Parshas Eikev: The Meaning of Judaism

This week’s Parsha is named Eikev. The word “Eikev” means “because”, but this is a very unusual synonym, and as such, many of the great Sages and rabbis have paid special attention to this term. The majority of them believe that it denotes a connection to the word “Akeiv”, which is spelled the same way, and means “heel”. But why “heel”? How is this relevant to the verse, “Because you hearken to these laws”?

Rashi believes that this word is used to bring to mind certain mitzvos- “those which a person tramples with his heels”. At first glance, this suggests that Rashi’s message is one of respecting and abiding by even the “smallest” and seemingly least significant mitzvos, but perhaps it echoes the message of Parshas Shloch and refers to the physical nature of some mitzvos. This would suggest that one cannot disregard the mitzvos which deal with “mundane” matters, and that these are just as important as lofty matters such as Torah study.

Indeed, this matter of the fine balancing act between lofty and mundane mitzvos appears in the Rebbe’s interpretation of the verse. Our commitment to Yiddishkeit and to the Torah, he comments, should be all consuming, to the point where it extends beyond the Holy days, and what happens in prayer and Torah study. The “lowliest” part of our life is actually the foundation- the heel- of our relationship with G-d. Simple things like food and clothing are elevated to be Holy and important.

Combining these two interpretations, we come to what is perhaps the centre of an observant Jewish lifestyle. Torah observance, and a love for Torah and the mitzvos, must be at the core of every area of our life. It’s not enough to only be a Torah observant Jew when we are in shul; we must also govern our behaviour, actions and speech in accordance with Torah law.

The word “Eikev”, the name of this week’s Sedra, is more than just a mere word. Every word of the Torah is special and rich with meaning- and Eikev teaches us what it means to be a Jew.

Tisha B’Av

Beginning tonight, we enter the fast of Tisha B’Av, known as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar when we mourn the destruction of the Temples. To commemorate this tragedy we fast, avoid certain pleasurable activities, and hold special services in shul. If you are a healthy adult who is able to fast, it is forbidden to eat or drink, and if possible, it is advisable to go to shul for the prayer services.

The most basic mourning prohibitions are as follows (thanks to Chabad.org for the information):

Eating or drinking
Wearing leather shoes
Bathing or washing
Applying ointments or creams
Engaging in marital relations
Sitting on a normal chair until after halachic midday
studying Torah
Greeting one another
Wearing festive clothing

In London, the fast starts tonight at 8:50 PM. Halachic midday is at 1:06 PM tomorrow, and the fast ends at 9:29 PM. May we soon merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple and the transformation of Tisha b’Av into the most joyous day of the year, please G-d!

Parshas Devarim: How to Rebuke

This week’s Pasha, Devarim (“Words”), is the first from the book of Devarim. It is very fitting that this Parsha teaches us so much about the power of words, and reminds us of some important lessons regarding speech. It features Moshe Rabbenu’s repetition of the Torah, in which he recounts the Israelites’ journey and their actions. As a part of this repetition, he rebukes them. However, his rebuke is carefully worded and carefully delivered- teaching us about the proper manner in which to rebuke someone.

To begin with, Moshe is very careful not to humiliate the People of Israel when he rebukes them. It’s a Torah commandment to rebuke your fellow, but the Talmud teaches us that it is better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than to humiliate someone in public. Needless to say, the balance between rebuke and humiliation is a difficult one to strike, but Moshe manages it perfectly. We learn this from the commentary on the following verse, from Sifri and Rashi:

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-Zahav:

According to the Sifri, the numerous place names listed here are not landmarks indicating where Moses spoke these words—indeed, some of these places do not even exist as geographical locations. Rather, these are words of rebuke by Moses to the people of Israel. Instead of mentioning their sins outright, he alluded to them with these place names.”

By following this indirect approach, Moshe ensured that the Iaraelites knew they had behaved wrongly, without being humiliated. The wording he used was perfect, but when rebuking someone, that isn’t enough. One’s intentions must also be pure. You should be rebuking someone in an attempt to help them better themself: you should be rebuking out of love. No matter how sensitive your words are, if they conceal feelings of hatred or anger then your rebuke does not fulfil the Torah commandment.

Yalkut Shimoni explains to us that Moshe was rebuking them out of love: “It would have been fitting that the rebukes be pronounced by Balaam, and that the blessings be said by Moses. . . . But G‑d said: Let Moses, who loves them, rebuke them; and let Balaam, who hates them, bless them”. This shows us that Moshe loved the people he was rebuking, and that his words didn’t stem from impure intentions.

Finally, Moshe ensured that his actions didn’t harm the reputation of the Jewish people. He was discreet, and discretion is the key to rebuking someone in line with Halacha. A Chassidic saying teaches us, “It was only to the people of Israel that Moses spoke of their iniquities and failings. To G‑d, Moses spoke only of the virtues of Israel, and justified them no matter what they did”. This shows there were no hard feelings between Moshe and the Israelites. No matter how often he had to rebuke them, he would always stick up for them.

Devarim is a very aptly named Parsha. It helps us understand that our words are powerful, and that we must speak them carefully. Through following the example of Moshe Rabbenu, we can all merit to speak kindly and constructively.

The Nine Days

As we enter the mourning period known as the Nine Days, we take upon ourselves certain observances which don’t apply to the rest of the Three Weeks. This heightened mourning culminates with Tisha B’Av, a fast day on which we remember the destruction of the Temple, before normal life resumes.

The restrictions of the following nine days can be found here, courtesy of Chabad.org;

http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/144574/jewish/The-Nine-Days.htm

Although these laws and customs are undeniably of the utmost importance, it’s our internal thoughts and prayers which matter the most. Our souls mourn the destruction of the Temples, and we are supposed to lower our level of simcha accordingly. But nonetheless, we must not give up hope, as when Moshiach comes, these will be he happiest days of our lives…

17 Tammuz

If, G-d forbid, Moshiach has not arrived by then, we begin fasting at halachic dawn tomorrow, and continue to do so until nightfall. In London, this means that we will be fasting from 1:05 AM until 10:01 PM. The rules of fasting apply to anyone over bar or bas mitzvah age, excluding those who are ill, pregnant, elderly, or weak.

We fast on 17 Tammuz in commemoration of five events which took place. The list below, courtesy of Chabad.org, summarises them;

1. Moses broke the tablets when he saw the Jewish people worshipping the Golden Calf.

2. During the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, the Jews were forced to cease offering the daily sacrifices due to the lack of sheep.

3. Apostomos burned the holy Torah.

4. An idol was placed in the Holy Temple.

5. The walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans, in 69 CE, after a lengthy siege.

Despite these tragic events, the fast day is an auspicious day for prayer. As we refrain from worldly pleasures, and pour our hearts out to G-d, we can only hope that he will listen and send Moshiach, speedily and in our days iyH!

Gut Yontiff!

Every year, we receive the Torah anew as we celebrate the festival of Shovuos. The name ‘Shovuos’ means weeks, as the holiday marks five weeks since Pesach. It’s at the end of this period that we accept the Torah all over again and rejoice in it. It’s important to hear the Ten Commandments read in shul- this mitzvah applies to all, including men, women and children, so you should try to be at your nearest shul tomorrow to hear this. Additionally, it is customary to stay up all night tonight learning Torah, to make up for the fact that the Israelites overslept when they were supposed to receive it.

Like on Shabbes, all forms of work are forbidden until after nightfall on Thursday. This includes writing, driving, shopping, and using electricity. Cooking and carrying items needed for the yontiff are permissible under certain circumstances. Please consult Chabad.org for actual guidelines.

In London, holiday candles should be lit at 8:48 PM today, and after 10:18 PM tomorrow (from a pre-existing flame). The yontiff ends after 10:19 PM on Thursday. While lighting candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna and Tova bas Taloob for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Yontiff!

Parshas Behar-Behuchoktai: The Letter of the Law

As the title suggests, this week’s Parsha is all about laws. Many of them are easy to dismiss as outdated. We begin by reading about the Sabbatical year- on which the land must not be worked- and the jubilee year, which sees the freeing of slaves and the return of property to its original owner. Afterwards, the Sedra goes on to tell us that G-d has promised to reward us, if only we would keep his mitzvos, while warning us of the punishment for transgressing them.

Amidst all of this, we find the laws of fraud and usury; ”You shall not defraud one another”. A simple statement, undeniably, but one which takes on a life of its own when we read the interpretation of Rabbi Bunim or Pshischa. He writes; ”legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s fellow. But a chassid must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude himself, either.”

A Chassid must go beyond the letter of the law.

This quote has been applied to many things. Not just fraud, not just to how we treat ourselves- although those things are undeniably of the utmost importance. But to how we conduct ourselves in our everyday lives. Often, we find that going beyond the letter of the law, to the spirit of the law, prevents us from accidentally transgressing halachos which we’re unsure of. But beyond that, it is a very important signifier of our relationship with G-d.

When we go beyond the letter of the law, we’re not just protecting ourselves from accidental transgressions. We’re saying to G-d, ‘I love You and want to do everything I can to make You happy’. When we care deeply for someone, we don’t just do the bare minimum to keep them satisfied. We express our affection by going above and beyond. Why shouldn’t we do that with G-d?

True Chassidim love G-d. They love Him and want to live in the way that He tells us to live. This means not only davening the prayers we’re commanded to daven, but pouring our hearts out to him, also. This means giving more Tzedekah than we’re legally required to. And above all, this means showing love for others. Maybe we’re not commanded to hold that door open. Maybe we don’t have to donate to that gemach. Maybe we don’t need to stop and talk with that person who’s having a hard time. But since when did we need to stick to the letter of the law?