Divrei Torah

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – February 21, 2016

Five times during the course of the year, aside from the Biblically enjoined day of Yom Kippur, observant Jews the world over engage in fasting: Tzom Gedaliah, Asara b’Tevet, Ta’anit Esther, Shiv’ah Asar B’Tammuz and Tish’ah B’Av.  On Ta’anit Esther, we limit our physical pleasure as Esther and the Jews of the time limited their joy as a result of their impending danger under Gentile dominion after losing their self-rule in their own land upon being exiled from their homeland; and on the other four fast days, we limit our physical pleasure as our joy was reduced when our ancestors lost their self-dominion in their own country when they were exiled from the Land of Israel.

To properly appreciate the loss commemorated in these fast days, we should first recognize the special character of the Land of Israel, as reflected in Jewish law.  In fact, Jewish law sees the Land of Israel in such a significant light that just one’s leaving it is considered a serious issue that needs to be heavily weighed.

Our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a) that it is prohibited to “leave the Land of Israel for [even] Babylonia [at the time a major center of Torah study] and that R. Chanina instructed someone not to leave to perform the precept of yibbum.  Moreover, R. Yochanan reluctantly agreed to allow R. Asi to leave the land in order to greet his mother – stressing that he should return (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 32a).  Our Sages also instruct us (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 13a) not to leave the Land of Israel except under special circumstances, such as an opportunity to study Torah in a qualitatively better manner, to marry, or to adjudicate with a non-Jew.  Tosafot (ad locum) opine that the aforementioned circumstances are the only ones that justify leaving the Land of Israel and only if one leaves temporarily.  We also find (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 14) that our Sages permit leaving for the sake of livelihood, but not just for the sake of travel – even temporarily.

Based on Talmudic sources, the pre-eminent medieval luminary, R. Moshe ben Maimon, known as Rambam or Maimonides, officially sets down in his famous Halakhic magnum opus (Mishne Torah, Melakhim 5:9) that one is allowed to leave the Land of Israel temporarily only to marry, to study Torah, to adjudicate and to engage in commerce.

The consensus among contemporary Halakhic decisors (see for example Shevet Halevi 5:173 and Yechave Da’at5:57) seems to be that one may leave the Land of Israel temporarily for any significant purpose (no less important than commerce), the guidelines of which are somewhat unclear.  Nevertheless, Magen Avraham (on Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 531:7) includes even seeing a friend.  However, Shevet Halevi does not permit one’s leaving the Land of Israel for the purpose of seeing G-d’s wonders of nature.

Be it as it may, the presence of a descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Land of Israel is not to be taken lightly.  One must cherish one’s time in our land and, therefore, not leave it at a whim.  This is the special status of our land.  This is the land our Father in Heaven bequeathed to us.  Abraham was told (Bereshit 13:15), “For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever.”  Isaac was told (Bereshit 26:3), “For to you and your offspring will I give these lands.”  Jacob was told (Bereshit 35:12), “And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to you will I give it and to your offspring after you.”  This Land of Israel, the Jewish homeland, was a gift by our loving Father in Heaven.  How can such a gift be taken lightly?

On top of its special status as a direct gift from G-d, this is a land uniquely rich and varied in its flora and fauna, its climate and terrain, its wildlife and vegetation to this very day, let alone the legendary lusciousness of its fruits and vegetables etc. as described in the Talmud and other Rabbinic sources.  At the center of the beauty and uniqueness that characterized the Land of Israel, a land described by G-d Himself (Sh’mot 3:8 et al) as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” was the magnificent structure of the Bet HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, that was once central to Jewish life and pride.  Imagine the tremendously beautiful scene that was once enjoyed by our ancestors in our homeland!  And it was all lost!  The little that we enjoy of the Land of Israel today is but a fraction of what was.  As a result of our wrongdoing, our Father in Heaven rescinded His gift.

On our rabbinically mandated fast days, we limit our indulgence in physical pleasures in order to take the time to contemplate our loss and the hope for us to regain what once was.  In fasting on these days, we are expressing our hungering for what was.  As we express in our prayers daily, “May our eyes see Your return to Zion in compassion.”  May we merit soon that our Father in Heaven revert our land, the Land of Israel, and our nation to what it once was.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – January 29, 2016

On the day of Purim, observant Jews include in their prayers three times a day their appreciation to G-d: “For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time.  In the days of Mordechai and Esther, in Shushan, the capital [of Persia], when Haman, the wicked, rose up against them [the Jewish people], and sought to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, on the same day, on the thirteenth of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their possessions.  But You, in Your abundant mercy, nullified his counsel and frustrated his intention and caused his design to redound upon his own head, and they hanged him and his sons on the gallows.”

In the fourth century B.C.E., in the days of Achashverosh (a.k.a Ahasuerus), successor to Cyrus, ruler over 127 provinces, an unfathomable expanse of land at the time, practically equivalent to sovereignty over most of the inhabited planet, a virulent anti-Semite by the name of Haman gained the confidence of this king and managed to get himself appointed as this ruler’s chief minister.  Once in a position of tremendous power that this position afforded him, Haman found the opportunity to devise a plan against the people that became over the centuries every hate-monger’s favorite victim.  Haman, in his hate for the Jewish people, persuaded King Achashverosh that the members of this nation, who were not too long before driven out of the land of Israel, were a danger to Achashverosh and his Gentile subjects.  Consequently, it was Haman’s opinion, the Jewish people needed to be exterminated, and he convinced the king to put into law an edict to destroy all the Jewish people within his jurisdiction, virtually eliminating the Jewish people from the face of the earth.

However, as a result of an amazing and totally unpredictable combination of “chance” events, skillfully orchestrated by G-d, Haman’s hateful plan “was turned about” (Esther 9:1).  The long time queen of Achashverosh suddenly committed an offense to the king that embarrassed him before his subjects prompting him to execute her and search for a replacement.  Of all the myriad women under his jurisdiction, the king, perchance, chose an orphaned Jewish young lady, raised, perchance, by a Jewish leader of the time, named Mordechai.  This same Jewish leader, perchance, later became privy to a plot to assassinate the king and reported the attempted treason before it could come to fruition.  At some later point, after Haman already succeeded in having his hateful edict proclaimed, the king, perchance, was reminded of Mordechai’s act of loyalty and chose to repay him for his loyalty.  In parallel, the newly crowned queen took the risk of entering the king’s palace, against strict royal policy, and, perchance, gained favor in the king’s eyes, nevertheless.  Esther, then, arranged an exclusive affair for her, the king and his minister Haman, where, the king, perchance, found his previously trusted minister in a rather compromising position in the queen’s presence.  Achashverosh is consequently infuriated and punishes Haman, and, in parallel, is convinced, perchance, by Esther to save the Jewish people.  After learning of Mordechai’s relationship to Esther, the king, then, perchance, replaces Haman with none other than Mordechai.

In the course of the events of Purim, what could have been, G-d forbid, an unparalleled death sentence upon practically the entire Jewish people, and would have changed the face of the nation for eternity was miraculously averted and deflected.  But, it is not just this that we celebrate on Purim.  We do not only celebrate our being saved.  The events of Purim did more than that.  The events of Purim indicated something much broader and far reaching – a message that we should cherish to this day.  The events of Purim brought to the foreground for everyone to see and should have led all to recognize a very crucial matter and teach everyone an eternal lesson.  The Jewish people faced certain annihilation, G-d forbid.  The most powerful regime in the world at the time that virtually spanned the globe was poised to destroy us and there was no outside entity that could be turned to.  No country, no regime, no group nor any diplomat, at the time, could contend with or stand up to the regime of Achashverosh, guided by his hateful and anti-Semitic minister who, in turn, incited the regime’s Gentile citizens against all their Jewish neighbors.  The future of the Jewish people could not be more dismal.  The future of the Jewish people could not look bleaker.  There was no human entity to turn to that could pull the Jewish people out of their hopeless predicament.  There was no reasonable or sensible manner that the Jewish people could survive this situation – a ruler and his subjects in a regime that stretches virtually over the entire inhabited world that has declared a death sentence against them and allowed anyone in the regime license to execute it.  Yet, this otherwise dismal scenario did not come to fruition, because G-d did not allow it to.  And if G-d would turn over such a, otherwise, hopeless situation, then we can be assured that no threatening situation against the Jewish people can arise that would not be overturned by G-d if He so wishes.

In Jewish prayer quorums the world over, we daily proclaim in the repetition of the Shemona Esrei prayer: “We thank You, for it is You Who are the L-rd our G-d and the G-d of our forefather, the G-d of all flesh, our Creator, the Creator of the universe.  Blessings and thanks are due Your great and holy Name, for You have given us life and sustained us.  So may You continue to give us life and sustain us and gather our exiles to the courtyards of Your Sanctuary, to observe Your decrees, to do Your will and to serve You wholeheartedly.”

We need to say “thank you” to G-d for having turned the tables against insurmountable odds during the events of Purim to save the Jewish people at the time – our ancestors.  We must, also, beseech G-d that He “continue to give us life and sustain us,” for, if He so wills it, we can overcome any enemy and survive any situation.  Purim, is, therefore, not just a celebration of the past, commemorating G-d’s saving the Jewish people in many years gone by.  Purim is a message for the present and the future, a constant annual recognition of our ability to rely on G-d.  With G-d on our side, no danger is insurmountable and nothing is out of our reach.  Let us but stretch out our hands to G-d and He will lead us over all obstacles.  This is the lesson of Purim.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – December 16, 2015

On a daily basis, observant Jews the world over praise the Al-Mighty G-d as they bless Him for all the good that they enjoy.  Our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 35a), “Whoever derives benefit from this world without a blessing [whereby one recognizes the source of our blessing] is tantamount to stealing from G-d.”  Consequently, before biting into a slice of bread, we say, “Blessed are You, the L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”  Before eating products of wheat, barley, rye, oat or spelt in the form of cakes, cookies and pastries, we say, “Blessed are You, the L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates species of nourishment.”  Before sipping a glass of grape wine or grape juice, we recite, “Blessed are You, the L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”  Before partaking of fruits from trees, we recite, “Blessed are You, the L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.”  Before biting into produce that is grown from the earth, we say, “Blessed are You, the L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates fruit of the ground.”  On all other food items, we say, “Blessed are You, the L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, that all has come to be through His Word.”  Blessings are even recited upon enjoying the smell of pleasant fragrances.  Before every incidence of enjoying this world’s bounty, we praise the good L-rd Who is responsible for our receiving this bounty.

In every prayer, almost every day of the week, observant Jews recite the blessing in the Shmone Esrei requesting, “Bless on our behalf –  O L-rd our G-d – this year and all its kinds of crops for the best, and give (dew and rain for) a blessing on the face of the earth, and satisfy us from Your bounty, and bless our year like the best years.  Blessed are You, G-d, Who blesses the years.”  Once again, in a different form, we praise the good L-rd for providing us with the earth’s produce that we can enjoy its taste and its nourishment for our pleasure and our well-being; and we beseech G-d that He continue to provide us this bounty.

In a similar vein, recognizing G-d’s Hand in all the nourishment and pleasant foods extracted from the earth, we celebrate every year the day of Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, recognized by our Sages (see Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 2a and Rashi on Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 14a) as the New Year of trees, when fruit begins to form on trees.  This distinct day, marking the onset of the new season of fruits, is celebrated by observant Jews, of Ashkenazi and Sephardi origin alike, in a festive mood in which penitential prayers and fasting are prohibited and special customs are performed, especially that of eating various kinds of fruits (see Mishna Brura 131:6), with special preference given to fruits grown in the Land of Israel, and Sephardi communities add special liturgies on this day.  In celebrating this day, we, again, praise the good L-rd for expressing His goodness to us in beginning anew the blossoming of the trees to bring forth again their fruits for us to enjoy, both their pleasant taste on our pallets and their nourishment to our bodies, recognizing, thereby, the source of our bounty.

May we always recognize G-d’s goodness via our blessings to Him and celebrating this special day of Tu B’Shvat marking a new beginning of the fruits of the trees, and may we all enjoy the speedy return of the Bet HaMikdash, G-d’s Holy Temple, where we may be able once again to praise the good L-rd, as enjoined in the Torah (Devarim 26: 1-11), in “the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you … that you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that the L-rd, your G-d, gives you, and you shall put in in a basket and go to the place that the L-rd, your G-d, will choose to make His Name rest there [the Bet HaMikdash] … Then you shall call out and say … He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me … And you shall rejoice with all the goodness that the L-rd, your G-d, has given you and to your household.”  And may that return of the Bet HaMikdash along with the coming of the messiah be in our time!

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – November 15, 2015

On the holiday of Chanukah, observant Jews round the world declare their appreciation to G-d in the Shemona Esrei prayer: “For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days at this time.  In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan, the High Priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to tray from the statutes of Your Will, You in Your great mercy stood up for them in the time of their distress.  You took up their grievance, judged their claim and avenged their wrong.  You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.  For Yourself You made a great and holy Name in Your world, and for Your people Israel you worked a great victory and salvation as this very day.  Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the site of Your Holiness and kindled lights in the Courtyards of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.”

We express thanks and appreciation for the great miracles that G-d performed on our behalf at the time that the Greek Antiochus and his subjects had dominion over the Land of Israel.  It was at this time that Antiochus expressed his disdain for the beliefs and practices that the Jews in the Land of Israel had kept since the time of Moses; and it was at this time that Antiochus expressed his disdain for our very lives.  Antiochus attempted to wrest our age old beliefs from our midst and wrest the lives from those among us who would nevertheless adhere to those beliefs and practices handed down to their forebears by G-d through Moses.  However, despite Antiochus’ wishes, his tremendous strength, his overwhelming number of followers and his excruciating cruelty, we were able to overcome him – because we have G-d in our corner.  A small group of Jews steadfast in their beliefs, led by a holy man, was given the miraculous ability by G-d to overcome the otherwise naturally unconquerable forces of the Greek kingdom and its vicious ruler Antiochus.

Indeed, nations, even before Antiochus and the Greeks, and continuously since then – to this very day – have, in their disdain for our beliefs and practices and for our very lives, tried to vanquish us.  From Pharaoh and the Egyptians to Nevuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, followed by Haman and the Persians and Titus and the Romans, Torquemada and the Crusaders and Chmelnitzki and the Cossacks, down to Hitler and the Nazis, the Jewish people have been continuously persecuted and the blood of our innocent brethren spilled freely in our synagogues and in our stores and in our streets.  But we have G-d in our corner.  In the face of the worst of odds, thanks to G-d, we have survived all our oppressors.  And now Israel’s Arab neighbors since Jews began to set foot in numbers on the soil of the Land of Israel have been continuously attacking us and seeking our annihilation.

As regards our most recently declared foe, our Arab neighbors, many wonder as to what fuels their hatred towards us.  Of course, many attempts have been made by liberals and anti-Semites of all persuasions to explain this phenomenon, but little true sense of any real significance has been actually shown.  An intriguing commentary by the great medieval Torah exegete, Talmudist and kabbalist R. Moshe ben Nachman (1194 – 1270), known as Ramban or Nachmanides, though, may share some light on this question.  We read in the Torah (Bereshit 16:6) concerning Hagar the mother of Yishmael, forefather of the Arab people, “And Sarah oppressed her, and she fled from before her face.”  Ramban opines, in his commentary on the aforementioned verse, “Our mother [Sarah] sinned by this oppression and, also, Abraham by allowing her to do so; and G-d listened to her oppression and gave her a son who would be a wild-ass of a man to oppress the offspring of Abraham and Sarah with all forms of oppression.”  Nevertheless, in his commentary on the following verse (Bereshit 16:9) wherein an Angel of G-d tells Hagar, “Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand,” Ramban explains that Hagar was instructed to “accept upon herself the authority of her mistress [Sarah], implying that she [Hagar] will not free herself from her [Sarah], for Sarah’s children will rule over her children forever.”  We have G-d in our corner.  No matter what gift He has granted Yishmael, G-d assures us, Ramban asserts, that it is destined to be trampled at our feet and authority is to remain in our hands.

As the Maccabees, in their steadfast adherence to G-d’s Will, were given the strength by G-d, to overcome their Greek oppressors and squelch their cruel intentions and actions, when our very survival as a Jewish nation was in danger, and as the Jewish people, steadfastly adhering to our beliefs and practices, were granted by Divine benevolence to overcome and survive the oppression of mighty foes before the Greeks and after the Greeks that threatened our existence, so Ramban assures us that we will continue to overcome our current foes.  Even those today among our Arab neighbors who are intent at our destruction cannot and will not succeed – because we have G-d in our corner.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 27, 2015

In the beginning of the Torah section of VaYerah (Bereshit 18:2-6), we read: “And he [Abraham] lifted his eyes and saw, and behold three men were standing over him, and he perceived and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground.  And he said…’Let some water be brought and wash your feet and recline beneath the tree.  I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may sustain yourselves, then go on’…And Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Hurry, three se’ahs of meal, fine flour, knead and make cakes,’ and Abraham ran to the cattle, took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the youth who hurried to prepare it.”

In commenting on the aforementioned in his Even Ha’Azel, R. Isser Zalman Meltzer notes the emphasis on the aspect of hurrying in this anecdote.  Abraham sees three travelers, perceives that they may be in need of something to drink or eat, rushes to them, offers assistance, rushes to his wife and asks his wife to rush to make something for them, after which he rushes to prepare some meat.  What’s the rush?

R. Meltzer suggests that the Torah is pointing out a message to all.  When it comes to hospitality towards another or caring for another or tending to another’s needs, one must rush to do so.  When another is in need of help, one should not let him wait, as is evident also in the anecdote told by our Sages regarding the Tanna Nachum Ish Gam Zu who once tarried in tending to a poor man’s needs, which led to the man’s demise (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 21a).

This is the message that the Torah is telling us, R. Meltzer suggests.  Hurry to your friend.  Hurry to your neighbor.  Hurry to your fellow man.  When another is in need of your assistance, do not waste time in rendering that assistance.  Imagine if you were the one in need!

Another significant lesson may also be garnered from this incident and other descriptions of Abraham.  Abraham was want to go amongst his fellow man and proclaim G-d’s being and role in the world, bringing to the fore and developing humanity’s recognition of G-d, hand in hand with his sincere show of caring and concern for his fellow man, as evident in the aforementioned incident.  A step lower is the description of Noah (see Rashi and Ma’ayana Shel Torah on Bereshit 6:9).  Noah, at first, showed no interest in his generation and did not go amongst his fellow man.  Only later, when constructing the ark, did Noah become involved with the public at large, announcing for everyone to hear the forthcoming dire straits and their need to repent (see Rashi on Bereshit 6:14).  Both Abraham and Noah are described as having walked with G-d, so to speak.  Unlike Abraham who spent his life mingling and conversing with his fellow man and Noah who spent a large part of his life involved with his fellow citizens around him, there was someone before them who also is described as having walked with G-d but acted very differently – Chanokh (see Bereshit 5:24 and the commentary of Rashi and Ma’ayana Shel Torah ad locum).  The great latter day Torah giant R. Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) is said to have described Chanokh as being a loner who distanced himself from his fellow man and did not attempt to impart his righteous ways on others or positively influence his fellow man.  Consequently, he was taken by G-d before his time, for fear of being negatively influenced by others.  Were he to attempt to reach out to his fellow man, on the other hand, this could have been avoided, as our Sages tell us (Mishna Avot 5:21), “Whoever influences the masses positively shall not bring about sin.”  Since he did not work at influencing his fellow man positively, he was not protected from sin.

From the description of Abraham’s actions in the beginning of this Torah section, and the description of other righteous individuals prior to him, we, consequently, learn two very crucial lessons.  Each one of us is encouraged to follow in Abraham’s footsteps.  Abraham’s actions teach one to hurry to your fellow man when he is need, and Abraham’s actions teach one to get to know him, reach out and get to know your fellow man and try to influence him positively.  To care for someone, one must not dawdle; one must hurry, and to ensure maximum life expectancy, one must get to know others, mix with others, and not hide from others, even if they are as sinful as the fellow citizens of Abraham, Noah and Chanokh.  Abraham’s actions proclaim to each one of us to hurry to your fellow man and get to know him.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 20, 2015

In the Torah section of Lekh Lekha, G-d appears to Abraham and reveals to him what He has in store for Abraham and his offspring.  “And He said to Abram, ‘Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them four hundred years.  But also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth’” (Bereshit 15:13-14).  G-d foretells to Abraham of his offspring’s eventual long sojourn amongst the Egyptians who will persecute them but in the end will be saved at the hands of G-d in a glorious manner.

In commenting on the last aforementioned verse, the great medieval Torah giant R. Saadia Gaon (882 – 942) offers an intriguing thought:  As a result of just a mere few words of “I shall judge”, the offspring of Abraham, the people of Israel, merited such tremendous miracles during their exodus and redemption from Egypt.  How much more can be expected in the future redemption of the Jewish nation at the Messiah’s arrival, of which so many more words and sentences have been written in our Scriptures!

In a similar vein, but amplifying and expanding further on the aforementioned, is an enigmatic comment by the renowned medieval Torah luminary R. Yaakov ben Asher (circa 1269 – circa 1343), known as the Baal HaTurim, explained by the latter day Torah scholar R. Aharon Levin (1879 – 1941), author of Sefer Ha’Drash v’HaIyun.

The Baal HaTurim notes (Sh’mot 19:4) that there are four verses in the entire Holy Scriptures that begin with the Hebrew word “atem” (meaning you in the plural form).  One verse reads (Sh’mot 5:11), “You [Atem] go take straw from wherever you find it, for nothing will be reduced from your work.”  Later, we find (Sh’mot 19:4), “You [Atem] saw that which I did to Egypt and I carried you on the wings of eagles and I brought you to Me.”  Towards the end of the Torah (Devarim 29:9), we find the verse, “You [Atem] are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd, your G-d:  Your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel.”  And, finally, there is a verse (Yeshaya 43:10) that reads, “You [Atem] are my witnesses, said G-d, and My servant who I have chosen, so that you will know and believe in Me, and understand that I am He; before Me nothing was created by a god nor will there be after Me!”

To explain the meaning of the Baal HaTurim’s cryptic comment and the common denominator of these verses in their usage of the word “atem“, R. Levin, also known as the Reishe Rav, noted that there is a fundamental change that appears to have occurred in the course of the history of the Jewish people.

Initially, upon beginning as a nation, we were beneficiaries of open miracles.  G-d performed acts for our benefit that openly defied nature.  The entire course of events surrounding the Exodus, starting with the burning bush and continuing throughout all the plagues, was replete with open miracles.  Our existence was one in which G-d was apparently altering the laws of nature on our behalf.  This miraculous period lasted throughout our entire sojourn in the desert, including the miracles of the Manna, the Clouds of Glory and the Well of Miriam – all super-natural phenomena.  After our ancestors entered the Land of Israel, they continued to experience various open miracles but such occurrences seemed to become fewer and fewer.  In our times, it appears, we no longer experience open miracles.  Our history began with a host of open miracles whereas today open miracles do not seem to occur at all.

R. Levin, however, opined that the aforementioned is actually a mistaken view of Jewish history.  It is not true, R. Levin asserted, that we no longer have open miracles today.  An ongoing and continuous open miracle is still occurring.  This miracle is that the Jewish people are living to this day, the mere fact that they still exist.

R. Yaakov Emden (1697 – 1776), also known as Yavetz, in the introduction to his Siddur, wrote:  “As G-d Lives, when I think about the miracle of the continued existence of our nation, it is as amazing to me as the Exodus from Egypt.”  It is definitely a documented fact (as we read in the Passover Hagadah) that in each and every generation “they rise up against us to destroy us and [miraculously] the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hand.”  R. Emden went on to marvel that the miracle of the continued existence of the nation, against such tremendous odds and in the face of such unrelenting persecution, is not a one-time miracle, as were the course of events surrounding the Exodus, but is a constant miracle which occurs in each and every generation and throughout all generations.

When Fredrick the Great (1712 – 1786), the famous monarch of the Prussian kingdom, asked the wise men of his court for a succinct proof of the existence of G-d, he was given a two word answer:  “the Jews.”  No greater proof is needed that there must be a G-d in Heaven than the fact that the Jews still exist as a people.

Many are also familiar with the famous essay (“Concerning the Jews”) that Mark Twain published in “Harper’s Magazine” in 1899 in which he asserted a similar observation.

With the aforementioned thoughts in mind, R. Levin noted, we can understand the significance and meaning of the four verses beginning with the word “atem“, noted by the Baal HaTurim.

When our ancestors were in Egypt, enslaved and oppressed by the wicked Egyptian, they wondered:  How could it be that they are being told that “you [Atem] go take straw from wherever you find it”?  How could they be subject to such degradation?

The answer to our ancestors’ question in Egypt is the verse with the next “atem,” “You [Atem] saw that which I did to Egypt …”  You yourselves, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob saw that the situation of enslavement and oppression was only temporary.  You, the Children of Israel, were later treated as a “treasured people,” “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”  Despite having to endure the terrible oppression of Egypt, this ultimately led to their benefit.  In the end, “You [Atem] saw that which I did to Egypt.”

A time will come, however, in Jewish history when a different question will be asked.  The question will be asked, “Why do we not see miracles any longer?  Why do we feel a sense of abandonment?”  The answer to this question is, “You [Atem] are standing today, all of you.”  You, the Jewish people, still exist.  This is the biggest proof that there is a G-d who loves us and keeps us and continues to take care of us in spite of what we sometimes perceive as abandonment.

Finally, towards the end of days, “You [Atem] are my witnesses.”  You, the Jewish nation will be testimony to G-d Himself.  The very fact that the Jewish nation still exists is the biggest proof that the Al-Mighty L-rd, our G-d, is still in heaven, still cares for us, and still watches over us.

Now it is only left for us to imagine, as R. Saadia Gaon noted over 1000 years ago, if as a result of just a mere few words of “I shall judge”, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the nation of Israel, merited such tremendous miracles during their exodus and redemption from Egypt, how much more can be expected in the future redemption of the Jewish nation at the Messiah’s arrival, of which so many more words and sentences have been written in our Scriptures!

Imagine what the future has to offer!  Imagine the magnitude of the miracles to be experienced then.  May we only merit seeing this future speedily in our time.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 13, 2015

In his comments on the Torah portion of Noach (VeHigadeta, Bereshit pp. 137 – 140), R. Yaakov Galinsky wonders about the verse (Bereshit 9:20), “And Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard.”  As Rashi points out ad locum, the Sages opined that, after leaving the ark that saved him and his family as well as other creatures, Noah should have been busy with other planting first.  At first, Noah is referred to as a “purely righteous man” (Bereshit 6:9) and now as simply a “man of the earth.”

Why, wonders R. Galinsky, do the Sages treat Noah as having simply chosen to become inebriated?  Why not say that his intentions were holy, that he wished to prepare wine for Kiddush?

In answer, R. Galinsky opines, Noah certainly could have been understood to have had the noble intention of stringently seeking to have wine for Kiddush, and no other intention.  Nevertheless, if the entire world is lying destroyed before you, it is not the time to think about stringencies.  One should be thinking of planting wheat to be able to make bread to assuage everyone’s hunger!  One could then rather be lenient and make Kiddush on the loaves of bread!

Similarly, R. Galinsky notes, we have a precept to kindle lights on Chanukah, including a proposed stringency, widely practiced, of each member of a given household kindling a light for each day of the Chanukah holiday.  Yet, R. Avraham Gombiner (c. 1635 – 1682), known by the name of his work Magen Avraham, rules (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 671:1) that one who has enough candles to perform the above stringency, but his neighbor does not have any, must provide his neighbor with candles, whereby each would only light one candle on each day, thereby foregoing this stringency.

Likewise, R. Galinsky points out that, although there have been times when entire cities populated by many Jews could not afford more than one lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot for the holiday of Sukkot, it is definitely a noble stringency for one who has the means to buy for himself before Sukkot his own lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot (see Babylonian Talmud, Sukka 38a).  However, again, the Magen Avraham rules (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 658:12) that if one has his own while a neighboring city could not afford them, he should give the neighboring city his lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot so that they could use it as a communal set to for the entire city’s inhabitants to perform this precept and he should forego his stringency to be able to perform the precept on the communal set owned by his city.

R. Galinsky concludes with a conversation he once had with the famous Chazon Ish.  The Chazon Ish said he does not perform stringencies.  Rather, he is stringent about performing the halakha.  R. Galinsky inquired as to the difference.  The venerable sage responded, “If the halakha instructs [us] to be stringent, this is the halakha.  When the halakha instructs that it is possible to be lenient and one wishes to be stringent, it is his right.  However, he should know that the halakha does not demand this, and, consequently, he should weigh and examine if this stringency does not harm another.”  The Chazon Ish added an anecdote regarding a very wealthy neighbor.  That neighbor happened to have another neighbor who was extremely impoverished.  “G-d has blessed you with great wealth; perhaps you could share some of it with him?” the Chazon Ish asked the wealthy man.  The wealthy man’s response was that every Purim there is a precept to provide for the impoverished.  Such a person is not easy to find, but as long as he knows that his neighbor is such an impoverished individual, this wealthy man has no difficulty in fulfilling this precept in its fullest sense.  However, this opportunity would be ruined if he assisted his neighbor by alleviating his impoverished state!  This, the Chazon Ish pointed out, is an example of performing stringencies, as opposed to being stringent in performing the halakha.

Stringencies in execution of Jewish law and practices may be noble in and of themselves – as long as one is mindful of priorities.  If, however, one smugly performs stringencies while others around him are allowed to suffer or while being insensitive to other important issues, one is exercising mixed up priorities.  And, as R. Galinsky cites, Jewish law and its decisors like the Magen Avraham and Chazon Ish do not condone mixed up priorities, just as our Sages do not condone the behavior of Noah after exiting the ark.  Thoughtless performance of stringencies does not reflect true devotion to G-d.  True devotion to G-d is only reflected in meticulous fulfillment of Torah law along with thoughtful consideration of priorities.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 1, 2015

In the supplication preceding the obligatory passage of Shema read in the morning by religiously observant Jews the world over, we find, “Our Father, the merciful Father, Who acts mercifully, have mercy upon us, instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate, to listen, to learn, and to teach, to safeguard, to perform, and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah’s teaching with love.”

Upon contemplating the aforementioned supplication, the latter day Torah luminary R. Moshe Feinstein is reported to have wondered about the wording.  We can understand asking G-d to have the ability to understand or to listen and to learn as well as to safeguard and perform His precepts.  However, how many of us can expect “to teach”?  Only a fraction of the general population is made up of teachers!  In response, R. Feinstein explains that indeed every single one of us can be a teacher – by example.  If an individual behaves properly, that individual has taught by example.  If one treats others with consideration and concern, he or she has taught by example.  If one exhibits devotion to G-d, he or she has taught by example.  If one deals honestly and fairly with others, that individual has taught by example.

When observant Jews in synagogues around the world complete the reading of the Torah on the holiday of Simchat Torah, the Torah portion of V’zot HaBracha is read.  In this Torah portion that culminate the entire Torah, Moses offers his final parting words to the nation; and in these words, he shines as the teacher par excellence, not only gaining his appellation of Moses our Teacher for all the laws of the Torah that he transmitted to us but also for teaching by example in an exemplary fashion.

We read (Devarim 33:1), “And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of G-d, bestowed upon the Children of Israel before his death.”  Before his death, Moses turns to each of the tribes comprising the nation of Israel and blesses the tribe individually according to that tribe’s unique attributes and, afterwards, blesses all the tribes collectively.

Moses spent some 40 years leading the nation through the desert to the Land of Israel after fighting for the nation’s release from slavery and persecution at the hands of the Egyptians.  During this tumultuous period, Moses did not have an easy time.  The nation for whom he performed unparalleled miracles did not obediently follow his every instruction.  He was met by resistance from the nation when he approached them in Egypt.  He was met with the sight of the nation dancing around a golden calf only forty days after presenting to them G-d’s holy Torah.  He was met with complaints concerning what the nation would eat and what they would drink.  He was met with resistance from the spies who were sent to scout out the Land of Israel, and then resistance from the nation as a whole to the idea of entering the land gifted them by G-d.  He was met by complaints and insults at the hands of his brethren led by Korach, Datan and Aviram.  He was further denigrated at the hands of the Prince of the tribe of Shimon who, along with others of his tribe, indulged in the lowest of transgressions of the Torah that he transmitted to them.  Moses was brought to utter exasperation by the nation that he wanted only to teach and help.  “How can I alone carry your trouble and your burden and your quarrels?” Moses exclaims (Devarim 1:12).

As a result of his troubles at the hands of the nation, he launches into a monologue shortly before his passing in which he berates and admonishes the members of the nation for their reprehensible behavior and warns them of the severe repercussions to follow should they not refrain from such behavior and not abide by the Torah and its precepts.  Had Moses finished with this, we could certainly understand.  He, as G-d’s most trusted messenger, had exhibited enormous talents, performed tremendous miracles and showed unlimited selflessness as leader of the nation, whereas the nation, on the other hand, repaid him and the Al-Mighty G-d he served and represented with disobedience and brazen disrespect.  The nation deserved and needed to be admonished and warned.  And one would understand if this great leader and teacher Moses would just stop there.

Moses, however, the great teacher, who, not only taught the nation academically, teaching them the words of G-d and His Torah, but also continuously taught by example, would not depart the nation he led with just admonishment and harsh words.  Despite all the frustration that the nation caused him, his selfless concern for the nation made it imperative to add words of encouragement to the nation.  He recognized that, despite their faults, different parts of the nation had various unique talents and capabilities, and Moses offered his best wishes to each of the tribes that each of them effectively utilize those special talents and capabilities for their betterment and greater good.  Moreover, Moses offered his best wishes that all of the tribes of this nation be blessed with all the talents and capabilities to further their betterment and their greater good.

As R. Feinstein pointed out, every one of us can teach by example, and our great teacher Moses displayed this in exemplary fashion.  Moses understood that we cannot just be critical of others, even if others, indeed, deserve criticism.  Despite all frustrations, even at the point of exasperation, we must, in caring for others, recognize that our brethren have great talents and capabilities that can be utilized to our benefit, and, in caring for our brethren, we must hope and offer our best wishes, like Moses, that our brethren will do what is best for them.

When observant Jews in synagogues around the world complete the reading of the Torah on Simchat Torah, reading the Torah portion of V’zot HaBracha, they then, upon completion of this Torah portion, immediately commence reading from the beginning of the Torah once again.  One may say that when we absorb the message taught to us by example by Moses our Teacher that, despite all the faults of our brethren around us, we must recognize that our brethren, nevertheless, have within them unique and sundry talents that can be used to our benefit, and we wholeheartedly express our hope and best wishes that our brethren utilize these talents to our greater benefit, then we can start a new beginning, with G-d’s help, in which we read again and absorb G-d’s Torah for our betterment and great good.

Sadly, many of our brethren do not exhibit exemplary behavior – even those who consider themselves religious and observant.  Divisiveness, petty jealousies, animosity, dishonesty and apathy plague various members of our community.  Many in one sector of the population look at their brethren from another sector with disdain and disinterest.  There are many parts today of the Jewish community.  There are Sephardim, of Moroccan, Iraqi, Yemenite, French, Spanish and other descents.  There are Ashkenazim, of German, Polish and Russian descents.  There are American Jews, English Jews, South African Jews and Australian Jews.  There are Hasidic Jews and non-Hasidic observant Jews, Haredi Jews and Dati Leumi Jews, and non-observant Jews.  And there are so many who have something bad to say of others who belong to any of the other groups without even meeting given individuals of those groups.

Moreover, there are groups of the population who are treated with basic disinterest.  While there may be enormous amounts of charity provided to certain causes, there still are various groups amongst the Jewish population who are hard pressed to get any assistance, if any.  Jewish women with children who are awaiting divorces or received divorces, husbands with children who have been widowed, teenagers or adults with emotional problems and other such groups find themselves with little or no help from the community to get back on their own feet, so to speak.

There are, in fact, many within all of the different sectors of the Jewish populace who behave deceitfully or with apathy, whether in relation to others or in relation to G-d.  And there are many holes that need to be filled – but are regularly ignored.  And there are many who are quick to criticize, and, in fact, there are those who deserve criticism.

Nevertheless, we must recognize that there is still much good in all sectors of the Jewish populace – if we would only exhibit the intellectual honesty and take the necessary time to think about it and see it.  We must, then, hope that those deserving criticism understand their error and mend their ways, and fill those holes that remain open, as Moses hoped when admonishing our People.  And we must show true caring and concern for our brethren whereby we wholeheartedly offer our best wishes to our brethren to exercise their talents and capabilities – that we do not ignore – for the benefit of the Jewish populace at large.

Let us, with truth and honesty, caring and concern, offer our best wishes before a new beginning – best wishes to all of our brethren.  Let us hope that we can all utilize our best qualities and gain other good qualities to progress as a nation – undivided by divisiveness, jealousies, animosity, dishonesty and dis-concern – on the way to a new beginning that we can all be proud of, that we can all enjoy and that we can all appreciate.  Let us all be examples to others and may all others be examples to us, as all of us care for each other – in harmony and brotherhood.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 16, 2015

In the Torah portion of VaYelekh, amongst Moses’ parting words before his passing, we read (Devarim 31:12-13), “Gather together the people – the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities – so that they will hear and so they will learn, and they shall fear the L-rd your G-d, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.  And their children who do not know, they shall hear and they shall learn to fear the L-rd your G-d all the days that you live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess it.”

According to the latter day Torah giant R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim (Mishle Ha-Chafetz Chaim, 35) the words “all the days” in the aforementioned verse are to be understood as a call to consistency and constancy.  We are expected to be consistent in our devotion to G-d, in obeying His commandments and performing His precepts.  We are not to give in to temptation.  Oftentimes, it happens that we sometimes are fully devoted with all our energy to G-d and His Word and then, at some point, we falter and succumb to temptation to neglect and transgress His commandments, and then, later, we again strengthen ourselves once more and repent our actions and return to our prior level of devotion.  While it is quite commendable – very much so – that we come back to G-d after faltering, we are being alerted in this verse to the need to exert the utmost effort to devote our hearts and souls to G-d, following Him with our undivided attention “all the days” to the extent that we do not come to the point of succumbing to temptation.

It is suggested that our situation can be compared to a sick individual who meets a friend in the street who asks him how he is doing.  The sick man responds, “I am sick.”  When his friend inquires as to the nature of the illness, the man tells him that he is suffering from a severe fever.  However, the friend, noticing that he does not look ill at all, wonders how this man could be ill.  The sick man, in turn, explains that, in fact, on that very day he is feeling well and has no fever; but, the nature of his illness is such that one day he is bedridden with a debilitating fever and another day he feels fine and can walk around like everyone else, and this continues to occur for weeks.  Consequently, even when he does not experience the fever, he is still in the midst of a very serious illness.

Similarly, when we have days that we are absolutely healthy spiritually, serving G-d with great devotion, if temptation suddenly takes a hold of us and causes us to neglect our duties to the Al-Mighty, we are in the midst of an illness even when we regain our spiritual health and again abide by His Will.  The illness can only be said to end when we once and for all rid ourselves of our inclination to temptation.

G-d, therefore, asks us to make every effort to strive for consistency and abide by His precepts and be devoted to His Will “all the days.”  We must not treat it cavalierly to buckle under temptation, complacent in the feeling that we return to Him afterwards.  We should not be complacent to sometimes obey His Will and sometimes not, no more than we can shrug off an illness that continuously comes and goes.  To do so is betraying a sickness that we are experiencing.  As in the case of a physical illness, we do not want to be well one day and ill the next.  We must strive for consistency.  We must persevere to follow his guidance – “all the days.”

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 7, 2015

In the beginning of the Torah portion of Nitzavim, Moses, before he passes on, addresses a gathering of the People of Israel and begins to tell them (Devarim 29:9), “You are standing here today.”  On this verse, Rashi comments that Moses gathered together the people to stand together as he is about to transfer the leadership to his trusted student Joshua, upon G-d’s recommendation, and to urge them to maintain their devotion to G-d.  Rashi adds that a similar gathering of the People of Israel to stand together was performed when Joshua passed on the leadership to the prophet Shmuel and, then, when Shmuel passed the leadership over to the first king of the nation of Israel, King Saul.

The late venerated rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Telz, R. Eliyahu Meir Bloch (1894-1954) is reported (Yissocher Frand, Rabbi Frand on the Parashah 2, pp. 339-341) to have wondered about the necessity for the people to stand around together.  Why could they not sit?  What was accomplished by standing?

In answer to his question, R. Bloch noted that the reference to standing did not connote standing on one’s feet, but, instead, to the idea of remaining in one place.  As a result of the many goings and comings that we all engage in, we often forget to take the time to stop and think about what we are doing.  We just keep doing things by rote, running around, without thinking about where we came from, where we are trying to go, and how we are trying to go there.  However, to succeed in life, we must establish direction.  We must understand what we wish to achieve and plan on how to fulfill this goal.  It is difficult to contemplate on a daily basis what we have achieved and what we still have to accomplish.  At some transition point, therefore, we must take time to stop and think about our actions.

This, R. Bloch asserts, is what Moses, Joshua and Shmuel intended when gathering the nation to stand together when each prepared to transfer the mantel of leadership.  They utilized the momentous occasion of handing over the reins of leadership to declare the need of the nation at large at such a major crossroads in life to contemplate where we are holding and what we have yet to do.

We all experience significant transitions in life, such as beginning a new school, getting married, having a child or marrying off a child etc.  On all these occasions, R. Bloch tells us, like the People of Israel did, we should stop and think of what was to be achieved up to this point, what more should be done and how it should be done.  If, however, we just fall into a routine running or drifting through life without standing still to stop and think about our actions, we stand little chance to fulfill our potential of what we can truly achieve in life.  Consequently, R. Bloch notes, Moses brought the nation to a standstill to take note of where they were and where they were headed.

Nor do we need to wait for a major turning point in our lives to evaluate our actions.  There are many opportunities to consider our actions.  Every Sabbath, we have an opportunity to stop and think.  Every holiday, we can stop and think.  Especially, we can and should do so on Rosh HaShana.  Appropriately, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim on the last Sabbath before Rosh HaShana, perhaps specifically designed by our Sages so that Moses’ gathering the people to stand together should remind us, like the nation prior to Moses’ passing, to stop and think and engage in a serious introspection of our behavior as we begin a new year.

We must not run through life or sleepwalk through life.  We must take the opportunity from time to time whenever possible to stop and think.  We must contemplate what we have accomplished and what more we can do and how to do it.  Only then can we truly fulfill our potential and make of ourselves the best that we can be.