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Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas SHEMOS 5780

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


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

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

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

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYECHI 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYIGASH 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas MIKETZ 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Good Shabbos and Freilichen Chanukah.

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYEISHEV 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYISHLACH 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Good Shabbos,

 

Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas VAYETZEI 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas TOLDOS 5780

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas Emor 2018

 Published 3rd May 2018

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

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

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

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Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

Parshas Tazria Metzorah 2018

 Published 26th April 2018

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

 

 

Sun, 19 January 2020 22 Teves 5780