Articles

The Cohen

We were in our kitchen in Amsterdam when the letter arrived from the Rotterdam Jewish Community. We were expecting it. We had spent a very successful Shabbos in Rotterdam following an invitation from the Jewish Community. Their rabbi of many years had passed away and they were having difficulty finding a suitable replacement. One rabbi was appointed but had quickly resigned “for personal reasons.” So the post was vacant. I was learning in the Kollel Chacham Zvi in Amsterdam and was the acting rabbi of a small shul, the Gerard Dou shul named after the street where the shul was situated just near the local Albert Cuyp market. I had learnt to speak Dutch which has similarities to Yiddish, had some rabbinical experience and was recommended for this post in Rotterdam. My wife and I had enjoyed our Shabbos in Rotterdam and I spoke in the shul and in the local old age home. The community’s reaction was very positive and the committee had already invited me to a meeting to finalize details of the contract. They explained why the previous rabbi had left after a short time and they wanted to proceed with me. So now the official letter had arrived containing, no doubt, details of the proposed contract. However, the letter contained a surprise. It was brief and to the point. “We heben besloten van u diensten geen gebruik te maken.” “We have no need for your services.” Somewhat taken aback and a trifle disappointed, I turned to my wife and said, “They obviously heard about the kohen. That’s the only explanation of this sudden change in their attitude.” Indeed, through the proverbial grapevine, I heard. It was because of the kohen. What was the story of the kohen?.

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The Gerard Dou shul mentioned earlier was a very special shul. Walking down the market street, one could easily miss it. Only a Magen David on a window on the third floor revealed its identity. The difficulty in realizing that a beautiful shul lay behind the non-descript external walls was the reason for its unique wartime history. It was the only shul in Amsterdam not discovered by Holland’s Nazi occupiers. At a time when tragically most of the Jews in Holland were sent to concentration camps, many were hidden by non-jewish families, a few like Anne Frank, (Hyd), made their own hiding places and amazingly three Jews hid in a room behind the Aron Kodesh in the Gerard Dou Shul. They remained there undiscovered until the day of liberation. In the first years of the Kollel Chacham Zvi, the avreichim took turns on Shabbos to attend the Gerard Dou Shul and give a drasha. This is how my close connection with the shul began. It was Parshas Vayechi and I arrived for my occasional visit on behalf of the kollel. The problem was that the baal koreh had not arrived. Who could possibly lein the parsha without any preparation? As it happens it was my barmitzvah parsha and having leined the parsha on my barmitzvah thirteen years before, and several times since, I was ready to step into the breach. One of the gabbaim, Meneer Van Veen, said that I would be paid the standard twenty-five guilder fee for leining but I said that it wasn’t necessary. However, the next day a huge mouth-watering chocolate cherry cream gateau was delivered by the local kosher bakery, in lieu of payment. The gabbai wasn’t finished, though and having seen that I was able to lein, began calling me regularly to do so, “because he didn’t have anyone else.” If by Thursday night there was still no-one else, I would go and lehn but would always refuse payment. Hence the freezer full of chocolate cherry cream gateaux which the Fletcher family could never eat fast enough to keep pace with their arrival. Eventually I became the permanent acting rav of the shul on behalf of the kollel.

The other two gabbaim were Mr Rozenberg z”l, old timer who suffered from deteriorating Parkinson’s Disease and a young member of the shul, Fred Hochheimer, a local pharmacist whose presence in the shul lowered the average age of the congregants by at least five years to approximately seventy-five years old. On my first visit to the shul Mr Rosenberg had already made his presence felt by stepping out as I walked up to the pulpit and whispering in my ear, “Mr Fletcher, seven minutes!” Apparently this was the maximum amount of time allowed for the drasha in the Gerard Dou Shul.

But now the exciting part of this story, details of which circulate in the Amsterdam community until this very day about thirty years later – the story of the kohen.

The Gerard Dou shul was always regarded as an independent shul attended by people who for their own reasons did not want to attend the more official shuls where the officially-appointed rabbonim maintained control. A group of would-be converts came, as well as various unafilliated people. Everyone was made welcome and no questions were asked. The congregation always had a beautiful spread of cakes for the Kiddush which took place in the very room where those three Dutch Jews had hidden years previously. The atmosphere was always friendly. However friendliness and tolerance can sometimes create problems; where do you draw the line? One of the occasional congregants was a middle-aged Dutchman, Mr Sam de Jong.[1] Unfortunately he had married a non-Jewish woman but still liked to keep up his Jewish connection by occasionally coming to shul. Of course Gerard Dou, with its open door policy, was where he liked to go. Another detail was that Sam de Jong was a Kohen. The gabbaim never gave him the first aliya usually reserved for a Kohen but occasionally gave him ‘acharon.’ To call up such a Jew for an aliya after the first seven aliyos is a leniency which some allow, to avoid ill-feeling. So nothing was said and polite friendship was the order of the day…..until Shevuos.

Shevuos is, of course, the Yom Tov we celebrate the Giving of the Torah. Many Jews stay up all night studying the Torah to show their love for the Torah. I also wanted to stay up learning and asked the gabbaim of the shul if they could manage without me for one day. They kindly agreed. So for that first day of Yom Tov there was no rabbi in shul. Was that so terrible? Can’t a shul manage for one day without a rabbi?

There is an English expression, ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play.’ The absence of the rabbi on that one day set in motion a series of events which literally cost someone his life. Mr de Jong was in shul on that first day of Shevuos. And he had noticed that the rabbi was not there. He then did something he had never dared do before – he went up to duchan. As most people know, outside of Eretz Yisroel on a normal day there is no duchaning. Only at Musaf on Yom Tov is there duchaning. All the kohanim of the shul go up to the aron kodesh, turn to face the tzibbur and give the traditional priestly blessings. However not all kohanim go up to duchan. A kohen who has married out does not duchan. He has done what is regarded as the most serious act of disloyalty to the Torah, marrying and setting up house with a non-Jewish woman . But on the first day of Shevuos, when the rabbi was not there, Sam de Jong decided to duchan. To the consternation of the tzibbur he went up and joined in with other kohanim. And it seems that he liked the idea. By the time I was back in the shul on the second day of Yom Tov and it was time for duchaning, Mr de Jong, draped in a tallis which made him almost unrecognizable, went up again. I was unsure what to do. I was, after all, just an avreich from the local kollel. Was it important enough to have a public fight? So I said nothing. Mr de Jong enjoyed his ‘victory.’ He had duchaned even in the presence of the rabbi. It was now a fait accompli. Of course I raised my objections with the gabbaim but what could be done? Have a physical fight in the middle of the shul?

The summer moved on but the issue was not forgotten. Mr de Jong was looking forward to the big one, the Yamim Nora’im. I consulted more senior Rabbis from the community. What should my approach be? The senior rabbonim of the town advised, “You have to tell him, Rochel bitcha haketana,[2] that he is not allowed to duchan .” But Sam de Jong had tasted victory on Shevuos and was not going to give up. Tefila and tzedaka he might consider but teshuva was not on his agenda. Shortly before Rosh Hashana, I was told. “Do not have a physical fight but you must stand your ground. If he insists on going to duchan you must make a public announcement that one of the kohanim is not authorized to duchan according to the Chief Rabbinate of Amsterdam and the tzibbur should only listen to the other kohanim.” And so it was. On the holy day of Rosh Hashonoh Sam de Jong refused a last minute plea from me to back down and the announcement was made. The davening continued. I had done what I was told to do. Mr de Jong had duchaned but he naturally had been embarrassed by the announcement.

Now the whole community became involved. Many criticized me. “He embarrassed a Jew in public –an unforgivable offence.” Others spoke in my defence, “Mr de Jong was going against the Chief Rabbinate of Amsterdam. What other option was there?” The debate was animated; the real question was ‘Who is in charge? Have the rabbis the right to control what is done at least in the shuls?’

The next and final battle was scheduled for Yom Kippur. If Mr de Jong goes up to duchan again despite his previous embarrassment, he will have won. The announcement had already been made. Should a private security firm be hired to block Mr de Jong from the aron kodesh? That wasn’t practical. But maybe Mr de Jong would back down. Maybe desecrating Yom Kippur to prove his point was something even he would not want to do. I called a meeting with the gabbaim for during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva to see what possible options there were. The shul and the community waited tensely for Yom Kippur. Who was going to come out on top, the rabbinate and halacha or a serious transgressor? The honor of Shomayim was at stake.

The conclusion was as shocking as it was devastating. That is why they are still talking about it in Holland thirty years later. Before the scheduled meeting in the shul I received a call from the gabbaim. “The meeting’s off. Mr de Jong has just suffered a massive heart attack and died. He won’t be duchaning any more. And before long the Jewish Community of Rotterdam had also heard about it and they changed their plans. A rabbi who, if you defy him, you get instant punishment from Heaven was not the type of rabbi they had in mind.

[1] The name has been changed.

[2] In other words with the same absolute clarity that Yaakov Avinu had told Lavan that he wanted to marry Rachel, not Leah.

A Month of Rejoicing? – Part 3

As we approach Tisha Be’Av, our tefilos for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash deepen in intensity. But what chance have we that our tefilos will be answered, if we don’t listen to our nevi’im who told us the causes of its destruction?

In this week’s haftora, Yeshaya HaNavi gives a very powerful rebuke to the Jewish People. “Children have I raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against me.” “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? When you come before Me, who asked you to trample on My courtyards? Bring your worthless meal offering no longer. It is an incense of abomination….My soul detests your Shabbos, your New Moons and your festivals. When you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; even if you intensify your prayer, I will not listen.”(Yeshayahu 1:2-18)

What did we do wrong? It seems we were bringing korbonos according to halocho. We were observing Shabbos and Yom Tov with every stringency. What could possibly explain this awesome punishment — that Hashem does not want our mitzvos? That He does not answer our tefilos? Yeshaya goes on. “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” Because of our callous disregard for the weaker members of society, Hashem says that we are “trampling on His courtyard” and “He hates our observance of Shabbos and Yom Tov.”

The Torah warns us, “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you dare to cause him pain, if he should cry out to me, I will surely hear his cry….” (Shemos 22:20-23)

In nineteenth century Russia, the poor, orphans, defenseless and downtrodden were the victims of communal unethical behavior under Czar Nicholas 1. The Czar had instituted the cantonist system in which a quota of child conscripts would be taken by force from each community to join the Russian army.   Many of the children later died from malnutrition, beatings, disease and loneliness. Did the rich members of the community volunteer their children? Of course not. They organized Jewish kidnappers called chappers who stalked the streets in search of defenceless Jewish children, sons of widows or the poor, delivering them to the Russians for a fee. This aroused fury among poorer Jews against the rabbinic leadership who seemed to turn a “blind eye” to this disgraceful practice and later led to rebellion against the Torah itself whom the Jewish leadership represented. These dissatisfied people were now easy prey for secular Zionism and Socialism. (Triumph of Survival pp. 164-165, Rabbi Berel Wein). We see the long-term consequences of unethical behaviour within communities and we can understand better why Yeshayahu should be so strong in his rebuke.  “Hashem abhors the Shabbos of a Jew who observes every stringency, who brings korbonos with great care about his ritual purity and davens with great fervour but is uncaring towards the widow, orphan and others who cannot defend themselves. And Hashem will not listen to his tefilos, certainly concerning rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash.Lomo li rov zivcheichem?– “Why do I need your korbonos?….your trampling on My courtyards.”

Unfortunately a small number of reshaim threaten the spiritual and physical wellbeing of defenceless victims in our communities. But when the victims cry for help, committees of askonim make it their business to defend the criminals, in flagrant breach of explicit halachos which allow a community to do whatever is possible to protect themselves from those who threaten them. (Choshen Mishpat 388:12) They defame the victims and anyone who tries to help them. Often they resort to physical threats not only to the victims but to their children and grandchildren. Letters with forged rabbinic signatures appear on shul notice-boards. Amazingly, these people find supporters who succumb to financial and other threats, leading them to work on behalf of the guilty rather than defending and helping the innocent. They ignore the Torah’s warning that when innocent victims cry out, Hashem hears their cries. And we, forgetting Yeshaya’s warning, sometimes wonder why Hashem doesn’t answer our cries.

Yet Yeshaya comforts us that all is not lost. ‘If our sins are like scarlet, they can yet become white as snow. Even if they are as red as crimson, they can become white as wool.” Communal determination to right the wrong, to change direction, to transfer our allegiance from the criminal to the victim can alter Hashem’s perception of us. “He can restore our judges as at first and our advisers as at the beginning. Zion can be redeemed with justice and those who return to her with righteousness.” And Chodesh Menachem Av can be indeed transformed finally into a month of rejoicing.

 

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A Month of Rejoicing? – Part 2

Mutual respect between Jews who have different hashkafos concerning the State of Israel was our theme last week. The Netziv pointed out that a lack of respect between Jews who followed different derachim in avodas Hashem was the cause of the churban bayis sheini. Changing this destructive attitude could make us worthy of a new Beis Hamikdash and a transformation of the month of Av to a month of rejoicing.

A step in this direction would be a clear understanding of the background of the different hashkofos, with the understanding that each side has a strong foundation. We must be wary of distortions of the original hashkofos, which can lead to extreme positions, which none of our original Gedolim would have approved.

Since we are talking about Gedolei Yisroel – we must accept that there cannot be a clear-cut source in Shas or Poskim that some Gedolei Yisroel knew about but others had forgotten. It must be that they differed about the applicability or interpretation of the sources which others brought. All Gedolei Yisroel have great ahavas Yisroel and do only what they feel is best for klal Yisroel. Yet, as in the Sanhedrin of old, there is room for different opinions. We must also realise that it is not relevant to this discussion whether there should have been a Jewish State. The international community including The Soviet Union and America and the United Nations all decided to create a Jewish State with the encouragement of mainly secular Jews, all for their own reasons. The question was how religious Jews should relate to the new State.

Agudas Yisroel saw the great need of the moment to protect the rights of religious Jews living in the Jewish State as well as try to influence the State as a whole to be more Jewish than its secular founders had planned. Because the secular Zionists wanted a united voice at the United Nations, they agreed to the famous status quo agreement which said that Shabbos would be an official day of rest. Besides the issue of kedushas Shabbos, this would enable religious Jews to find employment. Kashrus would be observed in all government institutions and crucially the new government would allow an independent religious school system. Later, the leaders of Agudas Yisroel did not see voting in elections and involvement in the political process as any form of acceptance of Zionist ideology. As their spokesman explained in 1948, “The Zionist movement was a voluntary organization and we did not support it because it did not recognize the authority of the Torah. It is quite a different case with a state to which everyone belongs de facto. This is the difference between a state and a movement. In a state, for example, should we not participate in the elections, it would mean relinquishing our basic rights and even assisting the secularists to rule over us with even greater strength.”[1] The Steipler Rov zt”l in Krayana D’Igrassa (203) strongly supported the approach of Agudas Yisroel in this matter.

Although this policy of Agudas Yisroel has been the basis of the growth of the religious community in Israel to today’s unprecedented level, it involves a risk that we can be influenced and that we ourselves would begin to see the State as the source of our protection. In the worst case, we could fall to the level decried by Yirmiyahu haNavi in this week’s Haftorah “ They have forsaken Me, the Source of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns which do not hold water.” (2:13). It is up to us to strengthen ourselves never to forget that only Hashem is our Saviour and to fulfil the pasuk, Boruch Hagever asher yivtach B’Hashem vehoyo Hashem mivtacho.

The Satmar Rebbe certainly had halachic objections to the views of Agudas Yisroel as he wrote in Yoel Moshe but it would appear that he also placed an emphasis on the dangers of their approach. If we were to be involved in voting and in the Knesset and especially accepting government funding, true Torah hashkofa would inevitably be compromised. He also placed great emphasis on the danger that we might think, “My strength and might of my hand has achieved for me this wealth.” (Devarim 8:17). Therefore he told his followers to have nothing to do with the State, not to vote and not to receive any funding from the State. This would be the only way to maintain the purity of our hashkofos.

This is truly a machlokes l’shem shomayim; we should be able to respect both opinions even if our tradition is one rather than the other.

This second attitude contains a risk that opposition to the State can be so strong that one develops a lack of concern for the people who live there. Although the Rebbe himself had great ahavas Yisroel and no doubt davened not only for their ruchnius but also for their safety in times of war, others can become so extreme in their antagonism of the State that they do not daven at all for the over six million Jews who live there, even if they are in danger. Some even support Israel’s enemies who would like nothing more than to carry out a second Holocaust (chas vesholom). Surely nothing could be further away from the Rebbe’s holy intentions.

To be continued.

 

[1] A History of Agudas Yisroel by Joseph Friedenson P. 47.

A Month of Rejoicing?

The parsha tells us that he was a hero. He knew what to do when even Moshe Rabeinu had forgotten. He was heavily criticised by the court of public opinion. But Hashem praised him and gave him a very special reward. “Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen removed my anger from the Jewish people and … behold I give him my blessing of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:11-1). Pinchas realized that what was happening was not only unacceptable but potentially disastrous. The precedent of Zimri, the Prince of Shimon marrying a Midianite princess could have led to a national spiritual and physical tragedy. Someone had to do something, fast. When he reminded Moshe Rabbeinu that “haboel aramis kanaim pogim bo” – the penalty for the sin of Zimri was instant death, Moshe Rabbeinu told him to carry out the punishment himself. Pinchos did so with zeal. He ignored the danger he was putting himself in and did what he had to do. What a hero! What a tzaddik! What a rôle model. So what’s the problem?

In last week’s parsha, Bilaam asked tamos nafshi mos yesharim – to die like the yesharim. (Bamidbar 23:10) Who are the yesharim and why did Bilaam want to die like them? The Netziv (ibid) explains that yashar refers to the characteristic of kindness bein odom l’chaveiro. Bilaam did not aspire to be a tsaddik or chassid, which he knew he could never achieve. But surely everyone can aspire to be kind to others. This is not a specifically Jewish concept. It is the basis of a functioning society. True, chessed in Jewish terms goes a lot deeper but Bilaam, as he contemplated his plan to uproot the Jewish people, had a pang of conscience and intimated that he would have preferred to die a yoshor, with acts of kindness to his name.

In his introduction to Sefer Bereishis, the Netziv says that Sefer Bereishis is also called Sefer Hayashar because in it we see how our Avos lived with a desire to do good to all people. Avraham Ovinu invited idol worshippers into his home. He davened, even argued with Hashem to save the people of Sodom despite the fact that they represented a way of life diametrically opposed to his.

In Parshas Haazinu (Devarim 32:4), Hashem is described as tsaddik veyoshor. The Netziv says that this is a prophetic acceptance and tzidduk hadin that Hashem will later destroy both Batei Hamikdash. Hashem was a Tzaddik when He destroyed the first Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of avoda zoro, shefichus domim and gilui aroyos (Yuma 9b). He was a Yashar when He destroyed the second Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of Sinas Chinam. (ibid) The Natziv says, “The people were tzadikim and chasidim but were not yeshorim. Because of the sinas chinam in their hearts, if anyone differed slightly from their way of yiras Hashem, they suspected that they were tzedukim and apirkorsim. This attitude eventually led to no less than shefichas yomim,. We describe Hashem as being yoshor because He cannot tolerate such tzaddikim. Even though what they do is leshem shomayim, their behavior destroys society.”

Sometimes we hear the claim that they are merely following the example of Pinchas, who fearlessly and unhesitatingly showed zero tolerance to Zimri. The difference is that what Zimri was doing was unquestionably a grave sin and Hashem had given specific instructions for dealing with it. This can in no way be compared to physically attacking somebody who adheres to a different path in avodas Hashem following his own Rebbe. The Netziv says that such behaviour destroys our society and makes us unworthy of a Beis Hamikdash.

It is well known that our great Gedolim differed in their approaches to the State of Israel. All were against the concept of a secular Jewish state. The Chazon Ish, the Steipler Rov, Rav Shach, Rav Eliyashiv and many Rebbes all decided to work within the system to fight for the rights of Torah and the Torah-observant citizens of Israel and encouraged people to vote in elections so that their representatives should be able to fight the Government at the highest level. Others led by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Wosner, Rav Moshe Sternbuch and many other tzaddikim consider this forbidden and they refused to be involved in national elections although the Satmar Rebbe was lenient in local elections. These are two ways both led by great rabbonim. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim. It is not for us to say who is right and who is wrong. But based on the Netziv we have quoted, we can see how wrong and dangerous it is to attack those who follow a different but acceptable path in avodas Hashem. We have unfortunately seen how sharp words have led to violence and the consequences can be tragic. We all have much to do within our own path of avodas Hashem. With mutual respect, ahavas habrios, and excellence in midos bein odom l’chaveiro we can achieve so much more. We can even merit the transformation of Av to a month of rejoicing and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.

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Bilaam’s Tear

The best-known posuk of Parshas Balak is the praise and blessing Bilaam gave to the Jewish home. “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisroel.” Chazal say that eventually all the curses Bilaam, the one-eyed soothsayer, gave to the Jews were fulfilled except for this pasuk which will always be a blessing. (Sanhedrin 105b). It seems that even Bilaam did not really mean to curse the Jewish home. He was genuinely impressed. But what was it about the Jewish home which impressed him so much? Was it their sanctity and purity? What would Bilaam, who was famously ‘married’ to his donkey, know about sanctity and purity? Rashi says that he noticed that the entrances of their tents were not opposite each other. But was this unique? Non-Jews also want privacy. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” is an English proverb. What impressed Bilaam so much?

Some suggest that not having entrances opposite each other indicates a more significant aspect of Jewish life than a desire for privacy. We do not look at our neighbor to decide what we should be doing with our lives. We are part of a grand orchestra, each of us playing our own instrument to create beautiful harmony, as we read in the final chapter of Tehilim, “Some praise Him with the blast of the shofar, some with the lyre and harp. Some praise Him with a drum and dancing, some with the organ and flute. Some praise Him with clanging cymbals, some with resonant trumpets.” We are all in different situations; we all have different strengths. For each of us to succeed in our mission we need to focus on what we have to do, not what our neighbor has to do. Bilaam thought that everyone’s purpose is the same, that everyone is in the same rat race pursuing money, power and honour. There is only one winner. Maybe this is what impressed him about the Jewish home.

Another implication of the entrances of their tents not being opposite each other which might have impressed Bilaam was that the people did not check what possessions their neighbor had in order to be desirous of acquiring the same thing. The Jews are careful not to covet, in the words of the posuk, “the wife of his neighbor, his man-servant, his maid-servant, his ox or his donkey or anything which belongs to his neighbour.” Even Bilaam would have appreciated the damage that jealousy causes to a person. You are never happy with what you have. You buy what you cannot afford. Your nights are spent imagining how your life would be so much more enjoyable if you had what your neighbor had. Your days are spent working ‘like a dog’ to be able to buy a similar thing. When you finally acquire it you find out that another neighbor has a newer model and the cycle of jealousy begins again. “The Jews must enjoy life much more than me,” Bilaam would have mused.

Other aspects of a Jewish home would have impressed him. For instance, their observance of Shabbos, Hashem’s gift to the Jewish People. We may not appreciate Shabbos fully if we live in the Western world with its concept of a week-end. If they do not keep Saturday as special maybe they keep Sunday or even Friday. They do this because of Jewish influence. When the Torah was given, everybody worked non-stop. There was no concept of a Sabbath and no reason to mark the end of the week. A month or a year has some astronomical significance but not a week. This is still the case in some parts of the world. When Bilaam saw that the Jewish people worked for six days, even if that only involved going out to find the mon, but rested on the seventh day, this was an eye-opener. “What a good idea,” he must have thought. To work non-stop, day after day is soul-destroying. Without Shabbos, we become machines. Work becomes our master. Deadlines and customers rule us. When we say to an insistent customer on Friday afternoon, “We’ll see to it next week. Shabbos is coming in and there’s nothing to talk about,” we are in charge. We have regained our humanity. Bilaam could not have appreciated the spiritual aspects of Shabbos, reconnecting with Hashem, davening, learning. But he might have appreciated a chance to be a man rather than a machine. It is not for nothing that we say in Shabbos davening, “Those who experience Shabbos have merited life. Those who love her words have chosen greatness and honour. ”

On the subject of honour, Bilaam might have noticed how members of a Jewish family show each other honour. A Jewish husband is taught in the kesuva that he must honour his wife. He has to pay special attention to speak respectfully to her, (Yevomos 62b). He must not create an atmosphere of fear in the home. (Gittin 6b) Even on a busy Friday afternoon, when he wants to check whether his wife has tithed the vegetables or prepared the eiruv, he must speak softly to her. (ibid). At the same time a Jewish wife will show honour to her husband. Her husband sits at the top of the table. He is the head of the household – the captain of the ship. “What beautiful harmony there is in a Jewish home,” Bilaam may have thought. “She treats him like a king and he treats her like a queen.”

And then he may have noticed the children honouring their parents. They speak with love and respect. They don’t contradict, demand or argue. A mere hint from their parents and they run to bring them what they need. And they all sit round the table discussing insights on the weekly parsha and then sing together. The parents also show so much love for their children. Each child, no matter what number in the family, is a tachshit – a precious jewel. And isn’t that the elderly grandfather or grandmother? The family are looking after them with such devotion.

“This is incredible,” Bilaam must have thought.” Where I come from it’s every man for himself. Everyone is shouting, demanding, never satisfied. Our wives are our chattels. They’re not happy and we’re not happy. And the children? Don’t ask. As soon as they’re old enough, they’re away, only calling when they need more money. When we’re old, the ‘lucky’ ones get put in an old age home. The rest are left to cope by themselves, relying on the government to pay their winter heating bills. If you’re old and ill, the hospitals consider you worthless. A big sign “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” is hung on the end of your bed[1].

Bilaam might have noticed the quiet optimism which reigns in a Jewish home. They are full of faith and trust in Hashem. In the worst situations they say “All is for the best.” In the best situations they are full of praise to Hashem. They are happy people. They have beautiful families. Everything that Bilaam was lacking, they had. And so Bilaam, in the middle of cursing the Jews, in the height of his desperate quest to achieve the wealth and honour which he knew would bring him no happiness, bereft of all love except for his donkey, took a careful look at the Jewish homes and, in a rare moment of honesty, admitted, with perhaps a tear in his one eye, “ The Jewish home is indeed beautiful. Ma tovu oholecho Yaakov – How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov. And for once, he meant it.


Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos? Do You Know Hilchos Brachos? Do You Know Shas? (Brachos-Pesachim), Dancing in our Hearts, The Hidden Light and many Torah articles. If you want to buy any of his sefarim or want to join his mailing list, please write to rabbimfletcher@gmail.com


[1] Sometimes this is halachicly correct and appropriate. I am referring to times when it done out of lack of respect for the patient and without considering the sanctity of life.

Mad Dogs and Jews

Last week in Beit Shemesh, a wild dog somehow found its way into a block of flats near the edge of the town. The residents were petrified. No-one could get in or out. The dog wasn’t even barking but no-one was prepared to challenge it. Maybe it hadn’t eaten supper yet! Frantic calls were made to the municipal authorities to send the official dog-catcher. Yishai arrived eventually and calmly captured and removed the animal, to the cheers of the residents. Was this an incident best forgotten or can we learn something from it?

The later sections of Mesilas Yesharim discuss aspects of avodas Hashem which are way beyond the spiritual level of most of us, in the area of fear of Hashem and in particular fear of sin. This applies both to the past and to the future. We find that some of our greatest ancestors were never satisfied with their level of avodas Hashem, thinking that perhaps they had fallen short in some way. This section about fear of the past is probably not for us at all. We would be continuously worried and would not achieve simchas chaim which is so necessary for us and our children. However, we can aspire to the concept of fear of sin in the future, even if we don’t reach the highest levels.

Let’s talk about the ideal first and then discuss some practical ramifications for our lives. The concept of sinning against Hashem should be abhorrent to us. After all, He provides us with everything; how can we possibly think of going against Him? Our vulnerability is clear. He can turn off the supply of blessings in a moment and then where would we be? To challenge Him would be akin to an ant defying a human. We can blot out its life in a moment. It is laughable even to think of defying the Source of our life. The stupidity of challenging our Creator is multiplied much more if we think of the punishment we could incur. An ant might die instantly and that is the end of its existence. But Hashem can punish us in this world or the next while we continue to exist. We could be liable to severe punishments in untold ways. With this in mind, logic would tell us to run a mile from any risk of sin.

How can we bring this concept to life? We could imagine meeting a wild animal in the street. How terrified we would be. Running away is not an option but if there was a chance of taking refuge in a nearby building, what a sigh of relief we would give, especially if there was a door we could lock behind us.

To really feel such horror at the possibility of sinning may be a high madreiga. But we should at least feel the importance of avoiding coming close to sinning. If we know that a certain group of people are constant loshon hora speakers, we should look for another circle of friends. Another group discuss politics bein gavra l’gavra. We should move to another part of the shul or maybe a different shul altogether. It is natural to want to be one of the crowd. One who fears sin may have to consider changing his or her crowd.

Clear sources in the Torah warn us to stay far away from the possibility of sin. A nazir who is forbidden to drink wine may not even go near a vineyard. (Shabbos 13a). Tzitzis are supposed to remind us to keep all the other mitzvos of the Torah. (Bamidbar 15:39). The posuk says (Vayikra 18:6) “Do not come close to immorality.” Hilchos Yichud forbid a man to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. This is a vital fence against immorality. Although there are certain leniencies in halacha, they should only be used in emergencies and with the guidance of a rav. Parents should warn their daughters, who may not realise how vulnerable they are, never to be alone with a man other than a father or brother.

The residents of the block of flats in Beit Shemesh who felt up close the fear of a wild dog can use the experience to strive towards feeling the same fear when they are close to sinning. One must escape and lock the door securely, to make sure to keep far from sin even if others are unfortunately succumbing. And the rest of us, who just read about it, can also imagine the fear of being there, in order to strive towards this madreiga of yiras cheit. For Jews, no experience should be wasted – not even an encounter with a mad dog.

To Love And To Fear Your Name

The first section Parshas Chukas is the parsha of poro aduma. However, it would appear to be in the wrong place. Moshe Rabeinu learned the details of the poro aduma before Matan Torah and long before the episodes of the spies and Korach. Why is it not mentioned until now?

In Parshas Shelach, we read about the sins of the princes of the Shevatim, who said that Hashem could not overcome the Canaanites. On the other hand, Rochov in the Haftora had no doubts whatsoever: “I know that Hashem has given you this land. We are fearful of you and all the people of the land are broken in spirit before you.” How could a simple Canaanite woman like Rochov have a clearer understanding than the nesi’im, the cream of Klal Yisroel? Korach was also a baal ruach hakodesh. How could he have thought that his challenge to Moshe Rabbeinu would succeed?

In Parshas Vayera, when Avrohom Ovinu was about to sacrifice Yitzchak, the malach told him, “Now I know that you fear Hashem.” (Bereishis 22:12). The Netziv asks why the malach described Avrohom Ovinu as fearing Hashem rather than loving Hashem, as the novi Yeshayahu described him? (41:8). He answers that although fearing Hashem is a lower level than loving Hashem, someone might lose his fear of Hashem on reaching the level of loving Him. Hashem had indicated before that He was open to hearing Avrohom Ovinu’s opinion about His plans and was even prepared to change His plans, if need be. (Bereishis 18:23). Avrohom Ovinu might have thought it reasonable to argue with and challenge Hashem. Such closeness could lead to cheshbonos coming into his mind not to do the rotzon Hashem. Ahava mekalkeles es hashura – love sometimes causes a straight line to be crooked – one might do illogical things. After Hashem told him to do the Akeida, Avrohom Ovinu might have put forward many reasons not to sacrifice Yitschak, his only heir, but he didn’t. He simply accepted the rotzon Hashem. This is why the malach called Avrohom Ovinu one who fears Hashem, recognising that, despite the fact that you love Hashem, you haven’t lost your fear of Him.

A moshol to illustrate this balanced relationship: a loyal servant feared the king and did everything the king asked without delay. He rose through the ranks until he became the king’s trusted private assistant. The king even invited him for working lunches and encouraged the servant to comment on his plans. One day the king told the servant that a neighbouring country was threatening to attack, with thousands of troops ready to invade. He told the servant to take one hundred of his own soldiers and confront the enemy. Despite the suicidal nature of the plan, the servant immediately stood up, asking when he should begin. As he reached the door the king called him back. “Well done! I was only testing you. Despite our closeness, you still fear me and are ready to follow my commands without question.”

This may be the meaning of our request in Ahava rabboh every morning, “l’ahava uleyira es shemecho” – to love and fear Your Name. Even if we have reached the level of loving You, we should still fear You.

Those who challenged Moshe and Aharon – the nesi’im, Korach and his cohorts were great people who had reached a high level of ahavas Hashem. Unfortunately they no longer had the same fear of Hashem that they used to have. Precisely because of their love and the closeness to Hashem which accompanied it, they made cheshbonos – perhaps Hashem would be pleased to hear their opinion, even if they argued with Him. “Love can make a straight line crooked.” This was their undoing.

Rochov only feared Hashem. She and all the other Canaanites had heard how Hashem had taken the Jews out of Mitzrayim and split the Yam Suf with amazing miracles. They trembled. As Rochov said, “We are broken in spirit before you.” With Rochov there was no love for Hashem, no cheshbonos, no possibility of arguing, just total submission.

Reishis chochma yiras Hashem. (Tehilim 111:10) Fear of Hashem is the foundation of a Jew. There are higher madreigos such of awe of Hashem and love of Hashem but fear of Hashem must always remain. This was Avrohom Ovinu’s achievement and this is what we ask for in Ahava rabba, ‘ to love and (still) fear Your Name.’

Perhaps this is why Chukas follows Shelach and Korach. After the nesi’im and Korach sinned, despite their high madreigos, the Torah is telling us to get back to basics: “Zos chukas Hatorah” as Rashi says. “This is a gezeira from Me and you have no permission to question it!”

Continuing the Momentum

A week is a long time in politics, as Theresa May will agree, downsizing from her dream of a super-majority to hoping that the Irish Unionists will keep her afloat. However, whether it will be a soft or hard Brexit, Mrs  May or someone else in No 10, the pound is up or down, there is one constant. And this is the subject of this article.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (3:1) says, “Think of three things and you will not come to sin: where we came from – a  putrid drop, where we are going to – a place of worms, and in front of Whom we will have to give judgment – before the King of Kings.” All the mefarshim explain that the author of the Mishna, Akavya ben Mehalalel is advising that we need to heavy dose of humility to avoid sin. An arrogant person is very likely to sin because, in his eyes, he is far more important than anyone else, even Hashem. Merely thinking of our humble origins, our inauspicious subterranean future and what might be a very difficult encounter with our Maker is just the right medicine to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Interestingly, Rebbe Akiva, a few mishnas later (3:18) seems to have a different opinion. He encourages us to consider our very privileged situation, created in the image of Hashem, being called Hashem’s children and being the recipients of a very cherished utensil – the heilige Torah. Rather than making us more humble, it is likely to have the opposite effect – boosting our feeling of self-importance. Did Rebbe Akiva not agree with Reb Akavya’s prescription for spiritual health – humility? Did he also not accept Rebbe Levitas’s advice to be “very, very humble.” (Ibid 4:4)? Indeed the Abarbanel sees these different mishnas as offering different avenues to spiritual health. Of course Rebbe Akiva knew of the importance of humility. “Hashem said that He and an arrogant man cannot live in the same world,” (Sotah 5a). But often, reminding a person of his great importance that he is created in the image of Hashem and that he is one of Hashem’s children will have more effect in raising his spiritual behavior than reminding him of his humble origins. It is simply unthinkable for people of our pedigree to sin. As Yirmiyahu (2:1) reminded the people before rebuking them, “I remember your great kindness and love when you followed Me into the barren wilderness.” For people of our yichus, sin should be unthinkable – es passt nisht.

The story is told of a talmid of one of the biggest yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel who was feeling low. He couldn’t find a chavrusa and didn’t even have a fixed place to learn. One morning he sat down, opened his Gemoro and, with little enthusiasm, began studying. Soon someone came up to him and said that he was sitting in his seat and he should move. This was too much for the talmid who decided there and then to leave the yeshiva and join the army. He quickly put on his jacket and left the Beis Hamedrash, ready to jettison the religious life he had lived up until then. On the way out he was spotted by a son of Reb Mechel Yehuda Lefkovitz, who noticed that the talmid’s jacket wasn’t straight. He went up to him, oblivious of the spiritual volcano which had just erupted in the talmid’s mind and pointed out the bent collar. As he gently straightened out the collar, he said to the young man, “Es passt nisht for a talmid chochom like you to walk around with an untidy jacket.” The talmid who at that point was almost outside the Yeshiva stopped in his tracks. “A talmid chochom?  No-one has ever called me that before.” He felt very encouraged by this passing comment and decided that his decision to leave the Yeshiva had been rather hasty. With new determination he returned to the Beis Hamedrash and to his Jewish future.


We brought last week the view of the Abarbanel that whereas Akavya ben Mehalalel’s prescription to avoid sin was to remind us of our humble physical origins, Rebbe Akiva’s method was to remind us of our noble spiritual origins, that we are created in the image of Hashem and called Hashem’s children. By this method we feel that it is beneath us to sin.

It is, however, possible to say that there is no argument between the Tana’aim.  Akavya ben Mehalalel is addressing an arrogant person, who needs a lesson in humility to avoid sin. We say to the baal ga’ava. “Who do you think you are? You came from a putrid drop. Your future neighbours will be worms and maggots. And, unless you improve you’re going to have to endure a very difficult judgement with the King of Kings.” Rebbe Akiva, on the other hand, is talking to someone who is despondent, with little self-confidence. He sees himself as a failure. He needs a boost. “Remember that Hashem created you in His image. You are one of His children. And Hashem Himself gave us His heilige Torah to learn.” Perhaps this will inject into him some kosher pride which will help him succeed in the future. Or, as my son-law Itzik Fekete suggested, we all need both lessons, using the educational tool of smol doche, yemin mekarev. (the left hand pushes aside, the right hand draws near). We all need to be reminded of our lowly origins to gain the vital tool of humility in our avodas Hashem. But we also need to feel our special connection with Hashem to encourage us to steig, to live in an uplifted way, appropriate for a member of the spiritual aristocracy.

Or perhaps we could suggest yet another approach, different from the classic commentaries. It could be that Akavya ben Mehalalel, rather than promoting humility by reminding a person down of his lowly origins, is in fact doing exactly the opposite, building us up as Rebbe Akiva does. But he uses a slightly different method.

The Chovos Halevovos in Sha’ar Cheshbon Hanefesh teaches the concept of spiritual self-examination. He mentions thirty-two different areas which we have to consider constantly if we are to serve Hashem correctly. The first is whether we are sufficiently thankful to Hashem that He created us from nothing. This was a pure kindness of Hashem in order to provide us with happiness in this world and the next. Secondly we have to thank Hashem constantly for giving us a healthy body to house our neshomo. Thirdly we have to thank Hashem for giving us a brain with a high level of intelligence so that we can do what we need to do. Fourthly we have to thank Hashem that He gave us the heilige Torah which is the key to our success both in this world and the next. Fifthly we have to consider whether we are doing our utmost to learn the Torah etc.

Now, let’s return to Akavya ben Mehalalel. He says that if we want to avoid sin we must follow the advice of the Chovos Halevovos. We have to be supremely happy and grateful that Hashem has seen fit to transform us from a putrid drop to a living person. He has given us a physical body of amazing complexity to house our neshomo and He has endowed us further with a healthy mind without which we could not function at all. And He gave us the holy Torah to help us live in the correct way in this world to gain access to the World to Come. Consideration of Hashem’s great kindness will encourage us to do whatever we can to thank Him and to use what He has given us only for Avodas Hashem. For example, how could we use the amazing blessing of a healthy tongue to speak loshon hora?

At some point our physical ‘clothing’ will be discarded into the ground, a place of worms and maggots, but our neshomo will move on to a great new world, more beautiful than we can imagine. The pleasure of one hour in the World to Come is greater than all the pleasures of this world (Pirkei Ovos 4:22). The more we have achieved in this world, the greater our pleasure will be in the next world. We will be judged. Wonderful! This shows that we have a job to do and assuming we succeed, a beautiful future awaits us.  Animal and birds do not have to face judgement because they have no responsibilities and no future beyond their physical death. We, however, have an important task to do and a purpose to our existence. The fact that we will be judged testifies to our eternal destiny — this should be a source of great happiness. Consideration of these three things, says Akivya ben Mehalalel, will surely inspire us to strive to the highest madreigos. He and Rebbe Akiva are giving us the same message in different ways. We must know how special we are. We have been created as Jews which is the key to us earning all the rewards and pleasures of this world and the next. Shevuos may be over but consideration of our amazing destiny will surely enable us to continue our spiritual momentum into Tammuz and beyond.

The Summer: Make Hay While the Sun Shines

The question is sometimes asked why we say vehu rachum straight after neila at the end of Yom Kippur? One answer is that we might have said Boruch Hashem it’s all over. Our first mistake after Shevuos could also be to say “it’s all over.”  Not just Shevuos but the whole serious of Festivals, starting from Purim. In fact all these Festivals have been extremely useful in building up our thanks to Hashem for all the miracles both then and now bringing us last week to a sincere Kabolas Hatorah The question is what now? What are we supposed to be focusing on after Shevuos?

In the Parsha of Behaaloscho we read the two pesukim beginning ‘vayehi binsoa ho’oron… They are surrounded by inverted nuns. Why? The Gemoro Shabbos 116a explains that they are to separate one punishable offence from another. The sin immediately following these two pesukim is self understood. The People were complaining against Hashem. What was the sin mentioned just prior to this section? The People journeyed from the mountain of Hashem. Tosfos explains that they left too quickly. “Like a child runs away from school.” But we could still ask what they did wrong. Surely they were not rushing away from Har Sinai. They were rushing to do the Mitzva of Yishuv Eretz Yisroel. The answer is that nevertheless they should not have been rushing away. There was so much to think about, having just received the Torah. Don’t rush away, even to do another Mitzva. Why are there no Festivals in the month of Cheshvan? The answer could be the same. The previous month of Tishrei was full of Festivals each with its important lessons. There is so much to think about. Let’s have some time before we move on to the next thing.

So we have just got the Torah – let’s think about it.   Toras Hashem temima meshivas nefesh…. The Torah is perfect..it makes the fool wise….the Mitzvos of the Torah give so much Simcha… they give light to our eyes…they are more precious than gold…sweeter than honey. The Chofetz Chaim that explained the Torah is better than gold and silver because as it is says in Mishlei “one who loves money is never satisfied with his money” and we can’t always get more, sometimes we even lose what we have. It is better than honey because although honey is sweet, how much can you eat? After a certain amount of honey we feel sick. But Torah we love, we want more and we can obtain it. It is up to us, there is no shortage, there is enough to go round. And the more we have, the better we feel, the more spiritually enriched we become. So this is what we should be thinking of now – the wonderful Torah which we have received just now from Hashem.

Now I would like to look ahead somewhat – the rest of the Summer. What should we be trying to gain from Summer and how can we best utilize the time before the Yomim Noraim and Succos season is upon us.

When Summer is mentioned what do we think of? Long lazy days? Summer holidays? Sunshine? It usually has a positive connotation. English people particularly look forward to sunshine. We’ve all heard the phrase. “ Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” However in Tenach, Summer has a negative connotation. It is associated with intense heat, thirst. “ The sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” In the Chumash, Hashem promised Noach after the flood that thereafter the seasons will never cease, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Obviously every season is necessary. So what is the particular purpose of Summer? Maybe Shlomo Hamelech has an idea. Mishlei (6/6-9) says “ Go to the ant, you lazy one. See her ways and become wise…. She prepares her food in the Summer and stores up her food in the harvest time. So…surprise, surprise. Hashem did not create Summers to be lazed away! It’s a time to be used well, to prepare for the future. Let’s hear the words of Reb Shimson Refoel Hirsh zts”l in Judaism Eternal as translated by the late Dayan Dr I. Grunfeld zts”l in his chapter on Ellul.

The Summer is drawing to a close. The earth receives the final glow of the sun and its fruits approach their full maturity. Everything that grows and lives seeks to extract the maximum of ripeness from the last rays of the year. The apple paints itself with its final shade of red, the wine receives its richest sparkle. The ground gives its last sap, the corn-stalks grow to their limit. The bee seeks its last drop of honey in the flower cup before it vanishes. The squirrel drags its last grain of corn to its winter store. The returning swallow carries the last straw to the nest. There is no time to be lost; the end is in sight. The Master will soon call. Everything seeks while there is still time to attain and to achieve the best that is in it. It does not wish to appear before its Master with fragmentary and half finished work, with its year’s performance still defective. The worm the grasshopper, the beast, the bird, the stalk, the herb, the seed, the fruit, everything seeks to fulfil the will of the Master, to perform the task he has laid upon it. Shall then negligence, remissness and perversity dwell in the haunts of man? Shall he harbour in his heart the spirit of thoughtlessness which lives in a dream world for the day only, without ever thinking that the end is close and that the Master is calling, without looking into and round himself, without looking before and after so as to sieze the speeding hour by its pinions and using the vanishing moment to prepare himself for eternity?

So how can we best use our Summer? We already spoke about maintaining the level we have reached after Purim, Pesach and Shevuos. Appreciating the Torah which we have been given. But what else? There’s so much we can appreciate in the Summer. Messeches Baiya (5b) brings a halocho that no one was allowed to redeem their maaser sheini fruit within a certain distance of Yerusholayim.The Gemoro explains that this was “ to adorn the streets of Yerushalayim with fruit”.

In the Summer our shops are adorned with beautiful fruit. Peaches, plums, avocados and grapes. Nectarines, pomegranates and dates. Apples- Golden Delicious, Granny Smiths and Mackintoshes. Why are there so many varieties with such delicious tastes? The answer is written in the Brocho we say in Nissan when we see the blossom on fruit trees “ Boruch…. Lehanos bohem bnei odom…. to give us pleasure.

Talking of peaches, perhaps I can share with you some of the amazing chochmo which is evident from the peach as is written in Rabbi Avrohom Katz’s book, Designer World. The first chapter is about peaches.

The annual conference of peach trees had one made item on the agenda – how to preserve the species. If their seeds would fall near the tree they wouldn’t survive because of the great competition for water. One highly respected old peach tree proposed a daring plan. They would utilise the human species. They would first protect their beloved offspring by placing them in an impenetrable casing. They would then tempt these unsuspecting humans by surrounding this casing with a delicious, soft and aromatic fruit.The humans would walk away with the fruit, enjoy it and eventually throw the casing with its invaluable merchandise on to the ground. Some of the younger peach trees laughed. “What does it help? Our fragile little seeds will be stuck inside the casing like in a prison until they die!” “Not to worry,” said the older peach tree. “True the protective casing will be designed with a seam running along its length which will be bounded with a powerful adhesive. Not even a metal hammer will be able to crack it. However when the case falls into soil special enzymes will amazingly emerge which will dissolve the glue and allow our beloved seed to escape to freedom and life.” The truth is, of course, that no wise old peach tree could have arranged all this. Not in a day, a year, a million years. Only the Designer in Chief has arranged it all for our pleasure as He has arranged everything else. In the Summer we should think more deeply about the words of the brocho, Boruch..borei peri ho’eitz. Let’s not miss the opportunity.

We mentioned the sun. It may be ninety three million miles away and it gives us life but we need Hashem to protect us from its rays. Hashem does this with the very handy ozone layer. So we get the benefit without paying the cost.

During the summer particularly when we go out in the sunshine, even if it’s not at noon, it might be hot but we survive Boruch Hashem. We should say the words of Tehilim 121, at least in our minds “Hashem protects you… the sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night”

If we could now take a step further and use the Summer season to help us think about the seasons of our lives. The period of our lives when we can achieve the most is often called our personal Summer season.Our Spring season is when we’re young, growing up, still immature. Autumn is when we’re declining. Winter is after 120 years. Our Summer is when we have grown up, we have the abilities to achieve. If we think back to the words of Mishlei – the ant uses Summer to prepare for Winter and Shlomo Hamelech said we have to learn from the ant.

If we don’t prepare our Neshomos in our Summer, what will we have in the Winter? As per the famous proverb – We have to make hay while the sun shines. Making hay might include learning Torah or helping others learn.

Careful observance of Mitzvos. Bain Odom LeMokom, Bain Odom Lechaveiro, Midos Tovos. It includes successfully facing the particular challenges which Hashem sends our way, financial, family, health issues.

Keeping our emuna in all circumstances, getting the halochos of Brochos clear and saying our Brochos with kavono. Using any special talents with which we have been blessed.

Sometimes being industrious in the Summer is hard work. It involves particular challenges, even an odd tear. As we say in Shir Hamaalos “ hazorim bedima, berina yiktzoru –they sow with tears, they reap in joy. To sow seeds is sometimes difficult. But those who sow with tears will reap in joy – those who don’t sow will have nothing to reap. Those who work hard on Erev Shabbos will enjoy a wonderful Shabbos. Those who don’t prepare on Erev Shabbos will have nothing to eat on Shabbos. This is the summer. Whilst others spend the time in spiritual hibernation, we can achieve, we can grow, we can invest in our neshomos.

Hashem promised Noach that there will always be summers because we need them. Not for sleeping through but to be used. To appreciate Hashem’s gifts, to be grateful for His protection, to value his Torah and to be better prepared for the next season – Rosh Hashono, Yom Kippur and Succos, Zman Simchosainu…haboim olainu letova, omain.

אנכי ה’ אלוקיך

After seven weeks of intense preparation, Bnei Yisroel were zoche to be given the Torah on Har Sinai. On the sixth of Sivan, (some say the seventh), amidst thunder and lightning, the people heard the voice of Hashem as He began the Aseres Hadibros. The very first words, as we know, were אנכי ה’ אלוקיך. “I am the L-rd, your G-d.” Many mefarshim note the use of the singular “אלוקיך” rather than the plural אלוקיכם”” even though Hashem was talking to the whole people. Why was the singular form used? If we can answer this question, perhaps we will have a new dimension of kabolas hatorah which will invigorate our celebration of Shevuos next week.

During these weeks of preparation we have been counting the Omer. From the sixteenth of Nissan when the korban omer was brought until erev Shevuos which is day forty- nine, we have had this mitzvah of counting every day. According to the Sefer Hachinuch the purpose of counting the Omer is to demonstrate our excitement and our anticipation of the great unique event – the Giving of the Torah by Hashem to the Jewish People. The question which is raised is what is the connection with the korban omer that we call the counting, sefiras ho’omer? The count could have been called Sefiras Hatorah. Why Sefiras Ho’Omer? We may also ask why does everyone have to count the Omer individually. Why is it not good enough for the Beis Din to count on everybody’s behalf, just like the years of the Yovel cycle? And we are not even allowed to listen to our friend counting and fulfil the mitzvah on the basis of shomea k’oneh (listening is like saying) which we may do in connection with certain other mitzvos.. Why this emphasis on each person counting for himself? Other questions we must answer are what lessons do we learn from the parshios of Behar, Bechukosai and Bamidbar which are always read before Shevuos and how do they prepare us to accept the Torah?

The central mitzvah of Parshas Behar is Shemitta which prohibits working the land of Eretz Yisroel every seventh year. This mitzvah was and is very difficult to fulfil. Shabbos, one day a week, is one thing but not to work for a whole year is almost economic suicide. If the Jews took turns, and everybody had a different “shmittah year,” we could help each other to cope, but if no-one can work the whole year, how can we possible survive? It is worth mentioning that when Stalin insisted, when he was in charge of the Soviet Union, that all the food grown in Ukraine should be given to the government in Moscow, millions of people died of starvation. Without food, people cannot live. Moshe Rabbeinu promised that Hashem would miraculously produce enough food in the sixth year for three years – this was their only hope. Put simply, everyone had to rely on Hashem. And Hashem promised to perform that miracle so that the people could live. This resulted in a strengthening of their emuna. Even if they hadn’t realised it before, bnei Yisroel all realised now that they are totally dependent on Hashem. Their ploughing, sowing, reaping etc was just the hishtadlus they had to do but they survived only through the kindness of Hashem. This is an important realization which we need to absorb before Hashem asks us if we will accept His commandments.

Parshas Bechukosai gives us further incentive to accept the Torah. Hashem promises us that if we learn His Torah and keep His commandments, we will benefit greatly – abundant crops, victory over our enemies and peace in the land etc. Even so, just in case our yetzer horah tries to lead us astray, the Torah warns us, “If we reject His Torah…..the consequences will be very bitter.”

Parshas Bamidbar which relates how the Bnei Yisroel entered a barren wilderness with no natural way to survive, only through Hashem, again reminds us that we are dependent on Hashem even if we live in urban centres. We may think we have ample funds in our bank account – suddenly the pound goes down, inflation grows, interest rates increase etc. We assume the police will ensure “law and order” until somebody enters a Jewish shop brandishing a knife in London or a suicide bomber kills himself and others in the middle of a concert in Manchester. We feel as healthy as can be until a neighbor who also thought that he was healthy suffers a sudden heart attack. We are forced to remember that we survive only because Hashem deems our lives worth sustaining. And for this we need merits. It’s obviously imperative for us accept the Torah wholeheartedly whenever we have the opportunity. .

The Be’er Yosef (Rav Yosef Salant) points out that while we are counting for seven weeks, we remember the korban omer and by association the mon which we received an omer measure of (Shemos 16:16) and which stopped falling on the sixteenth of Nissan, the day the korban omer was brought. (Yehoshua 5:12). Yuma (76a) says the purpose of the mon was to make us realise our total dependence on Hashem. That’s why the exact amount fell every day and why none could be stored. Every night when we retired, we had nothing for the next day. The more we ponder the miracle of the mon and our dependence on Hashem, the more we will be determined to be worthy of the Torah and to accept it. These seven weeks are called Sefiras Ho’omer because the lesson of the omer is the starting point.

Our relationship to Hashem, at this point, is based on realising that we can’t manage without Him and fear of what would happen if we did not accept the Torah. But there is no closeness between us and Hashem in such a relationship. And that is not a good enough basis for our forthcoming “marriage”, as Matan Torah is described in Ta’anis (26b). We have to develop a personal connection with Hashem. The Chovos Halevovos tells us that if we think of the many chassodim which Hashem has done for us personally we will develop a closer relationship. He constantly gives to every human being. He gives even more to the Jewish People. He performs certain personal miracles for some people whilst doing other miracles for other people. And some miracles He has done just for us. We should all think at this point about all these miracles – from the general to the unique – and build a personal connection to Hashem. In the weeks and days before Matan Torah we should be thinking more and more about our unique closeness to Hashem – during Shemoneh Esre, when we count the Omer and at every opportunity. No-one else can count for us because his or her connection to Hashem is not the same as ours. Although we are told to feel part of our community and our people, to daven for others, to help others etc, Chazal have also told us, in a certain context, to put others to the back of our minds. We must think, “The world was created for me.” (Sanhedrin 37a). There is only Hashem and me in a private loving relationship. “He invites me into His private chambers.” (Shir Hashirim 1:3) “His left hand is under my head, He hugs me with His right hand.” (ibid 2:6). As we approach Shevuos, our devotion to Hashem, our special connection to Him should be becoming more and more real. He loves me and I love Him. During the sheloshes yemei habolo this feeling should continue to intensify until the time of Matan Torah arrives and we can experience the exhilaration of Hashem speaking to us personally, “Onochi Hashem Elokecho” – in the singular because although He is addressing all of us, He is speaking to each one of us privately, seeking a loving relationship with each one of His precious children.

Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos? Do You Know Hilchos Brachos, From Strength to Strength, Dancing in our Hearts and the soon to be published The Hidden Light in the Holocaust and in our Daily Lives.