Remember; Do Not Forget

“Five tragedies occurred on the seventeenth of Tammuz; the luchos were smashed, the korban tamid was no longer brought, the walls of Yerusholayim were pierced, Apustomus burnt a sefer Torah and he brought a graven image into the Heichal of the Beis Hamikdash.” (Taanis 26a). As we know, Moshe Rabbeinu smashed the luchos when he saw the people dancing around the golden calf. And Hashem congratulated him on this, saying Yeyasher Kochacho sheshibarto.” (Devarim34:12, Rashi).

We are told to remember the sin of the golden calf every day. “Remember; do not forget how you angered Hashem in the wilderness.”(Devarim 9:7). The sin of the golden calf was very serious. However is still difficult to understand why we have to remember it every day. And why the double expression, “Remember; do not forget.” Also, we are told that with every punishment we receive, a bit more will be added because of the golden calf (Shemos 32:34)). Why? Are all succeeding generations responsible for the sin of that generation? Surely the pasuk says, “The fathers shall not die for the sins of the sons, nor the sons for the sins of the fathers; each man shall die for his own sin.” (Devarim 24:16), unless the children continue the sins of the fathers (Brachos 47:1). Do we continue to build golden calves? Besides, only three thousand people were actively involved in the sin, that is, a half a percent of the people. And why did it “anger” Hashem so much more than other sins?

Our question will become even stronger when we consider the mitzvah of the para aduma and its deeper significance. If a person touches a corpse or even goes into a room where a corpse is lying, he becomes ritually impure. He becomes an av hatuma who can even pass on tuma to another person. The only way he can purify himself is through a complicated procedure involving a para aduma, the details of which were beyond even the mind of Shlomo Hamelech to understand. Why is there such a consequence for touching a corpse or being in the same room? Death happens every day. “A generation comes and a generation goes.” (Koheles 1:4) It is the way of the world. “A man’s life is three score years and ten and if he merits it, eighty years.” (Tehilim 90:10) He was a great man? There will be other great men. The cemeteries are full of ‘indispensable’ people[1] and the world continues. Why does proximity to a corpse have such major implications?

“I said that you were gods and sons of the Most High. But you will die like men; like one of the princes you will fall.” (Tehilim 82:6-7). When they received the Torah, the Jews regained the level of Odom Horishon before his sin and no-one would have died. But because they sinned with the golden calf they will die like men.” (Avoda Zara 5a) Every death is a reminder of the sin of the golden calf. Without it, there would have been no death. Therefore coming into close contact with death has to be a major event so that a person considers why this happened. The Torah commands a complex procedure with a para aduma to cancel out the effect of the tuma. We cannot treat death as just “the way of the world.” We must remember the cause of death – the sin of the golden calf.

But this only reinforces our original question. What was so ultra-significant about the sin of the golden calf that we have to constantly remember it. Why the double expression, “Remember; do not forget.” What has to do with us? And why did it “annoy” Hashem so much?

A person has a chronic illness which needs constant medical care. He has a very conscientious doctor who has followed his illness for many years and prescribes a certain medication in amounts which vary according to the patient’s precise condition. But then he hears the tragic news; the doctor has passed away following a sudden heart attack. The patient is besides himself. “Who is going to treat me now? Which other doctor could possibly be knowledgeable enough about my condition to prescribe the right dose of medication? Oy veh.”

Another person never did well to earn a parnasa. He was always getting into debt. Fortunately he had a rich uncle who always came to his rescue. Then, again, tragic news. The uncle was suddenly niftar. At the funeral he wept copiously. In truth, he didn’t love his uncle so much. He loved himself. How on earth is going to manage from now on?

In another example, a certain politician was very sympathetic to the needs of his Jewish constituents. He always seemed to know who to speak to when the Jews had a problem. Then, catastrophe. He lost his seat in Parliament and was now unable to help. “Sounds of fasting, crying and lament filled the street.” The Jews had lost their saviour; their sister in the king’s palace was no longer. Who will help them now?”

How would we respond to these situations? Like the Jews in each moshol or differently?

When Moshe Rabbeinu failed to appear after forty days there was panic. “Moshe, the one who took us out of Egypt, who brought us across the Yam Suf, who went to receive the Torah on our behalf, had disappeared, presumed dead. They looked at each other in desperation. Who was going to provide for them now? When a person is in a state of panic, he does not follow his sechel but his base instincts and they made a golden calf or at least supported the idea of a golden calf. Hashem was extremely “annoyed.” A king might see one of his subjects transgressing his law and punish him. But if a king saw that this subject has forgotten about him and thought that a servant had been providing for them and not the king, the king would be very annoyed. This is a treasonable offence.  The king will never cease reminding his subjects from then on that he and only he provides for them.

Everything Moshe had done was only as a messenger of Hashem. Without Moshe, will everything stop? Is Hashem short of messengers; short of doctors, rich uncles, politicians, Jewish leaders? “Harbe sheluchim L’Makom” ‘On the day that one tzaddik dies, another one is born.”(Kiddushin 72b). “Lo almon Yisroel – Hashem will never desert Israel.” (Yirmiyahu 51:5). Moshe Rabbeinu is not even mentioned the Hagada; only “I and not an angel; I and not a seraph; I and not a messenger; I am He and no-one else.” Moshe was the archetype servant of Hashem. Not only was he horrified that the people had apparently put their trust in him rather than Hashem but he realized that it was unconscionable that, under these circumstances, they should receive the luchos which was fashioned by Hashem. So he smashed them; an act that Hashem agreed with and congratulated him for. “Yeyasher koach sheshibarto

Now we can understand the Jews’ grievous error when they made the golden calf.  We have to remember it constantly and some of the punishment for building the golden calf is given to us because we are not immune to it ourselves. Yes, we sometimes repeat the same sin in different forms, putting our faith in Hashem’s messengers rather than in Him. The mitzvah of Para Aduma which we cannot understand with our sechel because its details are, to us, inexplicable, reminds of the sin of the golden calf which we did because we panicked and didn’t use our sechel. And finally we can understand the double expression. “Remember” the actual sin of the golden calf and “Don’t forget” that we can also transgress the same sin, just in different way.

[1] A favourite saying of my late friend Mr Hymy Gillis of Glasgow ע”ה

A Heart Full of Joy

“And the people saw that Aharon had died and they cried about Aharon for thirty days, the whole House of Israel.”(Bamidbar 20:29). Rashi says that both the men and women mourned Aharon because he pursued peace between those involved in argument and between man and wife. This is how the Torah describes, in this week’s parsha, the end of an era. Aharon Hakohen, the older brother of Moshe Rabeinu, the Kohen Godol for forty years, was no longer.

The juxtaposition of Parshas Korach which detailed Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aharon and Parshas Chukas which reports the death of Aharon who happily served as his younger brother’s second in command for forty years without a murmur suggests to us the following question; why was Korach jealous but Aharon not? Korach was no spiritual lightweight but couldn’t overcome his unhappiness at being overlooked; Aharon seemed to be quite happy at taking second place to his younger brother. What caused the different attitudes between Korach and Aharon and what can we learn from it?

After Korach’s demise, Hashem wanted to prevent similar mistakes in the future. The people needed a permanent reminder that it was His choice that Aharon should be the Kohen Godol. He told Moshe Rabeinu to take a staff from the prince of each tribe, with his name on it and on the staff representing the tribe of Levi, the name of Aharon was written. The staffs were all put in the Ohel Moed and left there overnight. As we know, by the morning, Aharon’s staff out of all the staffs had miraculously blossomed, proving that he was Hashem’s choice. Everybody saw and accepted it. But we would also like to know why Aharon had been chosen. Which special characteristic made him worthy of being chosen. Does anything in this episode give us a clue to Aharon’s special quality? . Does the choice of almond blossom give any hint?

In Hallel we read,”Let all the nations praise Hashem…because of His kindness to us…Praise Hashem that He is good, His kindness is forever. Let Israel say, His kindness is forever. Let the House of Aharon say, His kindness is forever, Let those who fear Hashem say, His kindness is forever.” (Tehillim 117-118) The order is meaningful. The more we have benefited from Hashem’s kindness, the more we are obligated to thank Hashem. Firstly all the nations, every human being who benefits from Hashem’s kindness — Hashem provides him with food and so on, have to praise Hashem. Then Israel, to whom Hashem, in addition to the basic requirements for life, has given the Torah and mitzvos, must thank Hashem more deeply. Even greater is the obligation of the Beis Aharon who have a special role in the Beis Hamikdash, to thank Hashem for their special gift. But what does the final line refer to? Who are the yirei Hashem? How does this final line fit into the order of the pesukim? In what sense do those who fear Hashem have the greatest obligation to thank Him?

One of the most inspiring non-Jewish speakers of the twentieth century was the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. In one of his greatest speeches, he said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep the streets even as Michaelangelo painted, as Beethoven composed music or as Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of Heaven and Earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Why am I bringing the words of a non-Jew into this Torah article?

There are a number of reasons not to be jealous of somebody else even though that person seems to be more successful financially, has a more senior job or just seems to have more blessings. The simplest reason is that we often don’t know about his challenges, his difficulties or his worries. If we knew them we would never want to be in his or her situation. Moshe Rabeinu’s position was far from being “a bed of roses.” Medrashim tell us that when Moshe Rabbeinu came out of his tent early, some people said that he must have problems in sholom bayis. When he came out late, some people said that he was busy making plans against the people. When he walked along, people looked at his healthy body and said that his physical health is as a result of all the money which we’re paying him. (Rashi Kiddushin 33b). Moshe Rabeinu himself said, “Soon they are going to stone me.”(Shemos 17:4 ). Who could be jealous of his job? Aharon’s position was also fraught with danger. One mistake in the Kodesh Hakodoshim could be fatal.

A second possible reason not to be jealous of another is humility. “I haven’t got the qualities necessary for that more important job.” This may have been what Aharon was thinking when he accepted Moshe Rabeinu’s appointment as leader with such equanimity.

But there is a third possible reason for Aharon’s lack of jealousy. When the posuk (Bamidbar 17:23) tells us that Aharon’s staff blossomed, the phrase is introduced by the word hinei. Rashi (Ibid 18:8) says that hinei implies simcha. As the pasuk says, “Behold he (Aharon) is coming out to greet you (Moshe) and he will see you and there is simcha in his heart. We usually interpret the pasuk to mean simply that Aharon will be very happy that you have been appointed leader of Klal Yisroel. But there is another possible interpretation, a deeper reason for a person to avoid jealousy. If a person is completely satisfied, fulfilled and b’simcha with his present role, there is no room in his mind for jealousy. Aharon had that simcha in his present role so he was not jealous of Moshe. The almond is a symbol of speed. It represents simcha because someone who is happy with what he is doing will do it with alacrity. (Kli Yakar). Aharon had plenty to do making peace between married couples and other quarrellers. He was already doing a great service to Klal Yisroel. Nothing was missing from his life. In these circumstances he could not be jealous.

Korach was the richest man in Klal Yisroel (Pesachim 119a). He could have opened a charity organisation to provide all Jews with basic needs; to lend to rich and poor; to provide donkeys to help with transporting the physically challenged. The list is endless. He should have been overjoyed to be fulfilling this vital communal need. But he looked outside of himself and yearned to take on another person’s job instead., He saw only the pluses and not the minuses and he was jealous; a bitter jealousy which caused his downfall.

Every one of us is unique. Every one of us has a vital role to play in Hashem’s world. Even if we are not from the Beis Aharon we can be among the Yirei Hashem who do our unique job to the best of our ability. In Hashem’s orchestra the violins, the trumpets, the cymbals – even the triangle – are all needed. Even a street cleaner can rejoice with fulfilling his vital role, as Martin Luther King eloquently proclaimed. Hashem’s front- line troops, those who serve Hashem despite their personal challenges, and lower-ranked soldiers without special difficulties can all rejoice if they fulfill their divinely appointed role successfully. Like Aharon we can all have simcha in our heart; not only for ourselves but when we see others succeed.

Reverend Gabriel Brodie ז”ל

One of the most respected and influential members of Manchester’s wider Jewish community was niftar last week. Humble to the end, he never learnt for semicha so that people would call him rabbi; he remained a Reverend, the title of most of the previous generation of ministers in Anglo- Jewry. I am sure that obituaries will be written about his life and achievements by others. But I was one of his early talmidim and feel an obligation to write a few words about him from my perspective.

I went to his shul, officially a branch of the Great Synagogue, later the Great and New Synagogue, which was and is known by the name Stenecourt, as a young boy. At that time I don’t remember much about the spiritual side of the shul but I do remember that I got a tick on the chart for coming. The aggregate of ticks for all the children was added up and on Chanuka, after the annual youth service, the ones with the most ticks received a prize.  I treasured what I had earned, providing me with a fresh impetus for continuing my regular attendance at the shul.

My barmitzvah was in another shul, The Higher Broughton Shul in Duncan St because that is where my parents belonged, but it closed down shortly after, leaving the way open for our family to move to Stenecourt (How amazing it is that the Higher Broughton shul closed down fifty years ago because no Jews lived in that area any more but now it is the centre of renewed Jewish life with the highly respected Rav Yehuda Leib Wittler as the local mora d’asra).

Keeping teenage boys interested was a new challenge for Reverend Brodie, but without any major gimmicks he managed to maintain our loyalty. I remember speaking to university students who seemed to gravitate to Stenecourt and they said that they came because they all regarded Reverend Brodie as a very genuine person, welcoming everybody to the shul and being everybody’s “friend.” I remember shalosh seudos in the winter. The problem was that shalosh seudos was just at the time the results of the football matches were coming in and whether we were “United” or “City” supporters, we were all very tense. How can one enjoy a shalosh seudos if you don’t know how your team has done? So why did we pile in to enjoy matza and herring and a dvar Torah given first to the boys and then to the men? The answer is that somehow the results of the matches were written out by the caretaker and stuck to the door of the shalosh seudos room. I don’t know whether Reverend Brodie had arranged that and no halachic conclusions can be drawn from it but, bottom line, we were in the shul, not the street.

Mincha and Maariv are not usually overflowing with people in the typical Anglo- Jewish shuls but Stenecourt’s minyanim were constant. But one night presented a particular challenge. It was the final of the European Cup between Manchester United and Benfica televised live. Clearly no self-respecting schoolboy would leave the television screen to go to shul. The idea was too preposterous. However Reverend Brodie found a solution. Mincha and Maariv was scheduled at the exact time of half time. We raced to shul for a quick Mincha (heiche kedusha) and even quicker Maariv and amazingly we were home to see almost the whole of the second half. Again no halachic conclusions can be drawn from this but Reverend Brodie had found a way to teach us our real priorities while understanding that we weren’t really holding there. Maybe he had charisma, maybe special siyatta dishmaya but he just kept us all on the straight and narrow. When I was seventeen, he heard I was going to Yeshiva and he was overjoyed. He organized a gift from the shul of a set of Mishna Berura wishing me success in my Yeshiva studies, a set which I still use to this day.

On my holidays from Yeshiva he always asked me to give shiurim and drashos, which gave me the confidence to pursue a rabbinical career rather than a legal one, despite having a place to study law at London University. When the time came for me to marry, he was again our main support, saying to my new bride as we came out of the yichud room, “So Mrs Fletcher, how do you like married life?” No doubt he brought a smile to hundreds of young brides with this little joke. I still remember his drasha at our chasuna even though it was over forty years ago and of course we still have the picture as he presented us with a becher, (Chazon Ish size by special request), on behalf of the shul. After our chasuna, my wife and I went to Amsterdam where I joined the Kollel but whenever we came back to Manchester, Reverend Brodie always invited me to speak in the shul. He wrote a beautiful letter of recommendation to help me find a rabbinic position which was important in my being appointed rabbi of Queen’s Park Shul in Glasgow. My ability to leyn, which was vital there, was much enhanced because of him encouraging me to continue lehning from time to time, after my barmitzvah. And my megila reading which I started in Amsterdam, continued in Glasgow and continue to this day in Ramat Beit Shemesh is based almost entirely on the way I heard it from him in Stenecourt.

For about fifty years Reverend Brodie was centrally involved in all my family events officiating at my late father’s funeral in 2010 and being a rock of support to my mother thereafter. He also was a power of support to my late parents-in-law after they joined Stenecourt from another shul in their later years.

Of course, this is mostly about myself and his vital role in my life. But the boys I went to Stenecourt with in the 1960s all set up beautiful frum Jewish homes and have all been successful, each one in a different way. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came under his good influence over the decades he was involved in his avodas hakodesh. What wonderful merits he will have taken with him to the olom ho’emes. In later years, the Reverend Gabriel Brodie Beis Hamedresh in Stenecourt is always full with people davening or learning or having meetings in the side rooms. He himself continued to give shiurim inthe shul well after his official retirement. How wonderful of the shul not to wait until after his death to honour him but to rebuild the shul and Beis Hamedresh in his name to allow him to see and enjoy the fruits of his labours of close on seventy years. A light has gone out of Anglo-Jewry. Yehi zichro boruch.

Letter by a Poshete Yid

It is reported that the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Yoel, Rav Aaron Teitelbaum shlita was said to have recently bemoaned that some of his chassidim were celebrating the “Zionists’” success. “They will not be among those who will receive the Moshiach when he comes,” he said, adding that “If the chareidi representatives in the Knesset do not succeed in bringing in a new law, fifty thousand talmidei yeshivos will be drafted into the army.”

I am not a Rebbe, nor the son of a Rebbe, not even the grandson of a Rebbe. I am a poshete yid, a simple Jew, who would like to explain why, although I am not a Zionist, I do celebrate Israel’s success. And I find his words very surprising, as I hope to explain.

When the concept of a secular Jewish state was first considered in the late nineteenth century it was opposed by nearly all the Gedolim . Many opposed it even if the state would be run according to halacha, but since there was no chance of that, the idea was an anathema. Then, in the years before the Second World War, some Gedolim looked at the looming threat from Germany and changed their view.  But still, a majority were opposed, particularly Reb Elchanan Wasserman, Hy”d.

After the Holocaust, however, the situation had changed again, dramatically. Six million Jews had died, huge numbers of frum communities with their Rebbes and their Rabbonim had been wiped out. Half a million survivors waited in Displaced Persons’ in Europe camps for some kind of future, but no country was prepared to admit them. The Zionists were determined to create a state, come what may, leaving the spiritual survival of those who were already living in Palestine at their mercy. In this most forlorn of situations, the surviving Gedolim had to decide what to do. Then the Zionists, for their own reasons, asked the Agudas Yisroel to join them in pushing their case for a State. The Aguda insisted on certain conditions — independent religious education, Shabbos should be a rest day (so that religious Jews would be able to get jobs) and kashrus would be observed in public places. The secularists reluctantly agreed. The Gedolim of Aguda decided, that in this situation, supporting the concept of a State, even a secular State was the best option. In 1948, Israel was established, and the half a million survivors including many religious people were allowed in. Most of the religious community followed the decision of the Aguda to work within the system. They sent representatives to the Knesset and began fighting, if not to win over the majority, at least to maintain their own rights and be able to live as religious Jews. The early years of the State were grim; as the secular leadership was determined to create “the new Jew” devoid of religion or any connection with the past. Sadly they had many “successes.”

Now let’s turn the clock forward seventy years. The old Zionists leaders are no longer and a vast majority of the so-called secular public are observant to some extent, for instance fasting on Yom Kippur. From tiny beginnings, the religious community has grown enormously with tens of thousands of boys and men studying Torah full-time. The secular President of Israel recently said that the idea of the early secular leadership to create “a new Jew” was a mistake. To be called a Zionist today is regarded  by secular people as an insult. Yes, they are happy that they have a State to live in and enjoy, for the most part, normal lives, without being hounded by anti-semites, but they have no ideological ambitions. Their goal is to earn a living and bring up a family like most people in all countries do. And they are increasingly drawn towards the lifestyle of the religious people whom they see wherever they go.

Miraculously, despite continuing security threats, from an economic and political point of view, Israel is an outstanding success. The country is smaller than New Jersey or Wales but is a world leader in many areas including agriculture, water purification and cyber-technology. The Jewish population has grown to over six million and political leaders from all over the world queue up to meet the Prime Minister.

Now I can come back to my first point. I am fervently against the Zionist philosophy as espoused by the secular leaders of seventy years ago. We went along with the creation of a State not out of love for it. It was with trepidation, and only because of the catastrophic situation we found ourselves in after the Holocaust. But we followed the leadership of the Chazon Ish, the Steipler Rov, Rav Shach, Rav Eliyashiv, Rav Steinman etc who put all their efforts into promoting Torah learning for all those who can, supporting the ever-increasing religious communities, guiding kiruv organisations and instructing their representatives in the Knesset to safeguard Jewish values as much as they could. Miraculously, Hashem has helped Israel survive numerous wars and continues to send amazing blessings of prosperity and success. We are happy with these successes, mainly because they have given us the security and wherewithal to live in peace, leading full Jewish lives.

Why does Hashem give so much success to those who publicly profane the Torah? I believe the answer can be found in Kiddushin 36a. “Instead of saying they are not My people, tell them that they are the children of the living G-d.” (Hoshea 2:1). Say Chazal, “Even if they serve avoda zara, they are still My children as it says, “Bonim atem L’Hashem Elokeichem” (Devarim 32:1). And a Father loves His children.

Does the Satmar Rebbe want Israel and all the Jews who live here to be defeated militarily, with the resultant second Holocaust that this would bring about? Does he want us to be economic failures with our children going to bed hungry? Strangely, he forbids his chassidim to vote but looks to the religious representatives to fight against their secular opponents. If it were not for our Gedolim, there would be no-one to fight the secularists. If the Satmar chassidim would vote, especially in local elections, we would have more strength to fight and likely enjoy more successes. Why did they vote for Hilary Clinton when she had already pocketed the bribes of the Arab nations who want to destroy us? And why do they deride President Trump when he supports us?

The Rebbe may believe that for the Moshiach to come, the Jewish People have to be scattered around the world with no State, as the late Rebbe, Reb Yoel, wrote in his sefer Sholosh Shevuos. This obviously requires the dismemberment of Israel and apparently he is working to this end. However I do not believe that most Gedolim are of that opinion. On the contrary, even Reb Moshe Sternbuch shlita, a renowned anti-Zionist, has written recently how imminent the coming of the Moshiach is. We are waiting for him, here, ready for him to come at any moment.

A Poshete Yid

“Toira Die Beste Schoira”

This well known Yiddish expression, which means that the Torah is the best merchandise, sums up our historical love of the Torah. The nations of the world spent their free time at circuses and amphitheatres whilst the Jews learned the heilige Torah. Our neshomos absorbed faith in Hashem and a moral code unequalled by any philosophy then or now. We sharpened our brains on the intricacies of the Talmudic discussions and were inspired by beautiful examples of elevated behaviour by our Tanaim and Amoraim.

We have been enthalled by stories like those of Reb Yehoshua ben Chananya (Eiruvin 53b) who said that he has never been bested except for when he was put in his place by … a young girl and young boy. The case of the young girl was when he was walking across a path over a private field. The young girl said “Isn’t this a private field?”

(which you may not cross because of possible damage to the crops). He answered, “ Isn’t this a used path?” (a path used by the public already which may be used by a stranger). The young girl responded swiftly. “Yes, it’s been used by robbers like you!”

In the other case he was walking along a road and came to a junction where a boy was sitting. “Which way is to the city?” he asked the boy. The boy answered that this way is short and long and the other way is long and short. Reb Yehoshua ben Chananya followed the route which was short and long. He soon reached the outskirts of the city but found his way blocked by vegetable gardens and orchards, so he had to the retrace his steps. When he reached the junction he complained to the boy, “You told me that this way was short!” The boy replied, “Didn’t I tell you that it was long?” Reb Yehoshua ben Chananya kissed the boy on his head and said how blessed the Jewish people that they are so wise from the oldest to the youngest.

This loving relationship between the Jewish People and the Torah is the context of the widely observed custom to stay up on the night of Shevuos, learning the Torah. Every year, on this night, Botei Medrash from London to Los Angeles, Manchester to Melbourne and Tel Aviv to Toronto are full of men and boys staying up learning sometimes with the encouragement of cheese cake, ice cream and cholent! The world is absorbed by narishkeiten and we are learning the heilige Torah!

What does a Jew do with his spare time? Learns the Torah. What does a Jew do after he is retired? Learns the Torah. What does a bas Yisroel want from her husband? That he should learn the Torah. What does a Jewish child strive to be able to do when he is older? To learn the Torah. The Torah is like a magnet which every Jew is drawn towards. Rashi (Shabbos 150a) says that Jews are always thinking about words of Torah. A person without the Torah is like flotsam on the stormy seas. He is rudderless, anchorless and totally adrift. He floats towards nothingness. He is drawn after his heart and eyes and risks sinking to the murky depths, physical and technological. His only hope is to find a way back to the Torah.

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav (Brochos 54b): Four people need to thank Hashem —Those who travel overseas; those who journey through the wilderness; one who was ill and recovered; one who was dangerously imprisoned and escaped. What do they say? Rav Yehuda says: Boruch…hagomel l’chayovim tovos shegemolani kol tov. “Blessed be the One who does good even to the undeserving, who did me all this goodness.” Abaya says that he must say this brocho in front of ten men, as it says, “ They exalted Him in an assembly of people.” (Tehillim 107:32). Mar Zutra said that two of the ten should be talmidei chachomim as it says, “And they praised Him in front of the wise ones.” (ibid)

Why do people who have had these particular experiences need to thank Hashem? Why in front of ten people and why do two of the ten need to be talmidei chachomim? We all know that after travelling overseas, we “bentch gomel” on the next day that the Torah is read. The listeners respond; Mishegemolcho kol tuv, hu yegemolcho kol tuv sela. “The One who did you this goodness, He should continue to do you only good, for ever.” It is a beautiful mini-ceremony. We bless Hashem, the people bless us and afterwards usually people to give us a friendly sholom aleichem. But we just asked several questions on why the Gemoro limits the occasions when we say the brocho and why in this way. True the Shulchan Aruch (219:3) says that the requirement to have two Talmidei Chachomim is only lechatchila and the custom is not to be particular but nevertheless we should try to understand why Mar Zutra in the Gemoro mentioned it.

The Maharsha gives a beautiful explanation. He says that we are not just thanking Hashem for the miracle of surviving these four different experiences. He explains that there are four situations which prevent a person from studying the Torah as much as he would like and being able to be involved in mitxvos and maasim tovim. The situations are poverty, wealth, illness and enemies. A poor person is searching for a parnoso to put bread on the table for himself and his family. He may have to travel distances to earn some money here and there. How much time will he have left to learn? He is like the holchei midbar those who journey through the wilderness searching for something to eat or drink. A wealthy person, strangely enough, is also hindered by his situation from advancing his avodas Hashem. Firstly, having a substantial income is very likely to reduce the quality of his tefilos. To the magid who urges people to daven sincerely for the blessing of parnoso, the wealthy man might smilingly produce his latest bank statement. Furthermore, says the Maharsha, the wealthy man might well have investments overseas which require him to travel to check them. He might have property in Europe, a business in China and a banana plantation in Ecuador. By the time he visits all these places, how much time has he left to learn? He is symbolised by the yordei hayom – those who travel overseas and cannot learn the Torah properly, as we learn in Eiruvin (55a) “The Torah is not over the sea.” (Devarim 30:13 ). Reb Yochonon said this means that the Torah will not be found with the merchants (who are constantly travelling overseas).

If a person is ill (chas vesholom) of course it is difficult to learn. He may be weak or in pain. He may be busy going to appointments with the doctor or in hospital. In hospital it is certainly difficult to learn. Lastly, a person with enemies who might plan to imprison him or who have already imprisoned him in the past, is fully occupied with avoiding them. He is too worried at the prospect of being captured, to learn or do other mitzvos with a calm mind.

If a person has been in any of these four situations but is now free, he has to thank Hashem and bentch gomel. Hashem in His great kindness has taken me out of poverty, danger and so on, even though I am undeserving”. However the emphasis is not, according to the Maharsha, on survival, that he has been the beneficiary of a miracle but rather that he can now learn, daven and do other mitzvos properly. He has time to learn. He has the peace of mind to daven. He can concentrate on all aspects of avodas Hashem without the worries and disturbances which he had before. That is why he says the brocho in front of ten people, two of whom are talmidei chachomim. Yes, he has survived b’chasdei Hashem and this he announces in front “an assembly of people’ as it says: Nodeh lecho unesaper tehilosecho – “I will thank You and speak of Your praises.” But there have to be two talmidei chachomim to indicate that the main thing he is thanking Hashem for is that he now available to put all his efforts into learning and avodas Hashem.

In Parshas Bechukosai we see how Hashem rewards those who study the Torah diligently. “Im bechukosai teleichu” on which Rashi comments, “If you will study diligently…You will merit that the rains will fall at the right time, you will have ample crops” etc. The late Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l understood this as a continuation of Parshas Behar with its central theme of shmitta. During the shemitta year, the farmer is forbidden to work and has time to learn Torah. “If you study diligently, during this shemitta year when you have the opportunity, you will be rewarded that in the other six years you will have rain in the right time and your crops will be very plentiful.” Wherever we live and in whatever year, the same promise applies. If we learn diligently whenever we have the opportunity we will be blessed with ample parnoso. We may follow the beautiful custom of some who instead of rushing to work, have a morning chevrusa or go to a morning shiur. And lo and behold, the same customers come in later; somehow our income goes up rather than down as logic might have suggested. After all, Toira is der beste Schoira!

A New Person

Unfortunately, the rumors are true. A lady in our community has been pronounced by the Beis Din to be a sotah. She was sent to the Beis Hamikdash and is due to drink the special water tomorrow. What a disgrace; a public humiliation.

Her korban mincha is made of barley which used to be primarily animal food reflecting her animal-like behavior and because of her sin, it does not include levona (frankincence) or oil. But what could have led her to such reprehensible behavior? She was a fine woman from a fine family. The answer must be wine. She drank too much wine and was induced to sin. But if too much wine can bring a person to do what they normally never do do, could it happen to me? I’d better become a nazir who may not drink wine. This is what Chazal say concerning our parsha: “Why is the section about a nazir immediately after the section about a sotah? Because one who sees a sotah in her disgrace will become a nazir and forbid himself to drink wine.” (Sotah 2a).

The posuk says, “If a woman makes a vow and her husband annuls it, it is annulled and Hashem will forgive her.” (Bamidbar 30:8). If the vow was annulled why does Hashem have to forgive her? Nazir 23a explains that the posuk is talking about a lady who made a vow to be a nazira. Her husband, in the next room, heard her vow but did not agree that his wife should become a nazira. He annulled her vow, which the Torah allows him to do. His wife did not hear his annulment and presumed she was a nazira. However, she came across a bottle of sweet wine which she drank. Since she was not, in fact, a nazira she will not be punished for breaking her vow but the Torah says that she still requires Hashem to forgive her. When Rebbe Akiva heard this explanation he cried. “If someone who didn’t actually sin requires Hashem’s forgiveness, how much more so if they did sin.” (Nazir 23a) Why did Rebbe Akiva cry? Was this such an illuminating explanation? Did he not realise the gravity of sinning till now?

The Chafetz Chaim once heard about an earthquake in a faraway country, killing hundreds. Most people paused for a moment when they heard the news and then carried on with their lives as before. The Chofetz Chaim stopped what he was doing and meditated on the disaster. The earth had suddenly shifted causing buildings to collapse on top of the residents. Some died instantly. Some were trapped and later died. Tens of thousands of people were homeless. “What a tragedy!” the Chafetz Chaim groaned. And then he shouted to all who could hear him, “Vus vill der Tatte?” What is Hashem trying to tell us with this earthquake?

Undeterred by the sound of the heavy rain which was falling in Bnei Brak, Rav Aaron Leib Steinman was concentrating on his learning as usual. Suddenly he stopped and his face turned a deathly white. He stood up and slowly said the bracha  Boruch….shekocho ugevuraso molei olom. Blessed be the One whose strength and power fill the world.” – the brocho on hearing thunder. Then he returned to his learning with increased enthusiasm. “Why did the Rebbe go so white just before?” his pupils, who had also said the brocho but had quickly gone back to what they were doing, asked him. “Why does Hashem make thunder?” he asked them. “To straighten the crookedness of our hearts,” he answered, quoting Brochos 59a. “When I heard the thunder, I thought that Hashem is obviously talking to me. “ ‘Straighten the crookedness of your heart, Leibele, before it’s too late.’ Should I not turn pale after such a rebuke from Hashem?” Rav Steinman asked.[1]

One of the regulars at the shiur became suddenly ill and was niftar shortly afterwards. The other members of the shiur went to the levaya and tried their best to comfort the bereaved family at the shiva. The shiur resumed afterwards as normal. But out of all the shiur, Mr Schwarz became a changed person, getting up early to prepare for the shiur, asking good questions and spending time after the shiur reviewing. He explained that Chazal say, (Shabbos 106a) that if one of a group is niftar, the whole group has to worry. “How do we know how much time we have left?” he asked the fellow-members of the shiur.

What do all these people have in common? They have all seen or heard about something which others have all but ignored and used that event as a springbord to elevate their yiras shomayim. They have all taken to heart the statement of Chazal in our parsha. When we see a sotah and we are disgusted by her behavior and we are inspired to improve, we should not let it be just a fleeting thought. We can use it to learn how to behave or how not to behave. A volcano in Hawaii, a local thunderstorm, the sudden illness of a friend or even an acquaintance, something we hear in a shiur can be a life‑changing experience for us, if we choose.

It doesn’t have to be a sad event. If we have a new child or grandchild, we feel a surge of happiness and appreciation to Hashem. Instead of just thinking temporally about this new blessing, we can resolve to concentrate better when we say Modim, – not just today but every day. When we hear that somebody has made a Siyum Hashas, we shouldn’t just wish him a mazal tov. We can think that if he can do it, so can I. It might take years more effort but if we try our best, we also might be granted the years we require to reach that target. A hashgacha pratis story which we may have read can be forgotten by the time we put down the book or it can used to help us grow in bitachon. Our cups can become half-full.  Our simchas chayim can be revitalised. We can truly become ‘a new person.’

 

 

[1] I have just made up this story but it could well be true.

A Double Simcha

“You shall count seven weeks from the beginning of the reaping and then you shall observe the Festival of Shevuos for Hashem your G-d….and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, stranger, orphan and widow who are among you.” (Devarim 16:9-12). But why should we rejoice on Shevuos? The Torah doesn’t say.  The next pasuk says, “Remember that you were slaves in Mitzrayim,” but this surely is connected to Pesach and not Shevuos. Even stranger, is that the previous pasukim mention the festival of Pesach but don’t mention an obligation to rejoice.

We could also ask why the Torah mentions precisely here a long list of people we must bring simcha to. We know that we have to be hospitable and kind to others. What is the connection between hospitality and Shevuos? The same question arises in Parshas Emor. In the middle of all the technical details of the Yomim Tovim the Torah tells us to give the corner of our fields to the poor. (Vayikra 23:22) All the meforshim ask why the Torah inserts this obligation to give to the poor in the middle of Hilchos Yom Tov. Rashi explains that “it teaches that anyone who gives to the poor is as if he built the Beis Hamikdash and brought korbonos in it.” We know that we have to remember the poor particularly on Yom Tov but why does the Torah emphasize it so many times? And why it is comparable to building the Beis Hamikdash and bringing korbonos?

We all know that there are leniencies on Yom Tov which don’t apply to Shabbos. “Whatever is necessary for eating may be done for you.” (Shemos 12:16). We are allowed to cook food on Yom Tov if it will taste better than the same food cooked on Erev Yom Tov. There are certain other melachos we may also do, subject to numerous conditions which are not the subject of this essay. But nowhere is there a reason given for this leniency. We manage to avoid all 39 melachos on Shabbos. So what is different about Yom Tov? (The sefer Derech Hashem gives an explanation al pi kabala).

Pesachim 68b tells us that on most Yomim Tovim there is a dispute whether we have to rejoice through eating and drinking but on Shevuos everybody agrees that it is required. Why? “Because it is the day the Torah was given.” Rav Yosef said he ate meat of the highest quality on Shevuos because “If not for that day, I would be like all the other Yosefs in the street.”

The Rambam (Hilchos Yom Tov 6:17) writes that we have an obligation throughout Yom Tov to be “Same’ach v’tov lev – to rejoice and feel good in our heart.” Rav Nissim Karelitz understands this to be a separate and more encompassing obligation that eating meat and drinking wine. Why should we be more b’simcha on Yom Tov than on Shabbos? Shabbos is essentially an expression of our emuna that Hashem created the world. It is appropriate to be b’simcha but it is not an obligation. On Yom Tov we remember specific miracles which Hashem has done for us, like taking us out of slavery in Mitzrayim and looking after us in the wilderness. We are naturally very grateful to Him for these tremendous miracles. The Torah gives us a mitzva to be b’simcha  because that is the appropriate behaviour for a recipient of wonderful kindnesses. And it could be that to enable us to rejoice fully, Hashem allowed us to enjoy the best, freshly cooked foods.

The giving of the Torah to the Jewish People, however, was and is the greatest kindness that has ever been. As we say every morning, “Ashreinu, ma tov chelkeinu, uma no’im goraleinu, uma yofo yerushoseinu. “Our yerusha – our inheritance – is the Torah. As the posuk says, “Torah tziva lonu Moshe morasha kehilas Yaakov. The Torah is, among many other things, our blueprint for life, our source of happiness and the antidote to our yetzer hora. Eating the best quality meat shows how happy we are to have the Torah. We recognize that without the Torah, we would be just like all the lost souls who roam the secular world until they die, physical and spiritual wrecks, unfulfilled and depressed. Without the Torah, Yetzias Mitzrayim would have been an exercise in futility. Yes, Hashem has redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim and brought us out into the wilderness. Now what? The raison d’être of yetzias Mitzrayim was the giving of the Torah. That is why the Torah does not tell us to be b’simcha in the section about Pesach –  merely leaving Mitzrayim was no reason to be b’simcha. Only after we received the Torah, yetzias Mitzrayim retrospectively became a simcha because it was the first step in our receiving the Torah. That is why the mitzva of simcha on Pesach is only learned from a comparison from Shevuos to Pesach.(Tosfos, Chagiga 8a). Our simcha, therefore on Shevuos is actually a double simcha; one for Shevuos and one retrospectively for Pesach.

Our simcha on all Yomim Tovim but especially on Shevuos is encapsulated by the words of the machzor. “Atoh vechartonu mikol ho’amim – You chose us from all peoples, You loved us, desired us and elevated us from all nations. You sanctified us with Your mitzvos, You brought us close, our King, to Your service and You proclaimed Your holy and awesome Name over us.”

The interpolation of the words “our King” can help us answer our original question. Why is there such emphasis on Yom Tov on providing for the needy that it is compared with building the Beis Hamikdash? The answer is that we are not dealing with a mitzva of hospitality or charity, but much more. Our simcha on Yom Tov is not merely a personal feeling. It is the building block of a national kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim. With our simcha, we our voting in our hearts to accept Hashem as our King, to remain part of His Chosen People. But if it’s just us, there is a problem. Have you ever noticed that when dictators arrange elections, they always manage to win with 99.9% of the votes? Why do they insist on such near unamity? With 60% they could also claim victory. The explanation us is that a 60% vote may be a majority but it lacks the honour of a unanimous vote.

If even 90% of the Jewish People accept Malchus Shomayim but 10% are unhappy with Hashem’s rule, there is a lack in kovod Malchus. To complete Kovod Malchus, there needs to be a unanimous acceptance of Malchus Shomayim. There needs to be Ish echod b’leiv echod. We all need to say, “Na’aseh venishma.

Some people will naturally tend to be lacking in simcha, all for different reasons. The orphan has no parents, the widow misses her late husband, the stranger has no social structure, the Levite has no fields, the poor have no money. If they will not join with the rest of the Jewish People in accepting b’simcha Hashem’s Torah and His Kingdom, there will be a lack in kovod malchus. Therefore we have a special obligation to show kindness to them, each one in the appropriate way, to bring them simcha so that they too will join in accepting the Torah b’simcha with everybody else. Our efforts to give simcha to those in need, thus promoting Kovod Shomayim, is equivalent to rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash, the absence of which also causes a diminution of Kovod Shomayim.

Shevuos, therefore, is not just ‘another’ Yom Tov but a day of cosmic implications. The Heavens and Earth waited for this day. It is the day we can rise from our mundane lives to connect with eternity; a day when, together with all other Jews and with double simcha we can accept the Torah and re-affirm our membership of Hashem’s eternal Kingdom.

 

The Good News And The Good News

“If you follow My laws and keep My mitzvos and do them, I shall give you rain in its season, the land will give its produce and the tree will give its fruit…” (Vayikra 26:3). That’s certainly good news. Hashem, the Creator of the Universe has given us the key to success. In fact there are 613 keys to success. It seems a tall order, but with determination we can do the necessary and we will receive all the blessings mentioned here and many more besides; a veritable paradise on Earth. But then, apparently, the bad news. “If you don’t listen to Me and don’t do all these mitzvos … I will cause you to panic, make you ill in various ways, you will sow your seeds for nothing and your enemies will eat the fruit. You will be struck down before your enemies. You will flee but no-one will be pursuing you. And it gets worse. “If you still won’t listen to me but consider it all chance, I will increase your punishment. I will make your heavens like iron and your land like copper…I will send the wildlife of the field against you which will kill your children, exterminate your cattle and your roads will become desolate.” The pesukim continue in this vein warning us of more and more punishments if we remain obstinate and treat everything as chance. There is a bright point when posuk 32 says that the land will remain desolate even though we will have been exiled which the Ramban understands as a promise that throughout our long exile, other nations will never populated the land. It will remain empty ready for us to return as the British politician Lord Shaftsbury said in 1853 that “Eretz Yisroel is a land without a people waiting for a people without a land.”  However, most of the parsha seems to be doom and gloom. But is it?

The Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3) writes, “When a tzoro happens to a community, we should know that it is because of our wrong deeds. We should do teshuva and this will remove the tzoro. But if we say that the tzoro is a chance happening or natural and is nothing to do with our behavior, this is cruel, because this attitude will cause us to continue our wrong ways and the tzoros will just increase. This is what it says in the Torah, “If you consider what has happened as ‘chance’ I will increase my anger.” (ibid). This should change our understanding of our parsha. It is true that we are being warned about possible punishments but at the same time the pesukim tell us how to avoid those punishments. Don’t treat what happens as chance or natural. Consider possible reasons for a tzoro, do teshuva and the tzoro will go away. This doesn’t seem like bad news. It’s good news, giving us an escape from the tzoro we are suffering from..

In England, at the moment, there is a crisis in that OFSTED is insisting that our schools teach our children about “alternative life styles” and their belief that the world just happens to be; no-one created it. Our Rabbonim and askonim are doing their hishtadlus to convince OFSTED and the Government not to interfere in our system of education. But are we supposed to stand by passively, or is there something we can do? The answer is that there is plenty we can do. Tzoros don’t just happen, as the Rambam said. We have to think what might possibly be the cause of this gezeira.  OFSTED are Hashem’s messengers to awaken us to do teshuva. But what might we be guilty of? Do we have any clues?

It is well known that the Baal Shem Tov once saw some chillul Shabbos which distressed him greatly. He wondered why he should have been punished in this way. He came to the conclusion that it was because someone had once not shown respect to a Talmid Chochom in his presence and he had not objected vociferously enough. Since a Talmid Chochom is sometimes compared to Shabbos, concluded the Baal Shem Tov, this must be the reason for his being punished by seeing chillul Shabbos. A person has to look for a midda keneged midda, an aveira which is in some way connected to the punishment, albeit on a much higher level, as a clue what he must do teshuva from.

Since the first problem with OFSTED, is matters to do with kedusha, it seems logical to consider that Hashem is trying to encourage us to rectify matters of kedusha; particularly since we know that “wherever there is immorality, androlomusia comes and smites the good and the bad.” (Yerushalmi Sota 1:5). Our generation has more challenges in this regard than previous generations, even more than a few years ago. Perhaps twenty or thirty years ago there were fewer women in the workplace. And those who were, were always Mrs So and So. Today, women are in every possible position. Women are lawyers, accountants, bank managers, business representatives etc where they interrelate with their customers. And, almost without exception, they introduce themselves by their first name and expect to be told our first name. Sue and Moshe has a different ring than Mrs Jones and Mr Cohen.  And listen how often she repeats your name. Welcome to the world of modern business techniques to weaken our defences and make us more likely to buy their product. By the end of the first conversation we feel like old friends. This is already a big nisoyon for Moshe who has been brought up in b’kedusha vetahara. Pesachim 113a says that Hashem makes a special announcement about three people every day. One of them is a bachelor who lives in a city and does not sin. He faces great nisoyonos and if he is successful, Hashem rewards him greatly. Today, we all face such nisoyonos and in order to be successful we have to be prepared to respond to Sue’s warm introduction by saying, at a polite distance, “Good morning. I am Mr Cohen.” And the reward the Gemoro talked about will be ours. This is one example in the area of kedusha where we all need chizuk, which Hashem, through OFSTED, is possibly trying to communicate to us.

The other area that OFSTED is trying force on us, is teaching our children that, according to science, we know that the world came about by itself. This is not true. Even Richard Dawkins said, “How did the whole process start? We do not know.”(Climbing Mt Impossible p.282). So why do they want us to teach lies? Perhaps we are being reminded to ask ourselves whether our honesty always impeccable. Are we always careful that every document we sign is authentic? Do we always admit to our spouse when we have made a mistake? And davening in a way that indicates that we are having a heartful talk with Hashem, whilst our minds are thinking about our business, our holidays or local politics, is also a form of falsehood.

No, the tochacho is not all doom and gloom. It is Hashem’s way of encouraging us to do what is right. Yissurim start with taking the wrong coin out of our pocket and increase gradually until the nightmare scenario written in the pesukim. But He hopes it won’t come to that. He gives us reminders of one sort or another and we are supposed to understand the message and rectify our mistakes. Then we will be able to receive all the blessings mentioned in the previous section. The parsha is not good news and bad news but good news and good news! 

A Journey with a Destination

Most of us have been on an aeroplane. We book our tickets, arrive at the airport and queue for check-in. Once on the plane we look for our designated seats and try to fit our hand luggage into the overhead compartment. We have either booked our kosher meal or we have our own provisions. We like a bit of leg room and if the person in front doesn’t lean his seat too far back, it is usually moderately comfortable. Of course the privileged few don’t sit among the plebs, but in Business Class or better still, First Class. There they have plenty of leg room, daily newspapers provided and a hot meal, no doubt, “on the house.” Stewards and stewardesses bring drinks and duty-free items for sale and generally help all the passengers feel as comfortable as possible. Despite this lengthy description of a typical plane flight, I have not mentioned the most important detail. What have we not said?

This week we read about the mitzva of shemitta. It is not an easy mitzva to keep. For a nearly a whole year  all work on the land is forbidden. Nothing may be planted. Fruit which grows by itself is available for anybody to take. Vegetables which grow by themselves are forbidden. Even in the eighth year, it takes a few months for crops to grow and become edible. As the verse says, the people will ask, “What are we going to eat in the seventh year if we may not sow or gather in our produce?” Farmers need to have very strong faith and trust in Hashem to keep all the laws of shemitta. This year I heard an interesting question on this mitzva.

One would have thought that if a mitzva is easy to keep, the punishment for non-compliance should be severe. If the mitzva is hard to keep, the punishment for non-compliance should be light. Why then, is the punishment for non-compliance with this difficult mitzva so severe – expulsion from Eretz Yisroel, as we read in Parshas Bechukosai (26:32-35)? And we could ask the same question in respect of our weekly Shabbos.

The Ramban on Vayikro (25:2) hints at the answer. The weekly Shabbos and the shemitta cycle are not ordinary mitzvos. They are the very basis of our faith. They testify to the fact that there is a Creator, who created the world for us to live in, for us to keep His mitzvos and to move on, in the course of time, to the World to Come. The six years of the shemitta cycle represent the six millenia when there will be a certain hester panim – hiding of Hashem’s existence. The seventh year in the cycle represent the seventh millenium in which there will be a total revelation of Hashem’s existence and His dominion over the whole world.

There are many other important mitzvos. We observe kashrus. We celebrate Yomim Tovim. We do acts of kindness etc. However, it is most essential for us to know Who created us and what for— what is the purpose of life, where do we go after this life? It is these concepts which we are reminded of by these mitzvos of Shabbos and Shemitta. The punishment for not keeping Shabbos and Shemitta is severe, even though these mitzvos are difficult to keep, because they represent our raison d’être as Jews. Without belief in the concepts that these mitzvos represent, Torah is merely a pleasant life-style, a moral but meaningless existence.

The Mesilas Yesharim starts his classic work with the following words; “The foundation of true piety and the root of perfect service of Hashem is that we should have a clear knowledge of what is our obligation on this world and what we are hoping to achieve during the days of our life.” The Torah is not just a manual of how to live but why we are living. The Mesilas Yesharim goes on to say, “We have been created to enjoy the radiance of Hashem’s Divine Presence, which is the greatest pleasure that can possibly exist. The place where this pleasure is available is in the World to Come, but the way to be able to reach this destination is this world. As it says in Pirkei Avos “This world is just a vestibule to reach the next world.”

Let’s get back to our plane flight. We have discussed with our neighbor the view from the window, the efficiency of the staff and the comfort of the seats. Now we feel emboldened to probe somewhat. We ask, “Where is your final destination? Why are you going to wherever the plane is going.” We don’t mean to be inquisitive, we’re just making conversation. However your fellow passenger’s response is very surprising. “To be quite honest, I don’t know where I am going. I’m just…on the plane.” “What do you mean, you don’t know where you are going?” you reply in disbelief. “Everyone is on the plane because they have a destination. The purpose of being on the plane is to get to the place where the plane is flying to.” Your fellow passenger is unrepentant. “No, I’m just enjoying the flight. I have no destination.”

This was the vital detail about the plane flight that we didn’t mention before. That it takes you to your destination.Without a destination, the whole flight is a waste of time. And anyone on the plane without a destination is similarly wasting his time. However there is one exception. There is one group of people whose task it is to be on the plane although they have no destination. That is the cabin crew. Their job is to make things as comfortable as possible for the passengers. They just go and come back. And if they have succeeded in providing the passengers with their needs they have done a good job. They have no destination but that’s fine.

Over 3,000 years ago we were offered a choice. Do we want to listen to the voice of Hashem, to keep His covenant, to become His treasured people — a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? We were being asked whether we wanted to travel on a journey as directed by Hashem with the pleasures of the World to Come as our destination — or a someone who merely exists in this world with no destination. All this second group worry about is how comfortable the seats are, how much leg-room there is and whether the food is good. The select few make it into ‘first class’with more comfortable seats, more leg-room. But they are also just there for the flight. They have no destination. There are stewards and stewardesses, Prime Ministers and other politicians whose job it is to look after the passengers. Relatively speaking, their job is important but for the passengers with a destination, it is of passing significance who the steward is. True, in our lives, we also enjoy a ‘comfortable seat’, some even make it into ‘first class’, but that’s is not what should excite us. Our main focus is preparing for our Destination and the pleasure we hope to have there, enjoying the radiance of Hashem’s Divine Prescence. As the Gemara says, (Kesuvos 111b), leven shina’im meicholov, we enjoy milk, especially when it is with our favourite cereal, but much more important and enjoyable is Hashem’s smile. In Tehillim (82:6,7) Hashem rebukes the people — I offered you the choice of being like angels…but you will die like ordinary men.

In just over two weeks, like every Shevuos, which is the time of the giving of the Torah, we are again offered a choice. We can be like passengers without a destination, living a meaningless existence eventually dying like ordinary people. Or we can be like angels, a treasured people and a holy nation. True, we have many mitzvos to keep and we sometimes face difficult challenges but if we are determined, we can be amongst those who will reach a most beautiful destination, where the greatest possible pleasure awaits us. The choice is ours.

Yismechu B’Malchusecho

What would you say is the theme of this week’s parsha of Emor? You would remember that the parsha discusses the laws of the kohanim that they may not approach a deceased person and the physical blemishes which render a Kohen unfit to participate in the service of the Beis Hamikdash. Other halochos of ritual impurity follow and after that, details of Shabbos and all the Yomim Tovim. You would probably say that there is no single theme, but a wide range of topics which happen to be in the same parsha. Perhaps, though, we are missing something … the theme which ties everything in the parsha together.

A number of mefarshim find it difficult to understand the rationale of tumas meis. A Kohen may not approach a corpse except that of a close relative. If he is in a house where somebody dies he becomes tomei. The ramifications of these halochos are quite significant. A Kohen may not participate in a funeral unless he stands under a different roof or outside, well away from the niftar. As a Kohen about whom the posuk says, “They will seek the Torah from his mouth,” (Malachi 2:7) he is just the person to direct the tzibbur how to give the correct kovod to the niftar by quoting the Chazal that “The loss of even one neshomo is like the burning of a Sefer Torah” (Moed Koton 25a) but he is excluded. As the head of the community, he should be giving the all-important hesped in honour of the deceased and the bereaved, but he is relegated to a side room, if he is there at all. Also, the concern that a person might suddenly be niftar prevents the kohen from visiting a patient who, in his last moments, may be in need of spiritual guidance and encouragement which the Kohen might be the most qualified to give. How can we understand this?

It is also difficult to understand the prohibition of the Kohen with a physical defect from participating in the service in the Beis Hamikdash. It seems unfair. He is already suffering from his defect and now he receives another blow, disqualification from performing the avoda. Despite his broken heart or perhaps because of it, he yearns for closeness to Hashem and longs to participate in the avoda in the Beis Hamikdash. There, in the holiest place on Earth, he would be able to plead with Hashem to heal him. His tearful tefilos would surely reach the kisei hakavod but his path is blocked. “Kohanim with blemishes must stop here.” He can only look from the distance. Where is Hashem’s mercy for this person in need?

“My income does not cover my expenses. I struggle to make a parnoso six days a week. What could be a better idea than taking advantage of a long Shabbos or Yom Tov afternoon to say Tehilim that my situation should improve? Or an obituary of a good friend is printed in the paper and Shabbos is the only time I have to read it. What could be wrong?” And yet the halocho does not allow it. Why?

In the Book of Ezra ( due to non-Jewish influence, it is found in Nechemia Chapter Two) we read, “It happened in the month of Nissan of the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes that wine was brought before him and I carried the wine and gave it to the king. I had never before appeared downcast in his presence. And the king said to me, why is your face downcast?” Why was Nechemia always careful to appear happy in the king’s presence until that day?

A king was visiting different provinces in his kingdom. In the first province the people took advantage of the king’s presence to cry out to him about their woes and plead for help. Although there was justice in their claims and the king truly wanted to help, he did not enjoy his visit. A second province heard that the king was coming. They decided to say nothing about their problems but rather prepared a banquet in the king’s honour. The food was excellent and a band played joyful music throughout. The king enjoyed his visit very much and when the people of this province later wrote to the king asking for his help in certain matters, he was only too pleased to respond generously.

Nechemia was always careful to appear happy in the king’s presence in honour of the king. A king wants his subjects to be happy. It is a sign of his success. There is a time and place for requesting his help but except for those occasions, it is kovod malchus to be joyful in the king’s presence.

Hashem gives us six days a week to attend to our needs and request His help but on Shabbos, when Hashem’s Shechina comes to our homes, the halocho requires us to radiate happiness. On Shabbos we must show kovod malchus by expressing our thanks to Him for all His help and by rejoicing in His presence with three sumptuous meals, singing and joy. We are not allowed to daven for our earthly needs or read something which might make us upset. The same applies on Yom Tov when we have a specific mitzva to be besimcha.

“Hashem is close to the broken-hearted” and hears their cries from wherever they come. No-one is more merciful than Hashem. But just as it is not appropriate to cry at someone’s simcha, it is not appropriate to cry in the Beis Hamikdash. There the Levi’im sang, accompanied by live music (Succah 50b). This created an atmosphere of simcha to enhance the kovod malchus . Were those with physical disabilities allowed to participate in the Avoda, they might well be tempted to cry out in prayer at a crucial point, disturbing the simcha and detracting from the kovod malchus.

Certainly a kohen’s presence would be helpful and educational at a funeral but more important for the tzibbur is to associate Hashem’s earthly representative only with simcha which creates kovod malchus. Unless it is a moed, a Kohen does not do the Avoda when he is an onen, on the day his close relative is niftar, because he is lacking in simcha. The Kohen Godol, who should be on the highest level of emuna, has the status of moed  the whole year and even if he is an onen he continues to do the avoda because he should always be besimcha. (Moed Koton 14b)

This, then, is the theme of the parsha; to be besimcha because it increases kovod Malchus. Now, unfortunately, we have no Beis Hamikdash. But we have our mikdash me’at, our shuls and our homes. There we can honour Hashem by being besimcha, enjoying our Shabbos seudos, speaking about our many blessings and singing songs of thanks and praise to Hashem. As we say in Shabbos Musaf, “Yismechu b’malchusecho shomrei Shabbos.