Parshas Vezos Habrocha: Unity and Individuality

This week, we read the last parsha in the Torah: parshas Vezos Habrocha. As soon as we finish reading it, we begin the Torah cycle anew with the first Parsha, reminding us that no matter where we are in the cycle of our lives, we should look to the Torah as our guidance and moral code, for it is always present, and always relevant.

In Parshas Vezos Habrocha, we learn about the brochos (blessings) which Moshe Rabbenu gave to the twelve tribes of Israel. Many feel that these blessings echo Yaakov’s twelve blessings, generations earlier. What is special about these blessings is their unique nature. Moshe Rabbenu does not deliver a standard, placeholder blessing to all the people of Israel. Instead, he focuses on the unique role of each tribe, and empowers them to do that role.

Throughout the Torah, we are reminded of Moshe’s great leadership skills. This is just one example of his extraordinary talent in leading the people of Israel. He spoke directly to the tribes and in doing so, he not only showed his own confidence in their talents, but he also instilled self confidence in them.

Moshe Rabbenu underlined that each tribe had a unique role, and this applies not only to the tribes of Israel, but to each and every one of us. Yes, we share a goal as a people: to bring Moshiach and rebuild the Temple. But we are blessed with individual strengths and weaknesses which we must utilise if we are to achieve this goal.

You exist for a reason. Hashem wouldn’t have created you, if not for your unique purpose on earth. This year, may we all find the clarity to realise this, and showcase both our uniqueness and unity, to bring Moshiach speedily and in our days.


Parshas Haazinu: Trials, Tribulations and Trust

This week’s Parsha, Haazinu, which we read directly before Rosh Hashono, comes in the form of a song, delivered from Moshe Rabbenu to the Israelites, shortly before his death. Although the Parsha concludes in the usual written format, it is strikingly unique and beautiful in the way it is written, as Moshe Rabbenu conveys his instructions to the Jewish people through a musical covenant, reminding them of their past, and telling them of their future. But why is Moshe delivering these powerful words in the form of a song- right before he is about to die?

One of the most well known figures in Jewish history is Dovid HaMelech- the King David. Dovid is remembered for his remarkable eloquence- an eloquence he showcased in the book of Tehillim (Psalms), written almost entirely by him, a book found in Jewish homes across the world to this day. Many read Tehillim daily, as part of studying Chitas (Chumash, Tanya and Tehillim), while others read them on behalf of the sick, or in times of distress. No matter when or why we read them, there is no doubt that Dovid wrote a great many Tehillim in difficult times. His songs and dedications never stop praising Hashem- even though he, personally, was going through all the trials and tribulations imaginable.

Dovid HaMelech was a man of great faith, and it was this faith which inspired him to thank and praise Hashem at every moment, no matter how terrible his life appeared to be. Similarly, this remarkable faith in Hashem is the reason why Moshe Rabbenu sang in this week’s Parsha, even right before his death, when he realised that he would never live to enter the land of Israel. Still, he sang out to G-d and thanked Him, and admonished those who would rebel against Him; even referring to his own sin, when he spoke harshly to the Israelites before striking the rock to provide water, and calling G-d ‘the Rock, perfect is His work’, in reference to this difficult topic.

So what do we learn from the song in this week’s Sedra? What does it teach us about the upcoming year- a subject which is surely on our minds right now, with Rosh Hashono around the corner?

There is no guarantee that 5778 will be a brilliant year. There will, almost undoubtably, be trials and tribulations. There will be revealed blessings, and moments of joy, but there will probably also be hidden blessings; moments which are not so joyful or easy to understand. And throughout it all, we must keep singing. We must keep praising G-d. We must keep trusting in Him, because it was this trust which sustained Dovid HaMelech and Moshe Rabbenu throughout the most difficult times of their lives, and because it is this trust which forms the basis for this week’s Parsha.

Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech: Unity and Freedom of Choice

This week we read a double parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, which relates the final days of Moshe Rabbenu’s life, and tells us about some of the fundamental principles of Judaism. The moral guidelines which are set out for us in Nitzavim-Vayelech are easy to understand, and not perceptible to change: like everything in the Torah, they remain the same throughout the trends of time, but are especially applicable during Elul, as we reflect on the year behind us, and think about the things we have done and said, while preparing for the year that lies ahead of us.

Rosh Hashono does not occur on the first day of the first month, and nor does it occur on the day that the World was created. Instead, it commemorates the creation of man. And the reason for this also ties in directly to this week’s Parsha: it is because man, unlike the angels, and- to a certain extent- the animals of the field, has free will. We are reminded of this when we read the following; “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love G‑d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life”.

This free will, we are reminded, can be used for the purpose of goodness, or for evil. And although we are advised to choose the former, G-d acknowledges that we will make mistakes- huge mistakes, and mistakes made with evil intent- and that He cannot prevent us from choosing evil. And yet, as we head towards Rosh Hashono, when we are inscribed in the book of life, we are reminded that we can- and in fact shall- choose life. We can repent. We can turn back to G-d, and be welcomed with open arms, and enjoy an even closer, more loving relationship than before.

But truly loving G-d means that we must love each and every one of His creations, also. It’s no good davening and studying Torah if we refuse to visit the sick, spread kind words, give to charity, or simply do a good deed. Klal Yisroel is one family, and we cannot be truly close to G-d if we aren’t close to one another. This, too, we are reminded of at the beginning of the Parsha, where we read, “You stand today, all of you, before the L‑rd your G‑d”.

On Rosh Hashono, we will all stand before G-d together; and it doesn’t matter how poor or rich we are, or how important or intelligent we are: we are one big family, and G-d views us as such. This year, when we do teshuva and apologise to G-d, we must remember to also apologise to those in our lives whom we have hurt or wronged- because to love your fellow Jew is to love G-d and His Torah.

Parshas Ki Savo: A Divine Relationship

This week’s parsha, Ki Savo, lists the blessings which G-d bestows upon us for keeping His laws, followed by the curses which He will punish us with if we stray from the Torah. The part of the parsha containing these curses, known as the Rebuke, is both harrowing and awe-inspiring. It instills fear of G-d in anyone who reads it, just as the blowing of the Shofar in the month of Elul instills awe. But why is this rebuke so harsh? Why is G-d doing this?

Many rabbonim and sages have attempted to interpret the meaning of the verse which explains the rebuke, “Because you did not serve G‑d with happiness and with gladness of heart, in abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies”. Rambam believed that it was directly because of the lack of joy that one would be punished, stating, “Even though you served G‑d, you did not serve Him with joy—that is the source of all afflictions”. Meanwhile, we read in the Maayanah Shel Torah that the term gladness of heart refers to wilful sinning- “Not only did you sin, you did so “with happiness and with gladness of heart”—for this the punishment is doubly severe”.

But Rashi offers a very different, unique perspective on the meaning of this verse. He suggests that it refers to turning away from G-d during good times: times when all is going well and we are under the illusion that we don’t need Him. He writes in his interpretation, “Because you did not serve G‑d when you enjoyed happiness and the abundance of all good things, you shall now suffer want”.

This teaches us an important lesson about our relationship with G-d. In a human relationship, one needs to be present both during the good times and during the difficult ones, and we can’t simply rely on our partners or families during hard times, only to abandon them when things are easier. Similarly, we must stand before G-d at all times and truly connect with Him. We must love and fear Him and remember all He has done for us, whether we are struggling or triumphing.

It’s no good only praying to G-d when we are having an especially hard time, because the truth is, we always rely on Him to wake up each morning. We need to be thankful to Him and keep His laws in every minute of our lives; only then will we reap the blessings described in this week’s Parsha.

Gut Shabbes! (Ki Teitzei)

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I found the Parsha problematic. I felt that some of the verses were troubling, and bloodthirsty, and although I accepted the Torah as divine, a part of me could not come to terms with the words contained within it. Yesterday, however, I was reminded that it wasn’t the Parsha that was problematic. It was our understanding of it.

And, indeed, we cannot change the Torah to fit our own viewpoint, nor can we disregard its Divine nature because of our modern sensibilities. Instead, we need to ask for understanding: understanding to transform these verses, without changing their meaning, into something which benefits us and helps us to connect to G-d. B’ezras Hashem, may we all come to develop a greater understanding of the Torah, in this very special month where the King is “in the field”.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 7:28 PM tonight, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 8:36 PM. While lighting your candles, please have in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe Ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Chashachana bas Bryna, Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina and Shai bas Odeya. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Ki Teitzei: I Have No Answers

I am open about finding certain parts of the Torah difficult to understand and reconcile my own viewpoint with. I accept that the Torah is divine, and overrides any other values- but this week in particular, I find that hard to come to terms with. In the past, when dealing with the laws of neyderim (vows) and gender inequality, I was frank. I stated that I thought the laws were unfair, but that all I could do was learn and ask and question until I was satisfied.

What, then, can I write about the parsha which tells us, “if this matter was true, (and) no evidence of the girl’s virginity was found, they shall take the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall pelt her with stones, and she shall die…”? And, even more problematically, “If there is a virgin girl betrothed to a man, and man finds her in the city, and lies with her, you shall take them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall pelt them with stones, and they shall die: the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he violated his neighbor’s wife”.

Dear reader, I have attempted for many years to explain away the things in this week’s Parsha. I have studied, and read commentaries, and all I learnt from sifrei was that in the latter case, it is the girl’s fault, because “she could have stayed at home”. I closed the book, and I tried desperately not to close my mind and turn against Judaism, because, quite frankly, I believe I have a Jewish neshomo. But sometimes, it’s difficult not to feel repulsed when you read such things.

I think a part of being an adult is sometimes accepting that you don’t know the answer, and in this case, that’s what I am doing. All I can say is- I am stepping back from the issue because, simply, I cannot solve it. I just hope that someone else can, and that the disturbing views which we read in tomorrow’s Torah portion are not representative of frum Jewry today.

At the end of the day, G-d knows best, and I know that if He is the G-d I pray to every day, He is not one to blame rape victims.

Parshas Shoftim: Justice and Responsibility

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, contains a famous phrase: “Justice, justice you shall pursue”. The repetition of the word “justice” is the subject of much discussion among scholars and commentators, and is thought to emphasise the importance of establishing a just legal system. Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa writes, “Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just”.

Clearly, justice is of the utmost importance in Judaism. In fact, upholding courts of law is one of the Seven Noahide Laws which apply to all mankind, and the Talmud teaches that a righteous judge is a “partner” of G-d.

Also contained in this Parsha is the law of the eglah arufah, in which we are commanded to find a criminal and force him to atone for his crime, even though the murder took place outside the boundaries of the city. The responsibility falls upon the city’s elders, but the Rebbe develops this concept to teach us about individual responsibility.

We read in his teachings, “A person never has the right to say, “This is outside of my element. I have no obligation to deal with this.” If it is something that, by divine providence, one has been made aware of, that means that there is something one can, and must, do to positively influence the end result”. Clearly, the Rebbe believes that everything happens for a reason, and we can combine his viewpoint with the verse about pursuing justice.

These two concepts- that of pursuing justice, and that of dealing with things which fall outside of our comfort zone, or the domain where we are in control- overlap. In the search for justice, we must look past our boundaries, we must look past our routines and defined roles, to ensure that righteousness prevails.

So important is this mitzvah to pursue justice, that we are all responsible for it. In our day to day lives, if there is something we can do to lessen inequality, prevent cruelty or unfairness, or aid the legal system, we must do it. It might not be easy, and it might not seem necessary, but it is, or G-d wouldn’t have made us aware of it