisor disagreed, pointing out that although an elephant is tall, it lacks dignity and grace. Instead, he suggested that she ride a handsome and stately steed, well groomed, muscular, and dignified. A third advisor rejected that idea too. For, while an elephant is tall and a horse majestic, neither beast could appreciate the princess’ beauty and talent, let alone give her praise. His suggestion – which carried the day – was for the princess to be held aloft by man. In that way, her praises could be sung as she was carried.

This story is a metaphor for the giving of the Torah. The month of Nissan – the first month, the one in which Hashem wrought many miracles – is lofty. The month of Iyar – when the trees begin to blossom and the flowers begin to bloom – is splendid. However, neither month sings the Torah’s praises the way that Sivan can. For, the zodiac of Sivan is Gemini, twins. We, the people, may not be lofty or grand, but we are able to learn and understand the Torah. In doing so, we perceive the Torah’s beauty, which in turn inspires us to praise, respect and honour the Torah.

This Midrash gives us a lot to think about. But we will focus here on just one question – why twins? Every single Jew can sing the Torah’s praises, so why is the Torah connected specifically with twins? There are a lot of answers to this question, but one answer, which is timely for the period before Mattan Torah, is the importance of Jewish unity. On Rosh Chodesh Sivan 2448, the Jews went from being a nation of quarrel-mongers to a nation that was “K'Ish echod b'lev echod” – Like one man with one heart. This achievement was the most valuable preparation for Mattan Torah.

In 5746, the Rebbe made a request which he described as a “Bakasha Nafshis”, a heartfelt request. The Rebbe asked that, in connection with Rosh Chodesh Sivan, when the Jewish people encamped around Har Sinai with complete unity, every community should focus on Achdus. Thus, the Shabbos before Shavuos is often referred to in Chabad circles as Shabbos Achdus. True unity is the most important prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

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

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas BEHAR BECHUKOSAI

Can you think of a connection between wild animals, Shabbos and Chometz? One answer is that the Torah uses a form of the word Shabbos – to stop – with regards to all three. In this week’s Parsha, Hashem foretells that He will cause the wild animals to withdraw (V’hishbati) from the land. Shabbos is called as such because on that day we are commanded to cease and desist from the 39 Melachos. And before Pesach, we are commanded to remove (Tashbisu) all Chometz from our possession.

Regarding the blessing of our Parsha, the Sages debate what the cessation of wild animals will actually look like. R’ Yehudah holds that all wild animals will be completely eradicated and become literally extinct, whereas R’ Shimon maintains that the beasts of prey will continue to thrive, albeit without their harmful and destructive tendencies.

The Rebbe demonstrates that this dispute is really an offshoot of a deeper dispute about the precise meaning of the word Shabbos. According to R’ Yehudah, Shabbos denotes utter cessation and absolute eradication, whereas according to R’ Shimon, Shabbos implies elimination of the object’s typical form and characteristics, but not the abolition of its very essence.

That is why, regarding Chometz, R’ Yehudah rules that it must be completely burned, so that its very essence is obliterated, whereas R’ Shimon holds it is sufficient to crumple the Chometz and throw it to the winds or the ocean, thereby nullifying its characteristic form, even though its very essence still endures. In similar fashion, with regards to Melacha performed in a manner that runs contrary to the typical purpose of labour, such as without premeditation and intent, R’ Yehudah is strict, for the essence of the Melacha was still done, whereas R’ Shimon is more lenient, for the Melacha is devoid of its characteristic form. This same debate manifests itself with regards to the blessing of our Parsha – R’ Yehudah maintains that the very essence of the wild creatures will become non-existent, whereas R’ Shimon holds that only their ferociousness will be eradicated, but their essence will persist in a more domesticated and tamer version of their former selves.

The Halacha with regards to all the above is like R’ Shimon. The message for us is that precious little in the world is beyond transformation. Even Chometz on Pesach, Melacha on Shabbos, and dangerous animals – their essence transcends their harmful form and characteristics, which is what allows for them to metamorphose into a benign version of their former selves. In similar fashion, our job is to effect a makeover of the world around us, adapting every part of it to serve as a Dirah bTachtonim for Hashem.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas EMOR

This week’s Parsha concludes with the saga of the Mekallel, who was stoned to death for his blasphemy. One of the irregularities about this incident is that, prior to his sentencing, it had not even been established that the penalty for blasphemy is death. Only after the Mekallel committed his sin did Hashem inform the Jewish people that he be put to death.

Where is the fairness? If the punishment was unknown beforehand, the Mekallel could have argued that he was not aware of the sin’s severity. Furthermore, Halacha generally dictates that no one – not even a sage or scholar – can be punished for a transgression without being warned in advance about the Aveira and its punishment. In this case, however, the punishment for blasphemy was not yet known, which made a proper warning impossible. If so, how was the Mekallel punished?

Most opinions hold that, indeed, the punishment meted in this particular circumstance was exceptional – yet understandable. For the Mekallel was part of the “Generation of the Desert” and privy to the great revelations beheld there. How, then, could he argue with any seriousness that he didn’t realise the severity of his deed? For a member of that generation, such an infraction did not require a warning, as it was completely indefensible.

A minority position (Kesef Mishnah for the Rambam) takes this a lot further. According to this opinion, the sin of blasphemy is distinct from any other Aveirah in that it does not require a warning whatsoever in any generation. For, with regards to any other sin, there is always a possibility, however slight, that the wrongdoer simply made a mistake, and did not understand or appreciate the severity of his actions. But blasphemy? How does a Jew even entertain such thoughts in his head, let alone express them in speech? There is nothing about it which could be a mistake.

To some degree, this same idea can be applied to speech in general. Chassidus places a lot of emphasis on the power of positive speech, and admonishes us to steer clear of improper speech, let alone profanity. This is because speech does really matter. The best way to guarantee that one does not err and speak inappropriately is to ensure that such expressions and conceptions are not even part of one’s thought process in the first place.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas ACHAREI KEDOSHIM

This week’s Parsha instructs us: “With Tzedek you shall judge your fellow.” What does Tzedek mean? According to one opinion, Tzedek means justice, and this Possuk instructs the court to hold a person accountable for his deeds. According to a second opinion, Tzedek, like Tzedakah, means charity, and is a reminder to always judge one’s fellow charitably, by giving him the benefit of doubt.

These two explanations seem mutually exclusive. The first explanation instructs us to stick to the facts and judge truthfully. However, the second explanation would seem to have us ignore the facts, for that seems to be the only way to judge a person favourably when he has clearly committed evil. How can one Possuk lend itself to conflicting explanations?

The Rebbe sheds light on this puzzle with the principle that Hashem does not allow one to be challenged by anything more than he or she can handle. Therefore, when we encounter someone who has stooped extremely low, this is a sign that he possesses the power to overcome the challenge – even if he didn’t actually exercise that power. Accordingly, focusing on the facts reveals not only the sinner’s failures, but also his special abilities to overcome them.

What does this mean practically? When someone sins, it is the role of the judge to dispense justice. But punishing the sin should not stifle our acknowledgment of the person’s G‑d-given ability to overcome his temptation. Punishment, although necessary, is not inspiring or empowering; it highlights the person’s failures and reminds him of his darkest moments. By taking the dual approach and reminding the sinner – and ourselves – of his unique and powerful G-d given ability to overcome his challenges, we will empower him to be a better person, and we will also be able to judge him charitably

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas tazria metzora

Problems present themselves in varying degrees of severity. Generally speaking, things are at their worst when the problem reaches totality. For example, a few blown fuses might be bad, but a collapse of the entire power grid is the absolute worst. Slow internet may be annoying, but a complete outage brings life to a standstill. Cold weather might be uncomfortable, but freezing temperatures can be life-threatening. And so on and so forth. This leads to a simple question: If Tzaraas is so bad, why does the Torah rule that one remains pure if the affliction spreads over his entire head and body?

The Rebbe explains this enigma in two opposite ways. The simpler possibility is to concede that this Halacha does not follow the rules of human logic, and is a Gzeiras Hakasuv – a superrational decree of Hashem. However, a deeper analysis will yield a logical explanation – when Tzaraas extends over the entire body, there is simply too much of it to attribute to the malady of Tzaraas. It doesn’t make sense that punishment would have reached such an extent, and the abundance of whiteness proves that it actually is not Tzaraas, but some other skin condition or unusual complexion.

The Gemoro teaches that, as a prerequisite to Moshiach, all governments and kingdoms will abandon their religions and turn to heresy. The Sages finds a parallel to the laws of Tzaraas – just as it a sign of purity when it emerges in totality, so too, the world’s utter heresy will herald the coming of Moshiach.

Here too, the Rebbe presents two ways of apprehending this teaching. The simplistic approach is to assume that such a process is a superrational decree of Hashem – He will bring Moshiach when the world has sunken to its lowest, and least deserves it. However, a deeper approach is predicated on logic – when heresy extends throughout the entire world, there is simply too much of it to attribute to universal apathy or disinterest in G‑dliness. Rather, widespread disaffection with accepted religious norms and conventions demonstrates the world’s readiness to tap into something far deeper and more real, i.e. the ultimate truth. Thus, Moshiach’s coming will not be in spite of the world’s state, but because of the world’s state.

When engaging the world around us, this powerful message reminds us not to become demoralised by any gaping spiritual voids we may perceive around us. Rather than being a manifestation of evil, they may very well represent opportunities for change that are ripe with potential.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas shemni

Shemini was the Parsha we learned for Chitas during Pesach, as it is this week too. One of the more obvious links between Shemini and Pesach is spelled out towards the end of the Parsha: The obligation for every single Jew to purify himself before each of the three Regolim (Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos).

In the times of the second Beis Hamikdash, many Jews were lax in their observance of the laws of ritual purity. The Sages referred to them as “Amei Ha’aretz” and decreed that they could not be trusted. However, recognising that every Jew purifies himself before Yom-Tov, the Sages ruled that the Amei Ha’aretz could be relied upon during each of the three Regolim. This led to a seemingly bizarre twist. If an Am Ha’aretz touched a piece of meat or a barrel of wine on Yom-Tov, those items remained pure for the duration of Yom-Tov, but they automatically became impure the moment Yom-Tov ended! This seems paradoxical: If the Am Ha’aretz touched these items when he was deemed pure, why should they be regarded as impure as soon as Yom-Tov ends?

The Rebbe explains that the purity of each Am Ha’aretz on Yom-Tov does not stem from him own efforts alone. Rather, when all Jews gather together, each person fuses with the greater Jewish collective, which is in a collective state of a purity. The Am Ha’aretz becomes part of that entity too, so he is regarded as pure. However, as soon as Yom-Tov ends and the Am Ha’aretz returns to his own individual interests, he resumes his former status. Therefore, everything he touched must henceforth be treated as impure.

Having celebrated the Yom-Tov of Pesach with family and community, Parshas Shemini imparts the tremendous power of community, and inspires us to do as much as we can to keep that momentum alive, even after Yom-Tov has ended.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Koach nissan

This year, Chof-Ches Nissan occurs on Shabbos. Rare as it is, these two events also coincided shortly after the Jewish nation entered Eretz Yisroel for the very first time. In fact, it was on Shabbos, Chof-Ches Nissan, that the Jewish people conquered the city of Yericho, when its walls came tumbling down. By extension, this event marked the successful embarkation of the campaign to conquer the entire land.

The city of Yericho is etymologically related to the word Reiach, which means smell. Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that smell and fragrance is emblematic of Taanug, pleasure, the very highest and most deep-seated faculty of a person, as well as the entirety of Hishtalshelus (i.e. the level of Atik). Yericho’s virtually impenetrable walls represent the seemingly impossible task of reserving one’s deepest pleasures for Kedushah alone.

However, the city of Yericho was overcome after all. Its capture occurred through the power of the Shofar, blown each time the Jews encircled its walls, and the power of Shabbos, the day that Yericho fell to the Jews. In Chassidus, both Mitzvos are specifically connected with the concept of pleasure. For example, one of the actual connotations of the word Shofar is pleasure, and similarly, it is a Mitzvah to have pleasure in honour of Shabbos. With the dual power of these Mitzvos, the Jews successfully occupied Yericho, annexing what it represents for Kedushah alone.

In similar fashion, one of the unparalleled qualities of Moshiach is his ability to judge by sense of smell. From this, it is evident that Moshiach is connected with the highest and most deep-seated level of Taanug, pleasure, and represents the exact antithesis of Yericho in its heyday. When Chof-Ches Nissan coincides with Shabbos, as it did when the Jews defeated Yericho, we are fortified with all the power we need in order to reserve and derive our own deepest pleasures from Kedushah alone. This takes so much more effort than merely channelling our more external faculties, such as speech and deed, but in doing so, we will accelerate the Messianic Age of pleasure and bliss!

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHVI'I SHEL PESACH

“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. May we speedily recite Shehecheyanu for the coming of Moshiach!

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a good Yom Tov!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS TZAV

The Gemoro relates: It once happened that Erev Pesach fell on Shabbos (like this year). Owing to the fact that the calendar was not yet fixed, but based on actual moon sightings, no one could remember the last time Erev Pesach fell on Shabbos (even then it wasn’t common…). Crucially, no one knew whether the Korbon Pesach could be offered up on Shabbos. Even the Bnei Bseirah, the leaders of the generation, did not know what to do. They asked: “Is there any person who knows whether the Korbon Pesach overrides Shabbos?”

No one knew. No one, that is, besides a certain man, Hillel, who had come up from Babylonia to Jerusalem. He had diligently studied with the two most eminent scholars of the previous generation, Shmaya and Avtalyon. The Bnei Bseirah summoned Hillel, and to make a long story short, not only did he know that the Korbon Pesach is offered up on Shabbos, but he presented an exegetical foundation for his reply. In a nutshell, he demonstrated that the Korban Pesach should be regarded no differently than any other communal Korban, all of which overrides Shabbos. So impressed were the Bnei Bseirah that they immediately abdicated their leadership in favour of Hillel.

There is a simple problem with this story! We clearly read in the Torah, on Parshas Behaalosecha, that the Jews offered up the Korbon Pesach on the 14th of Nissan in the second year of their sojourn in the desert. And equally clear is that the Mishkan was inaugurated on Sunday, the 1st of Nissan, of the very same year. If the 1st of Nissan was Sunday, then the 14th of Nissan was Shabbos, and we thus have a supremely clear and simple proof that the Korbon Pesach was offered up on Shabbos. Why was this precedent not invoked?

The Rebbe prefaces the answer to this question by noting the uniqueness of the first two times the Jews offered up the Korban Pesach. The first time, back in Egypt, was a completely individualised experience. There was no Mishkan nor Mikdash, no communal altar and no Kohanim or other community representatives. The whole thing was literally in house – by the family for the family.

One year later, the Korban Pesach was the exact opposite; it was a completely collective experience. It was the only time in Jewish history that the entire nation was present. All the Jews lived in the same camp, and the same three Kohanim (astoundingly!) served as the community’s representatives to offer up all the thousands of animals on their behalf.

Every Korban Pesach since then exhibited a combination of both elements. There was the collective element, in the sense that all Jews offered it up together, in the same place, through the same group of Kohanim. Yet, this collective element was itself somewhat individualised, with the entire nation being divided into three groups. There was also the individual element in the sense that the Korban Pesach was then taken home. Yet, this individualistic element was itself somewhat broadened by partaking of it with a close-knit group of family or friends, and not simply alone.

Keeping this in mind, the fact that the Korban Pesach in our Parsha was offered up on Shabbos was a no-brainer, for it was wholly a communal sacrifice on that specific occasion, no different than any other community sacrifice which overrides Shabbos. Bnei Bseirah struggled with the status of all subsequent Pesach sacrifices. They perceived the focus on the collective to be somewhat compromised by the simultaneous focus on individuality, and they thought perhaps it could not override Shabbos. Hillel established that the annual Korban Pesach’s communal status is in no way compromised by the individuality it exhibits. If anything, it is enhanced by it.

The Rebbe derives a most relevant lesson, so apt for our times: We cannot focus on the collective at the expense of individuality, for in doing so, we cease to accept or appreciate how each person is gifted in his or her unique way. Neither can we concern ourselves with individuality at the expense of the collective, for then everyone becomes self-absorbed; highly cognisant of his or her own skills, talents and uniqueness, but harnessing it selfishly instead of for the collective good. The correct approach is synergising both elements. We need to inject individuality into our collectivism; this reminds us that although everyone matters equally, everyone is simultaneously different. We also need to inject collectivism into our individuality; this reminds us to use our talents for others, and for the greater good, at the same time respecting the uniqueness of what everyone else brings to the table.

Let us hope that we will have the opportunity this year to offer up the Korban Pesach on Shabbos, together with Moshiach, may he come speedily in our times.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYAKHEL PEKUDEI

At the beginning of this week’s double Parsha, Moshe instructed the Jewish People to build a Mishkan. As Rashi renders it, Moshe told the Jews: “This is the word that Hashem has commanded me to say to you.”

According to the Rebbe, Moshe was not just telling the Jews what they needed to do. He was also explaining why he wouldn’t be rolling up his own sleeves and pitching in. Moshe was emphasising that Hashem had instructed him to tell the craftsmen to do it, and not do it himself. Much like the Jewish children who did not abandon their studies for the sake of building the Mishkan, Moshe too, who embodied Torah study, could not allow the Mishkan’s construction to distract him from Torah study.

Yet, as the double Parsha progresses, we see that after the craftsmen finished fashioning all of the Mishkan’s components, they could not put it all together, try as they might. In desperation they came to Moshe. He alone was able to put the Mishkan together.

The message is that each of us has a primary role, be it to focus on Torah study and spirituality, or to engage with and refine the physical world. Whatever our role, it should not be abandoned in the mistaken belief that something else is more important. The “Moshes” amongst us need to focus on learning Torah and the “craftsmen” amongst us need to focus on building the Mishkan. At the same time, each of us must realise that ultimate success depends on both of our efforts. Moshe wasn’t able to build the Mishkan without the craftsmen, and at the same time, the craftsmen were unable to assemble the Mishkan without Moshe.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS KI SISA

Perhaps the most intriguing of the four Parshiyos is Parah, which we read this week. According to many Rishonim, there is a Biblical obligation to hear Parah on an annual basis. But why is Parah Adumah such a pivotal Mitzvah that the Torah itself necessitates an annual reading, something which is virtually unprecedented (other than for Zachor)?

This seems further confounded by the Yerushalmi, which explains that we read Parshas Parah in the month of Adar because it is the time of year when the Jewish people prepare for the Korban Pesach, when one needs to be in a state of purity. Thus, says the Yerushalmi, Parshas Parah is timely because it represents “the purity of all Jews.” This seems good and nice until one remembers that the Parah Adumah was only required for a person who was actually impure – and not just with any impurity, but that of a corpse. If Parshas Parah is practically relevant only for a Jew who had become impure, how can it be portrayed as “the purity of all Jews”?

If anything, this specific detail magnifies the incongruency of Parshas Parah amongst the four Parshiyos. The other three Parshiyos commemorate Mitzvos that apply to every single Jew without exception – Machtzis Hashekel, remembering what Amalek did, and the Halachos of the Jewish calendar and the festival of Pesach. What is Parshas Parah doing in that bunch, given that its Mitzvah applies to a marginal segment of Jews?

 The Rebbe infers (both from Pesukim as well as from the Rishonim) that the Mitzvah parameters of Parah Adumah is not so much the actual purification process, but rather, the command that we stand in a state of readiness to administer the purification process, so that we can address situations of impurity as soon as they arise. Although the actual purification process is required by specific Jews, i.e. those who became impure, the readiness to stand by at all times to help others with their purification is something relevant to every Jew.

The Rebbe further points out that standing ready achieves another objective as well; when one remains vigilant to help purify others, he is less likely to become impure. Thus, Parshas Parah is indeed a profound concept which applies to all Jews in all places and all times, and is a core aspect of a Jew’s worship of Hashem – to ensure that one is constantly ready to correct any spiritual obstacles he encounters, which, in turn, will make them less likely to occur in the first place.

We might suggest a connection to Parshas Ki Sisa. Rashi tells us that the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah is an antidote to the Golden Calf: “Let the cow come and atone for the calf.” But what is the inherent connection between the two? It emerges from the above that Parah is the very antithesis of the mindset that led the Jewish people to sin: Precisely because they had just experienced the immense revelation at Sinai, they felt spiritually invincible, incapable of faltering or erring. They believed they could do no wrong, and thus had no need to stand vigilant against the Satan. It was precisely that attitude which got the better of them. Thus, the Yerushalmi clarifies that this Mitzvah is “the purity of all Jews”, for it conveys that the best way to assure purity is by maintaining a state of high alert.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYIKRA

The prerogative to perform Mitzvos in the most beautiful way appears twice in this week’s Parsha – we are encouraged to use the finest olive oil for the Menachos, even though all qualities are technically Kosher, and we are commanded to bring Korbonos from the choicest animals, “All of the Cheilev (i.e. top quality) should be given to Hashem.”

From this, the Rambam derives a general lesson: “One who desires to gain merit for himself, subjugate his evil inclination, and amplify his generosity, should bring his sacrifice from the most desirable and superior type … Similarly, everything given for the sake of the Almighty should be of the most attractive and highest quality. If one builds a house of prayer, it should be more attractive than his own dwelling. If he feeds a hungry person, he should feed him from the best and tastiest foods of his table. If he clothes one who is naked, he should provide him with attractive garments. If he consecrates something to the Beis Hamikdash, he should do so with the best of his possession.”

There is one problem: Hiddur Mitzvah, the beautification of a Mitzvah, is derived from a completely different source, within the context of the Shiras Hayam, where it states, “This is my G‑d and I will beautify Him”. The Gemoro (Shabbos 133b) regards this as “An instruction to beautify yourself before Him in Mitzvos. Make before Him a beautiful Sukkah, a beautiful Lulav, a beautiful Shofar, beautiful Tzitzis. Obtain beautiful parchment for a Torah scroll, have it inscribed with beautiful ink using a beautiful quill by an expert scribe, and wrap the scroll in beautiful silks.” Not only does the Gemoro reference an entirely different source, but it also presents completely different examples to illustrate this idea!

The Rebbe explains that the Gemoro and the Rambam are speaking about two completely different things. The Gemoro speaks of Mitzvos that one possesses. It is all too human to crave the best belongings, and the Torah teaches that, rather than amassing a nice house and car, or the latest gadgets and devices, a Jew channels his desire for the best by beautifying himself with top quality Mitzvos. That is why the Gemoro provides examples of Mitzvos that one owns, where the association between the Mitzvah and its owner is evident at all times.

However, the Rambam speaks of the beautification of Mitzvos that one gives away, and all his examples thus involve Mitzvos that are given to the Beis Hamikdash, the community, or the poor. Once these Mitzvos depart one’s possession, they are no longer associated with their former owner in an obvious way, and it doesn’t beautify him before others. Naturally, a person is less inclined to beautify such Mitzvos, as he doesn’t feel the benefit in such a personal way. That is why the Rambam emphasises this form of beautification to be the higher level, for it is what truly causes one to “gain merit for himself, subjugate his evil inclination, and amplify his generosity”.

While this message is important in general, it is also especially relevant in the leadup to Pesach. There are two Pesach matters that the Rebbe greatly accentuated – Maos Chittim (which can be done at mjcf.com.au) and Mivtzah Matzah. Naturally, one might be tempted to pour all his energies into his own Pesach needs, for then he can regale one and all with the superb quality of his Matzos, the extent of his Chumros and the length of his Seder. However, the Rambam reminds us that “one who desires to gain merit for himself” should funnel a high level of Hiddur into the Mitzvos that he gives away. Or, as the Rebbe expressed it (in 5748), “One should extend much effort and resolve … with regards to Maos Chittim, by giving the choicest; as the Rambam says ‘From the best and tastiest foods of his table… All of the Cheilev (i.e. top quality) should be given to Hashem.’”

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS TETZAVEH

There is no way around Mishloach Manos. Every man and women must send it – even the poor or the infirm. It cannot be given anonymously, nor as a Matana Al Mnas Lhachzir; a present with the stipulation that it be returned. And, as stated in many Seforim, the accepted practice is to receive Mishloach Manos in return.

This raises the question – what about the Possuk in Mishlei (15:27) which exhorts us, “He who hates presents shall live”. There are numerous statements of Chazal extolling the virtues of never accepting gifts, and frowning down upon those who do. For example, the Gemoro in Sotah (47b) states, “When those who receive gifts became numerous, the days became few and years short, as it is written, ‘He who hates gifts shall live.’”

The Poskim and commentaries present a range of reasons for not accepting gifts. According to Rashi and Rabbenu Yonah, the purpose of hating gifts is to further distance oneself from evil dispositions such as theft, coveting, flattery, deceit. Other commentaries regard gift-hating as an expression of a person’s trust in Hashem. This latter approach is the one codified in Shulchan Oruch, “It is a pious practice not to accept gifts, but to have faith that Hashem will provide for all that one lacks, as it says, ‘He who hates gifts shall live.’”

Despite not being an actual prohibition, the question still arises: How is it that the very same Torah demands of every Jew to give – and by extension, to receive – Mishloach Manos? What about the “pious practice” of not accepting gifts?

The Rebbe explains that all the reasons for refusing gifts arise from one particular feature – it is “the bread of shame”. A gift is value that the recipient did not inherently earn or deserve. [Thus, Rashi is concerned that the habitual receiving of gifts will condition a person to take what he does not inherently earn or deserve, from where it is only a small step to theft, coveting, flattery, deceit.] He will thereby experience a certain measure of discomfort and unease, and also feel inferior to his benefactor. [Thus, Shulchan Oruch is concerned that the habitual receiving of gifts will condition a person to rely on benefactors other than Hashem.] However, in a situation where a gift is not “the bread of shame”, all of the associated problems vanish.

Which is why Mishloach Manos is not like any other gift. When each of us receives Mishloach Manos, we are not at all evaluating, even subconsciously, whether we deserved the gift. Rather, all we think about is how Mishloach Manos represents and actualises the great love and brotherhood of the Jewish nation, quite opposite to Haman’s claim that we are “scattered and disparate” from each other. We also experience the great joy and exultation of our salvation from collective deaths, and this joy is the direct antithesis of the shame one ordinarily experiences when receiving a gift.

This year, specifically, the Rebbe instructed that Mishloach Manos giving continue into Sunday, which is celebrated as the last day of Purim Meshulash in Yerushalayim and other walled cities. Even though one does not technically fulfil the Mishloach Manos that way, nevertheless, we can extend into another day the demonstration of our great love and brotherhood for each other, as well as the great joy and exultation of our salvation from collective death.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a Freilachen Purim!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS Terumah

In this week’s Parsha, the Jews were instructed to make ONE Menorah and ONE Shulchan. Yet, when Shlomo Hamelech built the first Beis Hamikdash, he added an additional TEN of each, to a grand total of eleven Menoros and eleven Shulchanos. There is a debate in the Gemoro (and commentaries) about their function – some say all eleven were used every single week, some say that they were rotated on an eleven-week roster, and some say that the additional ten of Shlomo Hamelech were merely ornamental and not actually used. Regardless, all were exact replicas of the main Menorah and Shulchan of Moshe.

This raises a fundamental question – One of the 613 Mitzvos is Bal Tosif; not to add to the commandments of the Torah. If so, how could Shlomo create so many replicas of the Menorah and the Shulchan? That would seem tantamount to attaching extra compartments to the standard four of the Tefillin, or shaking more than the four species on Sukkos, which is certainly forbidden!

Many commentaries struggle with this question. However, the Rebbe presents an answer which, once pointed out, seems to have been hiding in the open all along: After Hashem instructed Moshe to fashion a Mishkan and its vessels, Hashem added, “and so shall you do”. Rashi explains this redundancy as conveying that the same design should be used when fashioning these vessels in the future. In the course of which, Rashi explains that this includes the “tables and menorahs... that Shlomo made”. So, there you have it! The Torah was telling us all along that there is scope in the future to create additional Menoros and Shulchanos, which renders moot the whole discussion of Bal Tosif.

What emerges is that Shlomo Hamelech’s “innovation” was really nothing more than the basic meaning of the Possuk, albeit an interpretation that many failed to notice. One lesson the Rebbe draws from this is with regards to the “innovations” of Dor Hashvii. When the Rebbe introduced the Tefillin campaign, and the ten Mivtzoim in general, Mivtza Moshiach, Mivtza Sheva Mitzvos, and so on, a common “allegation” was that these were all “innovations” that had not been practiced heretofore.  The Rebbe consistently showed how every one of these initiatives was clearly the Torah’s objective all along, and that he was not really innovating anything, but rather, drawing attention to matters that others may have overlooked. And, just as Shlomo did not satisfy himself with the one obligatory Menorah and the one Shulchan, but multiplied them tenfold, so too, we should not suffice with our core obligations of Torah and Mitzvos, but rather, multiply the innovations of our generation tenfold.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS MISHPOTIM

“There will be no bereaved woman (who miscarries or buries her children) or barren woman in your land”. The simple meaning of the Possuk is exactly what it sounds like. However, the Alter Rebbe explains that this also refers to the figurative children of a figurative family within each and every single one of us. Every person is driven by the two predominant attributes of intellect, insight and comprehension – the father and the mother (Chochmo and Bina). When working in tandem, they have the power to beget meaningful, healthy, constructive, lasting emotional responses within a person – the son and the daughter (Ahava and Yirah).

However, it sometimes occurs that one’s intellect fails to lead to the proper emotional response, even with the requisite insight and comprehension. For example, despite understanding the importance of a given concept, a person might still remain emotionally apathetic, or worse, feel like doing the very opposite. This can manifest itself in many ways, such as engaging in harmful behaviour (smoking, drugs etc) despite understanding the great self-harm, or in a spiritual sense, where one’s knowledge of Hashem’s greatness does not lead to a love or fear of Him. This is the figurative miscarriage the Torah speaks of, where one’s intelligence does not lead to the right emotional outcomes, or if they do, the yields are short-lived. The blessing of this week’s Parsha is that there will cease to be miscarried or barren emotional responses.

Where does this blessing draw from? This is spelled out at the end of the preceding Possuk which states, “I will remove illness from your midst.” Here, the Torah is referring to the first primordial sickness in human history, the one that devolved from the Chet Etz Hadaas – the malady of arrogance and conceit. For that was the entirety of the Chet Etz Hadaas, where both Odom and Chava put their own interests first, succumbing to their emotional desire to taste the very fruit they knew was forbidden. Hubris and self-interest are the obstructions that block the thoroughfare between mind and heart.

When one moves away from the Etz Hadaas, the “what do I want to do”, and moves toward Etz Hachaim, the “what does Hashem want me to do”, that is when we have the assurance that “I will remove illness from your midst, and there will be no bereaved woman or barren woman in your land.” May we see this realised, in both the literal and figurative contexts.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS YISRO

The Parsha concludes, “And you shall not ascend with steps upon My Mizbeyach, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it.” Rashi explains that this is to teach a lesson – if the Torah warns us against subjecting the stones of the Mizbeyach to humiliating behaviour, how much more so toward one’s fellow man. Which leads to two obvious questions:

1. Anyone who knows anything at all about the Beis Hamikdash knows that there were plenty of steps all over the place, leading to just about everywhere. If steps are so terrible, why were they allowed everywhere, besides at the approach to the Mizbeyach?

2. Do we really need this precedent to teach us about the importance of respecting our peers? Isn’t it anyway obvious that one should not disgrace one’s fellow? Why do we need to derive this concept from the ramp of the Mizbeyach?

The Rebbe addresses these questions by shifting our perspective. The Rebbe reminds us that walking up a stairway is not demeaning in the classic sense, for any exposure is so subtle so as not to be noticed, and furthermore, no harm was intended. Rather, as we all know from our own everyday lives, walking up a flight of stairs is a benign and innocuous deed; one which is perfectly acceptable in our circles. So, the fact that steps appeared everywhere in the Beis Hamikdash is perfectly understood. The real question is not why there were steps everywhere else, but why it was prohibited at the threshold of the Mizbeyach.

Until one remembers that the Mizbeyach was not just any other place. The incline leading to the Mizbeyach – quite unlike all the other stairways of the Beis Hamikdash which merely facilitated a person’s movement from one place to the next – was the only one in the entire Beis Hamikdash that directly opened to a place of divine worship, to a place where each Kohen became elevated as he connected with his Creator, to a place which lengthened the lifespan of man. In this regard, the slope that led to the Mizbeyach was unrivalled. In such an august and auspicious place, it is expected that one would act with heightened sensitivity and avoid mannerisms and behaviours that he would not even think twice about in less reverent contexts. Anything less of a standard would demean not only the Mizbeyach, but all people and sacrifices that became exalted through it.

That is why the Mizbeyach’s ramp serves as the precedent to remind us about the importance of not debasing our fellow man. The point is to caution us against extremely subtle forms of disrespect, including when no harm was intended or when most would not interpret it as such. Nevertheless, when we remind ourselves that our fellow was fashioned in the image of the Creator, it is expected that we would act with extra sensitivity and avoid mannerisms and behaviours that we would not even think twice about in less reverent contexts. Anything less of a standard would demean not only our fellow, but the Creator in whose image he was fashioned.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS bESHALACH

The Egyptians had adorned their war horses with ornaments of gold, silver, and precious stones. Now that all had drowned, the sea churned up the plunder relentlessly. There was so much of it that, when the time came to move on, Moshe had to force the Jews to depart the Yam Suf and abandon the endless stream of riches.

The spoils gleaned at the sea were infinitely greater than what the Jews had “borrowed” from the Egyptians before they departed Egypt. Which raises the question: Why did Hashem beg the Jews, as it were, to amass wealth from the Egyptians in the leadup to the Tenth Plague, when He knew that He was going to make them so much more wealthy just one week later, with far less effort to boot! Furthermore, why was borrowing the Egyptian wealth such a focal point that Hashem reiterated this again and again – first assuring Avraham at the Bris Bein Habesarim that the Jews would seek much wealth from the Egyptians, then notifying Moshe of the same the very first time He appeared to Him, and yet a third time in the final days before the Tenth Plague.

The Rebbe explains that Hashem’s objective was not only to enrich the Jews. Rather, Hashem sought to restore the Jewish nation’s sense of dignity and pride. The Jews had been oppressed, afflicted, beaten, tortured and abused for so many decades. They had been crushed and treated as if they were subhuman, no better than the animals of the field.

The Exodus was not just about throwing off the shackles of slavery. The Jews had also suffered immense damage to their psyche, and it was imperative that their dignity be restored. That is why Hashem instructed the Jews to directly ask their lords for wealth. This would present the Egyptians with an opportunity to willingly, and without duress, agree to remunerate the Jews for their decades of hard work. Such a gesture would demonstrate to the Jews that that the Egyptians were no longer taking them for for granted. So, yes, Hashem would make the Jews immeasurably wealthier at the Yam Suf. But before that, as the Jews were just about to depart from Egypt, Hashem gave them the means to enrich their dignity and self-worth.

This message is as simple as it is powerful. Being there for another person is not measured by the dollar sign. Often, a short sentence, a sincere compliment, a genuine vote of thanks, is more precious and meaningful than a lot of money or gifts. Making others feel valuable is worth more than sharing with them your valuables.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS bo

Last week’s Parsha describes Moshe’s birth. Curiously, it recounts the entire story without a single mention of his parents by name. Moshe’s father is “a man of the house of Levi” and his mother is introduced as the “daughter of Levi”, and subsequently referred to as “the woman” or “the child’s mother”. The Torah goes to great pains to avoid any description of the parents other than the fact that they hailed from Levi.

Yet, in this week’s Parsha, the Torah spells out Moshe’s full genealogical lineage, and we are for the first time acquainted with Amram and Yocheved. The shines a spotlight on a glaring enigma – why does the Torah initially shroud Moshe’s pedigree in secrecy? Especially as he was born to greatness – both his parents were unparalleled Tzaddikim, and Amram, the spiritual leader of his generation, is reckoned as one of the four Tzaddikim who never sinned.

The Rebbe explains that the Jews of Egypt existed in such a demoralised and dehumanised state that they could not comprehend anything beyond surviving another day. If so, who could be their saviour? It would have to be someone who could even comprehend that there was something bigger out there. For the one thing harder than liberating a nation subjugated for centuries was to believe that it was actually possible. Who would be that person?

That is why the Torah does not reveal the names of Moshe’s parents at his birth, for all their personal spiritual achievements were inadequate when it came to producing the saviour of the Jews. The only credentials that mattered were that he was “a man of the house of Levi” and she was a “daughter of Levi”.

The first quality Moshe needed was to be associated with the tribe of Levi, the one tribe that was never physically enslaved, and he secured this lineage through his father. This allowed him to be unshackled by the traumas of the physical slavery.

However, this was still not enough, because the Jews were doubly enslaved by Egypt. Not only were they enslaved physically, but psychologically as well, for they had become conditioned to the Egyptian “system”. The Jews believed that their survival depended on the whims of their taskmasters, which was in turn subject to the ebb and flow of the economy, the cornerstone of which was agriculture and food production. All of this ultimately depended on the Nile, which overflowed and irrigated Egypt like clockwork. The whole process was entrenched and predictable, to the point that it appeared unshakable. There was no room for anything out of the ordinary, let alone a supernatural event.

That is why Moshe needed to be the child of the “daughter of Levi”. Yocheved was the only Levite woman alive who was born prior to the arrival of the Jews in Egypt. She represented the link to the land of Israel, where rain was unpredictable and the entire economy was variable and volatile. From such a perspective, the impossible would seem far more achievable. Such origins are what allowed Moshe to rise above the Egyptian mentality.

It is our task, too, to rise above the dual-edged slavery of Golus – both the physical and psychological shackles. Although we are not literally the children of “a man of the house of Levi” and a “daughter of Levi”, we can be conceptually. This is achieved by connecting with the study of Chassidus, our link with a reality which transcends the straits and strictures of Golus. Chassidus enables us to see the unimaginable, and to thereby press forward and achieve the Geulah.  

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS Shemos

For seven consecutive days, Moshe resisted… Hashem! He refused to become the saviour of the Jews, for so many reasons. One of Moshe’s greatest reservations was of a practical nature – he possessed a handicap. He had a physical stutter, and in addition to his speech impediment, he did not speak Egyptian well, as he had been banished from that country for many decades. Needless to say, he was neither a master of rhetoric nor a persuasive negotiator. Moshe had all of this in mind when he protested, “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”

Now, generally speaking, there are two ways of addressing a speech inhibition. If the inability is borne of a lack of confidence, the appropriate solution would be the reassurance that “practice makes perfect”. Alternatively, if the inability stems from an inherent challenge, the solution would invariably involve therapy. 

Astonishingly, Hashem does neither of the above. He concedes that Moshe had an intrinsic handicap but, seemingly, does not offer any apparent solution. Rather, Hashem responded, “Who gave man a mouth, or who makes dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, Hashem?” Moshe already knew all that; how did Hashem’s response address Moshe’s misgivings?

The Alter Rebbe explains that Moshe’s stutter was symptomatic of a much deeper matter. Moshe hailed from a different world entirely – the realm of Tohu – to the point that he could not tolerate our physical world. He could not “communicate” with it conceptually, and this manifested itself literally as well, in his physical inability to communicate. Uniquely, Moshe’s exalted stature did not make him feel proud and arrogant, but rather, he felt humbled that everyone but him seemed perfectly capable of aligning their (more limited) spiritual subsistence with their physical existence. That is why Moshe implored Hashem “Shlach na Byad Tishlach – send Your message with whomever You would send.” Choose someone else, anyone else, but not me.

Hashem conceded, “Yes, you have a handicap, and I am not going to change that.” But Hashem’s message was that every person has gaps in their lives, and ultimately, He is the one who empowers each person to bridge those gaps. A handicap is merely a greater gap than usual; the result of a greater-than-usual dichotomy between a person’s greater-than-usual spiritual source and physical life. The same Hashem who, by virtue of transcending both the spiritual and the physical, and thus being unconstrained by them, empowers every person to bridge the disparities in their lives – He is the same Hashem who vests even greater power in someone with a handicap to do so as well. Which is exactly why Hashem did not want anyone but Moshe for the role, because his handicap was emblematic of his potent spiritual fortitude which was destined to shine through.

The message is a most powerful one: What you may regard as a handicap might in fact be a great asset, one that might even frame one’s entire destiny. We see this in Moshe, who assumed that his roots in the world of Tohu made him the most ill-suited for the task; so intimidated was he that he argued with Hashem for seven full days. In fact, his handicap turned out to be his biggest asset. In our lives, too, we may think of ourselves, or others, as possessing a “handicap” – whether physical, emotional or spiritual. All too often, this unique quality turns out to be one’s greatest asset.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VOERA

Last week’s Parsha describes Moshe’s birth. Curiously, it recounts the entire story without a single mention of his parents by name. Moshe’s father is “a man of the house of Levi” and his mother is introduced as the “daughter of Levi”, and subsequently referred to as “the woman” or “the child’s mother”. The Torah goes to great pains to avoid any description of the parents other than the fact that they hailed from Levi.

Yet, in this week’s Parsha, the Torah spells out Moshe’s full genealogical lineage, and we are for the first time acquainted with Amram and Yocheved. The shines a spotlight on a glaring enigma – why does the Torah initially shroud Moshe’s pedigree in secrecy? Especially as he was born to greatness – both his parents were unparalleled Tzaddikim, and Amram, the spiritual leader of his generation, is reckoned as one of the four Tzaddikim who never sinned.

The Rebbe explains that the Jews of Egypt existed in such a demoralised and dehumanised state that they could not comprehend anything beyond surviving another day. If so, who could be their saviour? It would have to be someone who could even comprehend that there was something bigger out there. For the one thing harder than liberating a nation subjugated for centuries was to believe that it was actually possible. Who would be that person?

That is why the Torah does not reveal the names of Moshe’s parents at his birth, for all their personal spiritual achievements were inadequate when it came to producing the saviour of the Jews. The only credentials that mattered were that he was “a man of the house of Levi” and she was a “daughter of Levi”.

The first quality Moshe needed was to be associated with the tribe of Levi, the one tribe that was never physically enslaved, and he secured this lineage through his father. This allowed him to be unshackled by the traumas of the physical slavery.

However, this was still not enough, because the Jews were doubly enslaved by Egypt. Not only were they enslaved physically, but psychologically as well, for they had become conditioned to the Egyptian “system”. The Jews believed that their survival depended on the whims of their taskmasters, which was in turn subject to the ebb and flow of the economy, the cornerstone of which was agriculture and food production. All of this ultimately depended on the Nile, which overflowed and irrigated Egypt like clockwork. The whole process was entrenched and predictable, to the point that it appeared unshakable. There was no room for anything out of the ordinary, let alone a supernatural event.

That is why Moshe needed to be the child of the “daughter of Levi”. Yocheved was the only Levite woman alive who was born prior to the arrival of the Jews in Egypt. She represented the link to the land of Israel, where rain was unpredictable and the entire economy was variable and volatile. From such a perspective, the impossible would seem far more achievable. Such origins are what allowed Moshe to rise above the Egyptian mentality.

It is our task, too, to rise above the dual-edged slavery of Golus – both the physical and psychological shackles. Although we are not literally the children of “a man of the house of Levi” and a “daughter of Levi”, we can be conceptually. This is achieved by connecting with the study of Chassidus, our link with a reality which transcends the straits and strictures of Golus. Chassidus enables us to see the unimaginable, and to thereby press forward and achieve the Geulah.  

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS Vayechi

One of the most perverse and decadent events ever recounted in Tanach is known as “Pilegesh B’Givah” (the concubine at Givah). In brief, the Jews waged war against the tribe of Binyamin as retribution for their horrifying moral lapses. The tribe of Binyamin stubbornly refused to surrender and were almost entirely decimated. Only several hundred men remained, and no women or children. In the aftermath of the deadly battle, the other tribes swore not to give their daughters in marriage to the remaining members of Binyamin. However, when realising that this would cause the tribe to be completely eradicated, the Jews relented and allowed the tribe of Binyamin to “grab” wives for themselves. This way, they would not be willingly giving over their daughters in marriage to the remaining members of Binyamin, but would still allow for their continuity.

Yaakov referred to this event when he blessed his son Binyamin to be “like a wolf who grabs”. This came to fruition at Givah when his descendants “grabbed” wives for themselves. The obvious question: Why would Yaakov choose to highlight such an event when blessing Binyamin? The whole tragedy sounds more like a curse than a blessing!

The key to understanding Yaakov’s blessing lies in the fact that the word “grabbing” refers to taking something beyond what one deserves. Of course, Yaakov was not wishing that the carnage should happen in the first place. Even so, he blessed Binyamin that when it did happen, his tribe should rebound. That even as they sank to the lowest spiritual state and became mired in extreme debauchery, his descendants should have the ability to “grab” and return to the path of holiness. And that is exactly what happened. Despite being almost wiped out both physically and spiritually, Binyamin rebounded, achieving a destiny that would have seemed impossible to anyone living at that time. Against all odds, Binyamin blazed a path forward, ultimately producing such greats as King Shaul, Mordechai and Esther, and earning the right to hosting part of the Beis Hamikdash in their territory.

There is a lesson in this for all of us. At times, we stand back and hesitate to achieve something we think ourselves unworthy of. Sometimes we may simply be deluding ourselves. However, even when we are not, it is still not a reason to desist. The Brocho of Yaakov grants us the power to “grab” and achieve even what should be beyond our reach.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYIGASH

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Yehudah takes an unconventional stand against the viceroy of Egypt. The fate of all the brothers lay in the hands of the Egyptian viceroy, and the prospects seemed hopeless. If they were pragmatists, they should have just thrown up their hands in despair and given up. If they were idealists, it would have seemingly befitted the brothers to approach the situation with caution, diplomacy and aplomb. Instead, Yehudah launches into a bruising tirade against the viceroy of Egypt, threatening drastic action if his words go unheeded. His insolent attack must have seemed, in the moment, as counterintuitive, self-defeating and perhaps suicidal.
 
And for what? To protect their little brother – who was a convicted thief. Yes, in hindsight we know that Binyamin had been framed. But let us remember that, in the moment, the brothers did not know that. According to the Midrash, the brothers fell for the ruse and thought that Binyamin had stolen the goblet, to the point that they even whipped him on account of his alleged actions. Yet, Yehudah stuck out his neck for the convicted thief, even offering up his own self in his stead. Imagine that – Yehudah willing to give up his freedom so that a convicted thief could avoid jail time. Why?
 
At the face of it, the answer is because Yehudah had guaranteed to his father that he would bring Binyamin back, safe and sound. However, this explanation does not seem to account for Yehudah’s self-sacrifice, because what eventuated was not part of the bargain. He had promised to protect Binyomin from the innate dangers and travails of travel, and not from the consequences of alleged criminal behaviour. If so, why did Yehudah do it?
 
The Rebbe explains that, indeed, Yehudah did it because of the guarantee. The Hebrew word for guarantor, arev, is the same word for both ‘mixture’ and ‘sweetness’. When Yehudah guaranteed the safety of Binyamin, he did so by inseparably fusing himself as one with Binyamin (‘mixture’) which inevitably led to endless care (‘sweetness’) and devotion for his younger brother. Thus, there was no way he could detach himself from Binyamin’s plight, however much he may have deserved it, because it was as if it was all happening to Yehudah’s own self.
 
“Kol Yisroel Arevin Zeh Lazeh”; all Jews serve as guarantors for each other. This guarantee is not merely transactional, but rather, it inseparably fuses us with one another (‘mixture’), inevitably leading to boundless care (‘sweetness’) and devotion to each other. Thus, there is no way we could detach ourselves from anyone else’s plight, because it is as if it is all happening to our own selves.

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS MIketz

Many tried to interpret Pharaoh’s dream – all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, but none did so to Pharaoh’s satisfaction. This gives rise to a series of obvious problems: Why was Pharaoh won over by Yosef’s interpretation, especially as it would take so many years for events to bear it out? Furthermore, it was surely presumptuous of Yosef to offer a solution to the famine problem when he wasn’t asked for anything but the dream’s interpretation. If anything, Pharaoh should have suspected that Yosef was seeking to capitalise on the opportunity to escape jail and become the viceroy of Egypt!

The Rebbe explains that Pharaoh’s key dilemma was understanding one particularly vexing part of the dream – “and they (the ugly and lean cows) stood beside the (handsome and robust) cows on the Nile bank”. Pharaoh was flummoxed! If each set of cows stood for such diametrically opposite things – whatever those things were – to the point that the lean cows ended up gobbling up the robust cows, then what is the meaning of their ostensible coexistence?

This enigma is what steered away Egypt’s sages and necromancers from interpreting the Nile part of the dream intuitively, as referring to years of plenty and famine, even though this would well explain why the dream unfolded along the Nile river, the mainstay of Egypt’s agriculture, for they could not understand how years of plenty and famine could coexist. That is why they presented other interpretations involving phenomena that could occur concurrently – such as seven daughters born and seven who will die, or seven kingdoms vanquished and seven which will be lost – even though such interpretations didn’t account for the Nile aspect at all.

Yosef differed. He persisted in explaining the Nile aspect intuitively, as referring to the years of plenty and famine, because he had a ready answer for the coexistence enigma. Yosef told Pharaoh – the good times and the bad times? The dream is telling you an important message about the opportunity to harness the good times in order to get you through the bad times! If you sit back and do nothing during the good years, then indeed, the years of plenty and famine cannot coexist. However, the dream is telling you to do the opposite – be proactive, invest wisely, save up fastidiously during the years of plenty – and that will prepare you for the years of famine that will follow. If you use the good times to fuel you through the bad times, it emerges that they do, in fact, coexist!

Pharaoh was impressed. Yosef’s interpretation accounted for every detail of the dream. And Yosef’s solution to the famine problem was not merely his own volunteered addendum, but an integral and vital part of the dream’s interpretation.

The dream of Pharaoh was an important part of the process that led the Jewish nation into exile, and it thus contains an important message about Golus in general: If we look at our Golus journey in a disjointed and haphazard way, we may perceive lots of bad pockets that seem utterly irredeemable and pointless, and completely disparate from the good times. However, when we regard our Golus journey as one cohesive tapestry, we begin to appreciate how good times and bad times coexist – by harnessing all the positives and plusses to mitigate and eliminate the negatives and minuses.

Wishing you a good Shabbos & a Freilachen Chanukah!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYEISHEV

Nowhere in Tanach is anyone described as “successful” – other than Yosef in this week’s Parsha. Not once, but three times. Two of those descriptions are very similar, yet the Rebbe observes what he regards as a “glaring discrepancy” between them.

In the first such instance, the Torah states: “Whatever Yosef did, Hashem made it successful in his hand.” However, in the other instance, the Torah states: “Whatever Yosef did, Hashem made it successful” – and there is no mention of Yosef’s hand. Although this inconsistency may seem trivial to us, the Rebbe explains that it actually contains the key to understanding the secret of success.

What is true success? It is a result which transcends one’s inherent capabilities and capacities. It is essentially a gift which emanates from Above. The only way to tap into such boundless success and allow it to flow undisturbed is to … get out of the way. In Chassidic thought, this is how Bittul (self-effacement) allows one to become a conduit for the greatest Brochos, far beyond what one could achieve on his own.

Yosef’s formative years were shaped by three general stages. Initially, he lived a relatively sheltered and prosperous life at home with his father and family. During that entire time, we do not find any Hatzlacha attributed to Yosef. Quite to the contrary – his brothers hated him, sought to kill him, and eventually sold him. Talk about lucking out.

Then Yosef was sold as a slave. His humble circumstances heightened Yosef’s sense of Bittul, for it so palpably demonstrated how little control he had over his destiny. This newfound Bittul was the conduit for the blessing of success from above, but it was still someone limited, and the success is therefore described as flowing through the constraints of Yosef’s human “hands”. That is why, at this juncture of his life, the Torah states: “Whatever Yosef did, Hashem made it successful in his hand.”

The vulnerability Yosef felt as a slave was no doubt completely eclipsed by his sense of expendability as a prisoner. A slave can at least take pride in the benefit he brings to his master’s affluence, whereas a prisoner is literally society’s outcast. Yosef thereby achieved an even deeper sense of Bittul, which in turn generated an even greater blessing of success from above, one that was endless and boundless. That is why, at this juncture of his life, the Torah states: “Whatever Yosef did, Hashem made it successful” – and there is no mention of the constraints of Yosef’s “hands”.

One practical message concerns the power of Bittul. This concept is all too often misunderstood as the stifling of a person’s ability and potential – “Just be a nothing”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose of Bittul is not to dispense with one’s identity and ability, but rather, to dispense with all the hangups and complexes that get in the way of allowing one’s true identity, ability and success – the power of the Neshama – from shining.

Wishing you a good Shabbos & a Freilachen Chanukah!

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYISHLACH

Terrorists. The first rule of engagement is – don’t attract their attention. But if they do somehow appear on the horizon, the second rule of engagement is pretty elementary – don’t negotiate. Negotiating with a terrorist legitimises him, his goals and his means. It incentivises, and by extension further incites, future violence. Rather, project greater force and firepower than your opponent.

If so, how can we explain Yaakov’s conduct towards Esav? Yaakov went out of his way to inform Esav, all the way out in distant outlying Seir, that he was returning to the land of Israel. Once Esav marches towards Yaakov at the head of a force of four-hundred, Yaakov meekly submits himself before Esav – sending him gifts, calling him “my master”, and bowing before him seven times. Why?

Then comes the biggest surprise of all – the terrorist Esav disarms and kisses his brother! How does that come about?

A fascinating explanation can be gleaned from the Rebbe’s father, who focusses on how many times the Gematriya of Hashem’s name – 26 – can be found in the names of our protagonists. Yitzchak equals 208, which is 8 times 26. Yaakov equals 182, which is 7 times 26. Where did Yitzchak’s eighth level to? It went to Esav, 376, which is seven times the word Tomei (50), plus 26.

What does this all mean? Yitzchak’s eight levels of G-dliness incorporated seven levels that paralleled the seven levels of creation, and could thus be easily revealed within it. There was also an eighth level that transcended it. Yaakov attained the seven levels of G-dliness vested within creation, which is why he so intuitively revealed G-dliness in our physical world. On the other hand, Esav received the transcendent eighth level, which was too elusive for him to reveal in a physical world, and it became shrouded in seven layers of impurity instead.

When Yaakov looked at his brother, he didn’t see a terrorist. He saw a person who, despite his deep flaws and great impurity, held the key to a plateau that Yaakov could only wish for. So he sent forth to reconcile with his brother. He tried his best to bridge the gaping chasm that separated them. He humbled himself before his brother and called him “my master” because – that was the truth. He bowed down seven times to strip away Esav’s seven levels of impurity. Esav beheld this and internalised what Yaakov was seeking to achieve, and… he reciprocated, despite the greatest of odds.

There are many lessons herein, but let us focus on one: Never confuse a flawed person with a terrorist. Even when someone seems destructive and disparaging, ask yourself whether that is perhaps fuelled by positive energy, of an elusive kind that is not being channelled correctly. If it is the former, take the approach of Yaakov. Humble yourself, reach out and bridge the gaping chasm of separation. More likely than not, your efforts will be reciprocated, and you will be all the greater for having done so.

Wishing you a good Shabbos & Good Yom Tov, לשנה טובה בלימוד החסידות ובדרכי החסידות

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYEITZEI

“Hashem saw Leah was hated, so he opened her womb.” Hashem made her fruitful in order to endear her to Yaakov. But how could it possibly be that Yaakov the Tzaddik would hate his own wife, Leah? And if he did hate her, why did he remain married to her?

Explanations abound. However, Chassidus explains that Leah and Rochel represented two vastly different worlds. Leah was emblematic of the higher and hidden aspect of the creation (alma d’iskasya) whereas Rochel embodied the lower and revealed aspect of creation (alma d’isgalya). Yaakov grasped what Rochel represented, he appreciated her, and therefore completely connected with her. On the other hand, Leah embodied something so beyond Yaakov’s grasp that he did not see a way to connect with her. He couldn’t come to terms with that and felt challenged by her presence, similar to the frustration experienced when something precious is just out of reach. The hate the Torah refers to here is along the lines of the famous quote, “People fear what they don't understand and hate what they can’t conquer.”

So, Hashem acted to endear Leah to Yaakov. He opened her womb, and she bore his children. Hashem demonstrated to Yaakov that his own fulfillment and destiny would come through Leah more than any of his other wives; indeed, the majority of the Jewish nation descends from Yaakov’s union with Leah.

One lesson for us is that life is not just about connecting with people of your own wavelength, people whose presence you enjoy, people whom you naturally understand and gravitate towards. Rather, it is also about building bridges of mutual understanding with those whom you don’t easily see eye-to-eye. When one achieves that, he opens himself up to newer and higher dimensions, “giving birth” to deeper powers.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS TOLDOS

Out of all our forefathers, our knowledge of Yitzchok’s life is the most limited, even though he lived the longest. The Torah devotes three Parshiyos to Avrohom, and another six to Yaakov – and their biography is further amplified by the Midrash. Our Parsha is the only one which focusses on Yitzchok, and his standout achievement seems to be his strident insistence on digging wells, even in the face of fierce Philistinian adversity. What’s up with the wells?

One explanation can be gleaned from contemplating the challenges of the second generation. As hard as it is to be a pioneer, the struggle of the second generation can be more acute, and the stakes can be much higher: The pioneering generation grapples with challenges that are external, whereas the second generation grapples with challenges that are internal.

Kaddish Luz, Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, was an avid proponent of the Kibbutz lifestyle, who sent his book on the subject to the Rebbe. The Rebbe responded with a lengthy letter where he politely, artfully, but quite forcefully, offered a critique of the Kibbutz movement. The very last criticism goes to the heart of the current discussion, and here are the Rebbe’s words:

Another point, which I think important, is the difference in feeling and regard toward the commune on the part of its founders versus on the part of those born into it. The founders of the commune, or those who joined it in its early stages, can derive a deep satisfaction from the fact that they have come to this (as you describe in your book) from a very different way of life and from a society with very different views, and have achieved this communal life through great toil, sacrifice and suffering – all of which serve to make one’s achievements that much more precious and admirable in one’s eyes. On the other hand, those born into the commune or raised in it regard it as a most natural way of life; to them the limitations of communal life, such as discussed above, tend to be more pronounced than its positive aspects. This cannot fail to awaken in them a dissatisfaction, or even rebelliousness; it is inevitable that there will be dissent between them and those who enforce the communal regimen on them. Regarding them, it is even more important to emphasize the communal life as a stage and facilitator towards a higher goal.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter, to the burning question which, incidentally, I did not see addressed in your book: What goal or ideal is presented to the next generation as the objective to be achieved via the structure of a communal life, so that they should desire to achieve it even if this requires effort, toil and sacrifice on their part?

The Rebbe’s words give us insight into Yitzchak’s crowning achievement. The wells he dug were not just any wells. He was digging his father’s wells. “And Yitzchak dug the wells of water which had been dug in the days of his father, Avraham, and which the Philistines had blocked up after Avraham's passing; and he gave them names like the names that his father had given them.”

When Avraham came on the scene, his pioneering ideas literally riveted (and polarised) the entire world, and he stood his ground against everything the world threw at him. But by the time Yitzchok was at the prime of his life, the novelty and initial appeal of Avraham’s message had faded away. Even the naysayers – those who had blocked up the wells – were all but a distant memory.

Carrying on his father’s work demonstrated Yitzchak’s extraordinary resilience and persistence, which can only come from digging deep into one’s own well and connecting with one’s own source. It is a message for all of us to remember – to treasure the “Keep-Goings” even more than we do the “Start-Ups”.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH

Chayei Sara means the life of Sara. Yet, the Parsha seems to speak about everything other than the life of Sara. It contains three central episodes – the passing and burial of Sara, Yitzchak finding comfort in Rivka, and Avraham’s subsequent marriage to Keturah. If anything, these events underscore the supplanted role of Sara. How can all this be dubbed “the life of Sarah”?

In a riveting Sicha, the Rebbe explains that Avraham and Sara epitomised two opposite ideals. Avraham was a globalist whereas Sara was a nationalist:

Avraham was the “father of all nations” who constantly strove to bring every idolater into the tent and teach him about the one true G-d. Avraham had two / three wives and multiple children; some part of the Jewish fold, and others not. Avraham sought to maintain a relationship with Yishmael even when that disturbed Yitzchak’s pure environment. Avraham was clearly a globalist, who prioritised the rest of the world as much as he prioritised his own.

On the other extreme is Sara, whose name means “princess over all” – regal, yet aloof and distant. She had only one husband and only one son, both of whom are the cornerstone of the Jewish nation. Her entire focus was begetting and raising Yitzchak, to the point of banishing anything in the way – including her stepson Yishmael. Sara was clearly a nationalist, who prioritised her people above all else.

Which is why this Parsha is called “the life of Sara”, because all three episodes exemplify Sara’s nationalism. First, her passing led to the very first Jewish purchase of the Holy Land. Despite Efron’s willingness to cede Machpelah for free, Avraham insisted on paying top dollar for it, so that no one could deny Jewish control of the land. Second, when it was time to find a soulmate for his son, Avraham resisted Eliezer’s implorations for Yitzchak to wed his daughter, even though that would have made for a perfect multicultural union. Instead, Avraham sent Eliezer to find the one and only woman in the world who would carry on the legacy of Sara. And lastly, Avraham’s marriage to Keturah culminated in him sending his other children away in order to preserve the entirety of his spiritual and physical heritage exclusively for Yitzchak.

In our own lives, are we globalists or nationalists? When we sit around our Shabbos tables or catch up with our friends, are we “deciding” how the USA should deal with North Korea, what Israel should do about Iran, the criteria that truly make someone worthy of the US Supreme Court, who truly deserves to be President – or more importantly, who deserves the grand finals win? Or, to the contrary, do we set aside the “big” issues and focus on the “little” ones – the things that actually matter to us and the people in our immediate environment; the decisions that will actually lead to enduring, practical and positive results.

The Torah tells us about both Avraham and Sara because both approaches have their time and place. Still, although Avraham, too, passes away in this week’s Parsha, the name remains Chayei Sara, and not Chayei Avraham.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

PARSHAS VAYEIRA

In describing how Avraham publicised the name of Hashem, the Possuk (21:33) says Vayikra, that he – Avraham – called out in the name of Hashem, G-d of the world.” The Gemoro comments that the word should also be vowelised as Vayakree, which means that Avraham made others call out in the name of Hashem. This leads to an obvious question – by saying that Avraham made others call out in the name of Hashem, it goes without saying that did so himself. If so, why did the Torah need to focus at all on the fact that he called out in the name of Hashem (Vayikra), when it would have been sufficient to state simply that he made others call out in the name of Hashem (Vayakree)?

Chassidus explains that the Torah focuses on both in order to convey a series of messages about the interplay between Vayikra and Vayakree, which are inextricably bound together in no less than three ways:

The first message is that one’s Vayikra cannot endure without the Vayakree. In other words, the only way to guarantee that I will continuously call out in the name of Hashem is by igniting the same passion in others. One who inspires his surroundings (Vayakree) will remain inspired within (Vayikra). However, one who focuses just on his or her own self will eventually feel bereft of inspiration.

The second message is that the outcome of my Vayakree is incomplete until it leads to the recipient’s own Vayikra. In other words, the purpose of outreach is not merely to influence others to “copy the leader” and repeat what they are told to say (Vayakree). Rather, the people we reach should become saturated to the point that they no longer need our leadership to tell them what to do. They should instead become independent leaders in their own right, who can call out and publicise Hashem’s name on their own accord (Vayikra).

The third message is that the Torah pledges that my Vayakree will lead to the other person’s Vayikra. In other words, we sometimes find ourselves in a situation where the opportunity to influence another Jew is very limited, such as during a very brief encounter. We often wonder about the point of encouraging another Jew to perform one quick Mitzvah at our behest, when his deed seems so devoid of his own sincere commitment (Vayakree). However, the Torah assures us that one thing will lead to another, and the people we so fleetingly impact will eventually serve Hashem out of their own personal conviction (Vayikra).

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS LECH LECHA

Trials and Tribulations. It’s a major theme of this week’s Parsha, because Avraham experienced ten of them. The exact list is the subject of debate, but the Rambam catalogues them as follows: Having to leave his homeland, famine, Pharaoh kidnapping his wife, war with the four kings, despairing of children, circumcision at the age of 99, Avimelech kidnapping his wife, the banishment of his concubine Hagar, the banishment of his Yishmael, and Akeidas Yitzchok.

So much angst and travail! For what purpose? If the objective was merely to test Avraham, surely Hashem already knew the full extent of Avraham’s loyalty. If so, why did Hashem put Avraham and his family through so much?

The Abarbanel explains that the answer can be found in the literal meaning of the Hebrew word for trials and tribulations – Nisayon. This word is etymologically related to the words “Nes”, which refers to anything that is raised or elevated. For example, a flagpole upon which a banner is hoisted is also known as a “Nes”. Which is why a miracle is referred to as “Nes”, for it is an elevated and elevating event. Thus, the actual Hebrew word Nisayon captures the purpose of trials and tribulations – to elevate and raise up. For, when a Jew withstands the challenges, he becomes a banner of inspiration and pride for others, especially to all who know him and appreciate the extent of his triumph.

However, it goes a step further. When a Jew withstands challenges, he becomes a banner of inspiration for his own self. Before the hardship and difficulties, he may have not realised what he was capable of. The ordeals serve as the catalyst for him to muster up reserves of strength and fortitude that he did not even realise he possessed.

Which brings us to another translation of Nisayon – capability borne of experience. Throughout one’s journey of life, the challenges are what allow one to achieve maximum potential.

Chassidus explains that this is why Hashem challenged Avraham – not to prove Avraham’s capabilities to Hashem, but to prove Avraham’s capabilities to his own self. Thus, it is little wonder that the ten challenges are headlined with the title “Lech Lecha”. Chassidus interprets this as: “Go to yourself.” And, indeed, this Parsha describes Avraham’s journey to the essence of his being, to the very root of his soul.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS NOACH

The flood did not only happen 4,125 years ago. It is happening today. To each and every one of us. We are constantly treading water in a torrential flood of phone calls, emails, text messages, Whatsapps, Zoom sessions and social media posts. There are bills to pay, work commitments to keep, relationships to maintain and social obligations to honour. The never-ending commitments surge around us like the ocean waves, and they threaten to drown any remaining spark of spirituality.

So, Hashem tells us, “Come into the Teivah.” In order to rise above the pressures of the world rather than sink in it, we need to get into the Teivah. As the Baal Shem Tov explains, Teivah also means “word”. At the start of the day, we need to completely surround ourselves with the words of Tefillah and ignore the raging worries outside. In doing so, “The Teivah was uplifted over the water.” When a person takes the time and energy to daven properly despite the distractions, he is uplifted to the highest levels.

Yet, the purpose of the Teivah is not to remain there. Eventually comes the command, “Leave the Teivah.” The point is to emerge from davening fortified and with the inspiration to influence the outside world once more.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SUKKOS

Although a Sukkah can be minimally built with three walls, there is a widespread Minhag, brought in Shulchan Oruch, to have four complete walls. What is the reason for this custom?

One answer may be gleaned from a seemingly puzzling Midrash which states: When Iyov was afflicted with suffering, he sought to escape the world and ascend to Hashem. “Oh that I knew where I might find Him; I would come to the place prepared for Him.” Hashem responded by showing Iyov a Sukkah of three walls.

What does this Midrash mean? The commentaries relate this Midrash to a passage in Bava Basra which describes the world, allegorically, as being bounded on only three sides. The north side was left open as an entry point for the negative forces, consistent with the verse “evil will come forth from the north.” Hashem did so to challenge us with the task of erecting that fourth wall, and thereby forever block out the evil that seeks to pervade the world from that direction. Our efforts result in a “four-walled” existence; the Messianic utopia we all so earnestly await.

This was Hashem’s answer to Iyov. By pointing to the Sukkah, Hashem was saying that the world is not a finished piece of work. Just like the minimal Sukkah, with one side left open through which the elements enter, Hashem deliberately left the world unbounded on one side to allow for the possibility of evil, pain and suffering; the source of Iyov’s tribulations.

The temporary Sukkah is a model for our transient world. The purpose of its missing side is for us to take the initiative to complete it. Perhaps that is how the Minhag arouse for us to strive and complete that fourth Sukkah wall. When we achieve the same for the world, Moshiach will come, and usher in the Messianic Age, which is Kabbalistically epitomised by the final-Mem, the one letter with four complete walls. May it happen speedily today.

Wishing you a good Shabbos Gut Yom Tov and Freilichen Sukkos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

SHABBOS PARSHAS BEREISHIS

Hashem brought all the animals and birds before Odom so that he could name them. What about the fish? The Torah does not clearly say, one way or another, whether they were also named by Odom. Tosfos (Chullin 66) equivocates over the matter, and other authorities debate this issue. In one explanation, the Rebbe suggests that this dispute hinges upon the purpose of a name:

On a simple level, a name exists entirely for the sake of mankind. In other words, a name serves as a way for man to refer to the people and animals he interacts with. If this is the entire objective, then Odom did not need to name the fish, as man does not interact with creatures of the ocean to the same degree that he interacts with his peers and animals on dry land.

On a deeper level, the purpose of a name is to serve as a conduit through which the dormant energies of a person or an animal can flow to a revealed state. This is the Chassidic interpretation of “Krias Shem” (name-calling), which can be translated as the “name calls forth”; i.e. the name calls forth the spiritual energy latent in the person or animal. If this is the purpose of a name, then Odom must have named the fish as well, for their potential also needs to be revealed.

One key difference between the two approaches is whether names exist for our own sake, or for the sake of the other. Perhaps we can derive from this a practical message about how we view our many transactional interactions with those around us, e.g. the bank teller, the gardener, the plumber and mechanic, the broker, the housecleaner etc. On the surface, it is intuitive for us to regard such interactions in a limited sense, with the significance we attribute to that person directly pegged to the significance of what he or she can do for us. With such an attitude, one is attentive to the other person only as much as necessary for the transaction, without otherwise caring about them as a whole, nor caring about their purpose.

However, there is a deeper way of looking at our interactions with others. Perhaps they exist not for our own sake, but for the sake of the other. Regardless of what led to the interaction in the first place, it can be harnessed as an opportunity to call forth the spiritual energy latent in the other person. This becomes possible when one focuses on the other person as a whole, and cares deeply about them and their purpose.

Wishing you a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas ha'azinu

Three times in total, the Torah refers to this week’s Parsha as “Hashirah Hazos – this song.” The incongruency is glaring: How is Haazinu a song? Most of this “song” focusses on our sins, our wayward conduct, and the divine retribution that results. The only uplifting parts appear at the very beginning, which glorifies Hashem’s justice (הצור תמים פעלו), and at the very end, which culminates in the salvation of the Jews and the coming of Moshiach (וכפר אדמתו עמו).
 
The Ramban answers that although the theme gives us nothing to sing about, Haazinu is still arranged in movements and its words written in prose. Since it appears in the form of a song, it is accurate to describe it as such. However, the Rebbe searches for a deeper answer, because Haazinu still seems to lack the most vital ingredient of song – joy and exultation. As the famous quote goes, “Ein Odom Shor Shira Ela Mitoch Simcha – One does not sing a song but through joy” (Rashi Erchin 11a).
 
The Rebbe explains that it all comes down to one’s perception. One who perceives Haazinu as many separate and disparate Pesukim will indeed be forced to conclude that it is not very songlike. After all, event after event accentuates our sins and divine retribution, and there is precious little that is favourable. However, if one approaches Haazinu as one long cohesive read, a flow which exhibits how everything that happens is part of one chain of events, then he will rejoice and sing at every step of the way. For then he realises how every negative event emanates from the opening line of the song, Hashem’s glorious justice, and additionally, is an important stepping-stone in approaching the culmination of the song, the salvation of the Jews and the coming of Moshiach. When looked at in that light, then indeed, all of Haazinu reads like a song. It celebrates the entire process of our national destiny, and demonstrates how every single stage is integral and worthwhile.
 
This is a powerful message to remember when we face challenge and difficulty. If we view such an event in isolation, it can be crushing and demoralising. However, when we remember that everything that happens flows forth from Hashem’s justice, and is a vital step leading to the coming of Moshiach, we will sing and rejoice in the greatness of Hashem.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and גמר וחתימה טובה - May you be sealed for a good and sweet new year,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

rosh hashanah

One of the high points of Rosh Hashanah is the Haftorah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It contains the moving biblical narrative of Chana, who suffered the agony of barrenness, and humiliation at the hands of those who did not empathise with her. Chana poured her heart in silent prayer before Hashem with such passion that even Eli the High Priest did not recognise her supplication for what it was. In due course, Chana gave birth to a son and named him Shmuel. She paid homage to Hashem, “For this child did I pray, and Hashem granted my request which I asked of Him.”

The story does not end there. For the next few years, Chana would not travel to the Mishkan – with all of its implications. She gave up the opportunity to behold the splendour and majesty of the Shechina. She sacrificed the opportunity to perform considerable Jewish outreach. For, as the Midrash teaches, Elkanah and Chana always took a different route each time they travelled to the Mishkan and back, in order to meet as many new people on the way as they could and reinvigorate their connection to Hashem and the Torah.

She gave it all up, for one reason – her son, Shmuel. She knew that our most important objective is to raise the next generation to a lifetime of Torah and Mitzvos. And she understood that this greatest obligation of ours starts right in our home. Chana did not hire a nurse or a babysitter, nor did she subject her son to the rigours of travel which would have invariably led to an even slight level of neglect. With laser-sharp focus on her son, she put her child front and centre.

This Rosh Hashanah, the focal point of Rosh Hashanah is clearly the home. Let us use the opportunity to give our next generation a Rosh Hashanah like no other.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a כתיבה וחתימה טובה לשנה טובה ומתוקה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas NItzovim vayelech

Have you ever dreamed of being king or queen? Well, here is an easy solution. Go find the closest anthill and proclaim your sovereignty over the millions of teeming ants. You won’t have to worry about quashing revolts, nor will you have to worry much about your subject’s needs. It will be all gain without the pain. Oh, the royal bliss! And, if those subjects of yours ever do stir up your imperial anger, you can be rid of them without much ado.

Of course this is ridiculous. Well then, what does it mean that Hashem becomes our King on Rosh Hashana? He gave us our entire existence, and we are far more insignificant before Him than an ant is before us!

The answer is at the beginning of this week’s Parsha, which is always read right before Rosh Hashanah: “You are standing together today, all of you, before Hashem … to pass into a covenant of Hashem… that He forges with you today.” Hashem enters into a pact with us, pledging to raise us to the level of His infinity. Since He elevates us to His level, we can coronate Him as King on Rosh Hashana.

But there is a catch. The Possuk says: “All of you.” This means the entire nation – every single person. In other words, Hashem’s pact with us is effective only when we are all united. And not just any sort of unity. Rather, as the Alter Rebbe explains, every single Jew possesses a unique advantage over every other; a specific quality unique to him or her. Each individual is indispensable to the nation, much in the same way that every limb is vital to the human body. “Standing together” means to recognise our interdependence on every other Jew. In this way, we are no longer judged as individuals, but as one whole.

It is perfectly fine that we all have different opinions. Each of us has different ways of going about things. But the overarching consideration is to remain united. Not just in spite of our differences, but because of our differences. Then we are assured a Kesivah V’Chasima Tova.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a כתיבה וחתימה טובה לשנה טובה ומתוקה,

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

parshas KI SAVO

There’s a phrase that’s been floating around my head lately. “Tichle Hashana uKlaloseha; May the year conclude along with its curses.” This expression appears in Megillah 31b to explain the timing of this week’s Parsha: “Ezra enacted that the Jews read the curses of the book of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah. What is the reason? In order that the year concludes together with its curses.”

This year, that statement really resonates.

But this begs the question – why do we need curses at all? Furthermore, we know that when Moshe Rabbenu recited them of his own volition, he delivered a sum total of 98 curses. Why that number specifically?

The Rebbe makes a surprising connection. The Gematriya of the word Selach is 98, just like the number of Moshe’s curses. What is the connection between curses and forgiveness? Well, to borrow a phrase from physics classes, “A body at rest tends to remain at rest in bed.” When all is smooth sailing, there is little motivation to make any quantum leaps. A challenge and a dare, and sometimes even hardship and difficulties, works wonders at achieving things that were not previously imagined.