Tag Archives: Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo: Chosen

jewish-davening-by-waterAnd the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments, and that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 26:18-19 (JPS Tanakh)

What does it mean to be the Chosen People? To many Jews it is a source of embarrassment and consternation. To many Christians it is a source of awe and admiration — and to some Christians, jealousy. And to our Muslim cousins — hatred?

Why is the concept of Chosen People an embarrassment and consternation to some Jews? The great concepts of equality and liberty flow from our Torah. That we should think of ourselves as “chosen” rubs against the grain that all people are created in the image of God. Also, if our Chosen-ness makes others jealous, who needs to give more justifications for crusades, pogroms and holocausts? Some Jews think that we have suffered because the Almighty calls us His Chosen People. And even if our suffering is not because of the appellation, then what good does it do for us to be called the Chosen People?

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary for Torah Portion Ki Tavo

That’s a good question. Especially in America where we have the principles of equality and fair play, and especially in the modern, progressive age where it seems almost offensive to many if one group is given a special status, having a “chosen people” seems anachronistic, elitist, and even racist. How dare the Jewish people be chosen? What could God have been thinking? Who are the rest of us, chopped liver?

An additional wrinkle is that many Christians believe that they have taken over that “chosen” position and replaced the Jews and Israel in the covenant promises of God. Thomas Schreiner’s book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law is a perfect example of this kind of thinking in the church. Fortunately, this perspective is slowly evolving beyond such a state, but we have a long way to go.

Rabbi Packouz cites the above quoted portion of Deuteronomy, from this week’s Torah reading, along with Exodus 19:5-6, Deuteronomy 7:6, and Deuteronomy 14:1-3 to illustrate Israel’s chosen status and specialness in the eyes of God.

The Rabbi further states:

While the concept of Chosen People does not mean a superior people, it does imply a special closeness of the Jewish people to the Almighty. Why is there that special closeness, that special relationship?

The concept of Chosen People means both chosen and choosing. Chosen for the responsibility to be a light unto the nations, to be a moral signpost for the nations of the world. Choosing means that the Jewish people accepted on Mt. Sinai to fulfill this mandate and to do the will of God. We are not chosen for special benefits; we are chosen for extra responsibility.

In my recent review of the FFOZ TV episode Ingathering of Israel, I mentioned that in the Biblical prophecies describing the ingathering of the elect at the second coming of Christ, the elect are clearly Israel, the Jewish people:

“Ho there! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the Lord, “for I have dispersed you as the four winds of the heavens,” declares the Lord. “Ho, Zion! Escape, you who are living with the daughter of Babylon.” For thus says the Lord of hosts, “After glory He has sent me against the nations which plunder you, for he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye. For behold, I will wave My hand over them so that they will be plunder for their slaves. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me. Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” declares the Lord.

Zechariah 2:6-10 (NASB)

jewish-christianIt is true that the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah also have a role to play, a very important role, but we must never lose sight of what the Bible says about the Jewish people, especially not in order to elevate ourselves as Gentile Christians above the status God gave to us as “people of the nations who are called by His Name.”

In considering the phrase “one new man” from Ephesians 2:15 (and it’s not like I haven’t written about Ephesians a time or two), Christianity has spun a web that captures all people in Christ as being the same and eliminating the “chosenness” from the Jewish people, replacing it with the “chosenness” of Christianity. If Jews wish to have a “chosen” status, they must now convert to (Gentile) Christianity, abandoning Jewishness, Judaism, and especially Torah observance.

The flip side, and this is a minority view among Gentile believers, is that the almost the opposite happens. “One new man” describes all believers, Jewish and Gentile, adopting and embracing Jewish identity, Judaism, and especially Torah observance, but without Gentile conversion to Judaism.

No matter which way you slice it though, Jewish people and Israel lose being chosen the minute they enter any sort of Gentile Christian religious space, Hebrew Roots included.

Elhanan Ben-Avraham, in his article “Replacing Replacement”, written for the Summer 2013 issue of Messiah Magazine, defends the Jewish people against the traditional Christian theology of supersessionism.

Adherents of replacement theology claim that God has rejected his rebellious firstborn son and adopted a new son in his place. Part of their perspective includes the viewpoint that Jews must now become part of that church in order to be saved. Throughout the ages this has forced Jewish people to reject living as Jews and to accept Christianity instead with all its forms, rituals, symbols, practices and theologies.

It’s like a loving father choosing to kick out his first-born son and adopt a different son to replace him. I know a few adoptive families and I also know it’s quite possible to adopt a child without first removing the other children in the home. And yet, this traditional doctrine of the church seems to deny that fact and also, to deny that God’s first-born son, the Jewish people, could possibly retain any specialness in God’s view after the coming of Jesus, who after all, is God’s first-born son as an individual, and the living embodiment of everything it is to be Jewish and to embrace a life of Torah observance.

In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Packouz concludes:

Because of our voluntary acceptance, the Almighty made an eternal covenant with us that we will be His people and He will be our God. Any individual can come close to the Almighty, but the ultimate relationship comes through entering the covenant of Abraham and fulfilling the Torah. This special relationship is open to any member of humanity who wishes to enter the covenant irrespective of race, religion or ethnic origin.

Every nation, every people, every religion thinks that it is better than any other nation, people or religion. The Jewish people know that the issue is not whether we are better than anyone else, but whether we fulfill our part of the covenant with the Almighty to hold high the values of the Torah and to do the Almighty’s will.

abraham-covenant-starsThat Messiah came and opened the door, though one of the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant for the people of the nations to also enter into a relationship with God, does not delete any other covenants God made with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. They remain chosen. We Gentiles who voluntarily accepted Yeshua as Lord, also are considered chosen or elect, but not with an identical set of responsibilities as the Jewish people. This is the confusing part.

This is why most Christians believe that the Torah was done away with, so that Jews and Gentiles can be identical. This is why some folks in the Hebrew Roots movement believe that Jesus applied the Torah to all people equally upon coming to faith in Messiah. The splitting of status and responsibility and the Jewish people retaining “chosenness” unique to themselves, even among Gentiles who follow the God of Israel, is an extraordinarily difficult thing to grasp, let alone to embrace, for everyone (or almost everyone) who isn’t Jewish.

And yet to deny this is to deny all of the promises of God to Israel and indeed, to deny God’s authority to choose Israel and have them remain chosen.

Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The Lord of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the Lord, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease From being a nation before Me forever.”

Jeremiah 31:35-36 (NASB)

How can any non-Jewish religious movement or group demand that Jews cease to be unique, chosen, and set apart from the people of the nations, even the believing people of the nations, unless they set God’s Word aside in order to gratify the Gentile need to be “equal?”

As Rabbi Packouz said, being chosen isn’t easy. Being God’s elect has many difficult responsibilities attached. Pogroms, inquisitions, torture, maiming, blood libel, and murder have always followed the Jewish people because of their status. When the nations could not destroy them using those methods, they switched to assimilation, conversion, identity theft, and inclusion, and they are also very effective weapons.

And yet after thousands upon thousands of years, the Jewish people have not disappeared. God’s promises of return and restoration of the people to their Land, to Israel, remain intact. Only a fool would oppose God.

Good Shabbos.

33 days.

The Ungrateful Servant

In the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, there was an elderly native of the city who prayed with the Yeshiva each morning. On the morning following the presidential election in the United States, before prayers began, he went to one of the American boys and asked him who had won.

I don’t know if the young student knew the answer, but he was struck by the question. Why would an old man from Jerusalem care about the elections, so much so that he would go out of his way to ask about the results before prayers? Doesn’t G-d come first?

Asked for an explanation, the man replied that he was about to say a blessing thanking G-d for giving him the opportunity to be part of the Jewish People. Although everyone is created in the image of G-d and every righteous person has a share in the World to Come, to be called to serve G-d through all His Commandments is unique privilege. And when making that blessing, he wanted to think about the greatest and most powerful non-Jew in the world!

To give the story a bit of deeper insight, consider that this elderly gentleman lived in poverty in a small Jerusalem apartment. If I’m not mistaken, the protagonist used to sit in the back of the Bais Medrash (study hall), tying Tzitzis (fringes on the corners of garments) for a living while he reviewed the Babylonian Talmud by heart. He was quite poor, yet considered himself blessed beyond the most powerful man in the world.

Every one of us has our own individual set of challenges and opportunities placed before us. Our Sages tell us that we must say, “the entire world was created for me.” Whatever our situation, we have incredible blessings which we often take for granted. Most of us have legs to walk on, are able to breathe the air around us, and are able to marvel at a sunset. But even those who are not able to do all those things have many others for which to be thankful.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“A Moment of Thanks”

I didn’t really intend to write additional blog posts that related to my The Equality Puzzle series, but as with so many of my other “meditations,” this one just sort of “happened.”

We see here a perfect example of how all people are considered equal in that we are all created in the image of God, and yet we also find that an elderly and impoverished Jewish man in Jerusalem, someone who barely manages to make a living, sees himself as more privileged than the (non-Jewish) President of the United States who is arguably, the most powerful single person in the world. The old man lives without many things, but he is honored “to be called to serve G-d through all His Commandments.”

This says several things. First, in the sense of being able to “serve G-d through all His Commandments,” we are not all the same. A poor old Jewish man may have this unique privilege, but even the President of the United States, if he or she is not Jewish, does not share this special honor from God. However, though this may represent a gross inequality to some, it also illustrates that we all have something to be thankful for and a wonderful role to play out in God’s Kingdom that was crafted just for us.

You could be an old Jewish man in Jerusalem who earns a meager living by tying tzitzit, the President of the United States, or anyone else, but no matter who you are, you are special, and you are unique, and there is something in your life that God gave you that you can be thankful for.

But if all that is true, then why is it so common for each of us to “look over the fence,” so to speak, and to long for the “greener grass” in someone else’s field?

A young man asked a sage how to go about finding riches.

“Would you give a leg,” asked the sage, “for a bagful of diamonds?”

“Yes, I would,” said the young man. “The pleasures riches bring would easily compensate for my loss of a leg.”

“Come with me,” said the sage, and he led him into the marketplace where a one-legged man sat leaning against a wall.

“My good fellow,” said the sage, “would you give me a bagful of diamonds if I could restore your leg?”

“I would give two bagfuls,” he replied, “even if I had to spend years stealing them. I would do anything to be relieved of my legless misery.”

The sage turned to the young man. “Would you still make that deal?”

The young man shivered and shook his head.

“Go home,” said the sage. “You don’t have to seek riches. You have it already.”

-Rabbi Naftali Reich
“Open Your Eyes”
Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tavo

A young man in good health would give one of his legs in exchange for a bag of diamonds so he can be wealthy. A man with a missing leg would beg, borrow, or steal two bags full of diamonds and dedicate years of his life to the task if he could get his leg back. We want what we weren’t given by God for our lives but if we somehow acquire it, we find that we’d surrender our treasure in order to restore what we were naturally given by God.

Go figure. People are really peculiar. We will even squander what God gives us for our own benefit and to improve the quality of our lives.

There is a Midrash (a commentary on the Five Books of Moses in the form of a parable) about a successful businessman who meets a former colleague down on his luck. The colleague begs the successful business man for a substantial loan to turn around his circumstances. Eventually, the businessman agrees to a 6 month loan and gives his former colleague the money. At the end of the 6 months, the businessman goes to collect his loan. The former colleague gives him every last penny. However, the businessman notices that the money is the exact same coins he loaned the man. He was furious! “How dare you borrow such a huge amount and not even use it? I gave this to you to better your life!” The man was speechless.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Thoughts to Ponder before Rosh Hashana”
Shabbat Shalom Weekly for Torah Portion Nitzavim

How like the Parable of the Talents in which Jesus tells us something very much the same:

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ –Matthew 25:26-30 (ESV)

God has given each of us so very much, and yet most of us are never satisfied with His providence. We always want more. We always want what God never intended to give us. Jews and Christians each possess many important and precious gifts from the Lover of our souls. Don’t be so quick to throw your’s away just because someone else’s looks more attractive. The consequences, as we have seen in abundance, can be disastrous.

Rosh Hashanah begins in less than a week. If you are a Christian whose heart is turned toward the Jewish traditions and the God of Israel, now more than ever, this is the time to appreciate who you are and what God has given you as a Christian. You are blessed. Give thanks.

Ki Tavo: Loving and Honoring God

BikkurimOur Sages teach: (Bava Basra 9b.) “A person who gives a coin to a poor person is granted six blessings; one who gratifies him is blessed elevenfold.” Now, gratifying does not necessarily mean giving more money. It means giving a positive feeling, showing the recipient that you care about him, and that he means something to you. When one so invests himself in another person, putting enough of himself into the stranger that the person feels appreciated, he has given something far greater than money. And so he receives a more ample blessing from G-d.

This leads to a deeper concept: Appreciation stems from involvement; the deeper the relationship between people, the more one appreciates the uniqueness of the other. When a person appreciates a colleague, he is motivated to do whatever he can for that other person.

These concepts apply, not only to our relationships with our fellow man, but also to our relationship with G-d.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Entering Deeper and Deeper”
Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tavo

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV)

I’ve commented more than once that there is an inseparable relationship in the life of a believer between our relationship with other people and our relationship with God. We see here that not only does Jesus teach this lesson as the two most important commandments to learn and obey, but that both ancient and modern Judaism also cherishes this teaching. It resides at the heart of the Torah Portion for this week and should reside at the core who we are as people of God.

Rabbi Touger expands on his commentary and illuminates us further:

One of the major thrusts in Judaism is hakaras hatov, appreciation of the good which G-d constantly bestows upon us. And as with appreciation of our fellow man, the emphasis is on appreciating not only the material dimension of G-d’s kindness, but also the love and care which He showers on every person.

In this vein, we can understand the sequence of our Torah reading, Parshas Ki Savo. The reading begins by describing the mitzvah of bikkurim, (Deuteronomy 26:1-11.) the first fruits which the Jews would bring to the Beis HaMikdash, and shortly afterwards speaks of a covenant concerning the entire Torah. (Op. cit.: 16ff.)

What is the connection between these subjects?

The mitzvah of bikkurim was instituted to show that our gratitude for the good G-d has granted us, (Rashi, gloss to Deuteronomy 26:3.) and to display our appreciation to Him for “granting us all the blessings of this world.” (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 606.) And this appreciation is not expressed merely by words of thanks, but through deed.

Rabbi Touger goes on to describe the deeds of ancient times, were to offer first fruits to God in deep appreciation for all that he bestowed upon the people of Israel, but that appreciation would be incomplete if we didn’t also offer gifts to our fellow human beings. I don’t mean just material goods, although these are important, but the gifts of compassion, mercy, kindness, and justice. From those gifts flow food for the hungry, comfort for the widow, provision for the bride, and spending time with the sick.

If we say we love God, how are we to express this today? Even a Jew cannot offer sacrifices without a Temple. As we approach the High Holidays, many Jews are giving abundantly to charity, offering impassioned prayers, and seeking to repair damaged relationships. In “offering” to God, we have no choice but to give to the people in need around us, for loving people is indeed loving God, just as He loves us.

If anyone truly intends to repent, either because of the approach of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or because of our imperative as Christians to continually repent before God through Jesus Christ, it would be foolish to imagine we didn’t have to repent and ask forgiveness of those we may have hurt with our careless words and actions.

But it goes beyond repentance and forgiveness and giving to charity. We have a perpetual responsibility to honor others as God honored Christ, for only in seeking the honor of our friend as if it were our own, can we truly become honorable before God and show the world that God deserves much great honor.

Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own.

-Ethics of the Fathers 2:15

Pride, honor, and acclaim have an attraction all their own, but our Sages warn us that these may be destructive (Ethics of the Fathers 4:28). The frustration people may experience when they feel they did not receive due recognition may be extremely distressing.

People who crave honor may sometimes attempt to achieve it by deflating others, thinking that their own image is enhanced when others are disparaged. The truth, however, is just the reverse: when one deflates another, one’s own image is diminished.

Rabbi Nechunya’s students asked him, “By what merits did you achieve long life?” He answered, “I never accepted any honor that was at another person’s expense.” As an example the Talmud tells that when Rav Chana Bar Chanilai visited Rabbi Huna, he wanted to relieve the latter of carrying a shovel on his shoulder. Rabbi Huna objected, saying, “Since it is not your custom to be seen carrying a shovel, you should not do so now” (Megillah 28a). Rav Chana was willing to forgo his own honor for Rabbi Huna’s sake, but Rabbi Huna would not hear of it.

Why does such an attitude merit long life? A person who is not preoccupied with his image, and is not obsessed with receiving honor and public recognition, is free of the emotional stress and frustration that plague those whose cravings for acclaim are bottomless pits. These stresses can be psychologically and physically devastating, and dispensing with them can indeed prolong life.

Aptly did Rabbi Elazar HaKappar say that honor drives a man out of this world (Ethics of the Fathers 4:28). One who pursues honors in this world mortally harms his chance for happiness.

Today I shall…

concentrate on being respectful to others, and avoid pursuing recognition from others.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 18”

Seek to show honor to God by honoring people in your midst, not just your friends or those who are like you, but the pauper, the outcast, the lonely, and misfit, for they are all Children of God, even as you are.

Good Shabbos.

Failure to Escape

PrisonRabbeinu Yonah, zt”l, teaches a lesson of teshuvah from a statement on today’s daf. “One who repeats one sin ten times has transgressed ten sins. We learn this from a nazir. A nazir gets a separate spate of lashes for every time he drank wine if the witnesses warned him before each drink.

“Even for a person who keeps the entire Torah, there is often at least one sin that he violates without much inhibition. He acts as though this sin is no sin at all. Even if this lax attitude extended to only one sin that would be serious enough. But most people have many areas that they do not take seriously. Some say the Name of heaven in vain. Others are not careful that their hands or the place they are in be clean before they say God’s Name. Some turn a blind eye to the poor, or one’s weakness may be slander, baseless hatred or arrogance. Or it may that he gazes at the forbidden. And laxness in the hardest mitzvah to fulfill properly is all too common: Torah study which counts like the entire Torah.

“It is therefore proper for every ba’al teshuvah to write down his flaws and mistakes and read this book every day. In that manner he will surely repent.”

Rabbeinu Yonah provides a famous parable on the importance of teshuvah. “This is likened to people who were jailed and managed to dig a tunnel out of their cell. Everyone escaped except one man. When the jailor noticed the tunnel and that everyone had escaped he began beating the man. ‘You fool! Why didn’t you take the opportunity and escape like everyone else?’”

When the Chiddushei HaRim, zt”l, quoted this Rabbeinuu Yonah he taught a brilliant lesson. “We see that failing to do teshuvah is worse than sinning in the first place!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Get Out of Jail”
Chullin 82

How interesting. If sin is putting yourself in jail, then teshuvah, the process of turning from sin back to God, is escaping from jail. We don’t normally consider a jailbreak in a positive, moral light, but think about it. If you are put in jail as the consequence of committing a crime, you wait passively. There is little or nothing you can do to secure your release except to wait for time to pass and your sentence to be up. You do not participate in your redemption in any way.

On the other hand, a jailbreak is an active process. It requires planning, gathering the right tools and, in some cases, organizing the different roles required for the escape with other people. You aren’t simply going to be released just because you’re waiting around. You actually have to do something about it. So it is with the process of repentence. So it is with the activity of making teshuvah. It won’t happen unless you take an active part.

But as in Rabbeinu Yonah’s parable, there will always be those people who, for whatever reason, continue to allow themselves to be imprisoned when they could have escaped and become free again. Failure to make amends, to repent, to turn from sin, and return to God is worse than the sin that landed you in jail in the first place.

But there’s more.

Both Passover and bringing of the first fruits are times when we must recognize our blessings and their origin. They say “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but foxholes are a lousy place to get religion! The Torah wants us to develop a connection with happiness and love, rather than fear. The curses found in this week’s reading only come about “because you did not serve HaShem your G-d with joy and a good heart, from an abundance of all.” [Deuteronomy 28:47]

-Rabbi Yaakov Menkin
Director, Project Genesis

This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about the mystery of “joy”. About six months ago, I wrote something called Failing Joy 101. By nature, I’m not a continuously happy or joyous person. I don’t walk around with a smile on my face all the time. I don’t always approach the day with boundless enthusiasm. I even sometimes find people who really are cheerful all the time as kind of annoying. And yet we have this. Not only are we to stage a jailbreak when we are incarcerated within sin, but essentially, we’re to do so with a song of joy in our hearts.

And if we don’t, it’s a sin. It’s sin that gets us in jail in the first place. It’s sin that keeps us in jail when we could escape. And it’s sin, even when we escape, if we don’t do so joyfully.

I think I’m getting a headache.

Joyous enthusiasm is the child of inspiration. It is the emotional elixir that galvanizes, energizes, electrifies our lives. It empowers us to move mountains and make impossible dreams come true. Without joy, we plod mechanically toward our goals, seeking relief rather than fulfillment, but with joy we soar toward glittering mountaintops.

Clearly then, joy is a critical factor in our service of the Creator. It infuses every observance, every prayer, every moment of study with a divine energy that brings us that much closer to our Father in Heaven. One of the Chassidic masters once said, “Joy is not a commandment, but no commandment can accomplish what joy can.”

But what if a person cannot achieve joy? What if a person is overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life and is unable to free his spirit and let it soar? Surely, he does not deserve to be condemned and chastised for this failure. Surely, he should continue to serve the Creator to the best of his ability even if his efforts are less than inspired.

-Rabbi Naftali Reich
“The Little Voice”
Commentary on Parshas Ki Savo

DespairIt’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who thinks about these things. Rabbi Reich goes on to say, “Some commentators resolve this perplexing problem homiletically. They read the verse as follows, ‘Because you did not serve Hashem your Lord – with joy.’ It is not the absence of joy which is deserving of punishment but rather the presence of inappropriate joy.’

Let’s go back to the inmate who refused to escape from jail. Why wouldn’t he leave? Why stay in sin…unless he liked it there.

I don’t know if Rabbi Reich is reaching a little too far for a solution, but it is one that we could consider. As the Rabbi says, it’s “one thing to fall short in the service of Hashem, to fall victim to the weakness of the flesh. But it is quite another to revel in sinfulness, to delight in the saccharine juices of forbidden fruit.” So the absence of joy in our acts committed for the service of the Creator may not be desirable, that’s not where our sin lies.

A king was angry with his son for neglecting his princely duties. He decided to discipline him by banishing him incognito to a remote village.

When the prince arrived in the village of his banishment, he was mortified. The place was a collection of rude huts without the most basic comforts and refinements of polite society. There were no books or works of art for miles around. The people were vulgar and ignorant. The stench in the streets was overpowering.

A year passed, and the king began to reconsider his decree of banishment against the young prince. But first he sent spies to see how the prince was faring.

The spies arrived in the village, but it was a while before they located the prince sitting among a group of peasants in a barnyard. The once handsome and elegant young prince was filthy and dressed in vermin-infested rags. He was stuffing his face with half raw meat, the red juices running down his chin. Every few minutes, he would roar with laughter at one or another of the coarse peasant stories that were being bandied about. The spies immediately returned to the palace to report on what they had seen.

When the king heard their report, he wept. “If my son is happy among the peasants, he will never be a prince.”

The parable quoted from Rabbi Reich’s commentary tells the same story as Rabbeinu Yonah’s parable. Two men were sentenced to isolation from the world of faith and hope for a certain time. The intent was to teach them, in their misery, that they should desire to return to their former lives and learn appreciation for what was temporarily denied them. Instead, we find that the opposite happened. Both men learned to become accustomed to their life of depravity and sinfulness. I suspect both men lost hope because without hope, there can never be joy.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:12-13

I suspect that Paul could write these words with sincerity because he had hope in Jesus. It was a hope that transcended circumstances and became interwoven with the very fabric of his being. It is a hope that only true trust and faith in God can create and nurture. Knowing God exists provides a certain amount of comfort. Having absolute trust in Him, regardless of your situation is where one discovers faith, hope, and finally, joy.

While we are expected to somehow just “have” these treasures, they don’t simply lie along the common path, like wildflowers growing out of the gravel. Digging an escape tunnel doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort. So, for at least some of us, does the search for the fruits of the spirit.

If we have no joy in our hearts, we deny the love of God. We should not say, “Our heart is the dwelling place of lust, jealousy, anger; there is no hope for us.” Let us realize that we have another guest in us who desires to give us life and joy, notwithstanding our sin.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

There’s another reason why the prisoner might choose not to escape; not due to any attraction to or love of sin, but because of the futility of hoping that any escape would be permanent or even long lived. Perhaps the son of David was right after all.

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Ki Tavo: Blessings of the Soul

BikkurimOne of the major thrusts in Judaism is hakaras hatov, appreciation of the good which G-d constantly bestows upon us. And as with appreciation of our fellow man, the emphasis is on appreciating not only the material dimension of G-d’s kindness, but also the love and care which He showers on every person.

In this vein, we can understand the sequence of our Torah reading, Parshas Ki Savo. The reading begins by describing the mitzvah of bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), the first fruits which the Jews would bring to the Beis HaMikdash, and shortly afterwards speaks of a covenant concerning the entire Torah (Deuteronomy 26:16)

What is the connection between these subjects?

The mitzvah of bikkurim was instituted to show that our gratitude for the good G-d has granted us (Rashi, gloss to Deuteronomy 26:3), and to display our appreciation to Him for “granting us all the blessings of this world.” (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 606) And this appreciation is not expressed merely by words of thanks, but through deed.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
Ki Savo commentary: “Entering Deeper and Deeper”
In the Garden of Torah

There’s a tendency among people of faith to separate their lives into the holy and the mundane. It is holy to pray in the morning before work, and it is mundane to commute to work. It is holy to worship in church or synagogue, but it is mundane and ordinary to have a meeting at work, have dinner with your family, volunteer at the food bank, and to give to charity. Yet we see in the example set in this week’s Torah Portion Ki Tavo that in the process of the bikkurim, there is an intimate connection between appreciating the gifts of the physical world and the loving providence of God.

The bikkurim is an illustration of the Jewish expression of appreciation to God for the gift of the Land of Israel and its bounty, but how else can such appreciation be expressed and experienced?

Our Sages teach (Bava Basra 9b): “A person who gives a coin to a poor person is granted six blessings; one who gratifies him is blessed elevenfold.” Now, gratifying does not necessarily mean giving more money. It means giving a positive feeling, showing the recipient that you care about him, and that he means something to you. When one so invests himself in another person, putting enough of himself into the stranger that the person feels appreciated, he has given something far greater than money. And so he receives a more ample blessing from G-d.

Our own sage, the “Maggid of Nazaret” teaches a similar lesson:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” –Mark 12:41-44

What is “value” in the eyes of God and “worth” in the economy of Heaven? It isn’t our ability to pay or to provide for others or even to God, but our intent, willingness, and expression in helping the unfortunate. A poor widow can donate a a very small amount (although it is great to her since it is all she has to live on) and have it be worth more than all of the gifts of the wealthy, even though what they give can feed multitudes of the impoverished.

To continue quoting from Rabbi Touger:

This leads to a deeper concept: Appreciation stems from involvement; the deeper the relationship between people, the more one appreciates the uniqueness of the other. When a person appreciates a colleague, he is motivated to do whatever he can for that other person.

These concepts apply, not only to our relationships with our fellow man, but also to our relationship with G-d.

What we do for others relates directly back to how we express our appreciation for all God has done for us. In fact, there is probably a closer connection between acts of charity to others and our appreciation of God than we might imagine:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ –Matthew 25:37-40

HomelessIn Judaism, the first blessing offered to God, the Modeh Ani, is given before the person even gets out of bed, but it is performed while the person is not quite awake. Later in the day, observant Jews recite the Modim blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh, and offer a more complete expression of thanks, yet this is only part of offering our hearts to God. The physical acts of kindness to others and the illustration of the bikkurim are both tangible and concrete, yet representative of traveling into the greater depths of spiritual dimensions where prayers and blessings alone cannot take us. So even in giving to others as an expression of appreciating the life God gives to us, we also get something back; the opportunity to serve the table of the King.

Once the Chasam Sofer, zt”l, was riding in the same carriage as his rebbe, Rav Nosson Adler, zt”l. It was a very cold day and the Eastern European roads were filled with snow and slush. One wrong turn could land a person into a sticky quagmire from which he would not easily get out. During the first leg of the trip, the wagon driver managed to extricate them each time
the horses got stuck. Eventually, however, the horses enter a muddy pit from which they could not budge. Although they tried, they lacked the physical strength to get that wagon out of the mud.

After coaxing the team for an extended time, the wagon driver understood that his efforts were futile and that he needed help. He unhitched one of the horses and rode to a nearby town. After some time the wagon driver returned with reinforcements to remove the wagon. When Rav Nosson Adler saw them coming he left the wagon. He rushed out so quickly that he didn’t even put on his boots. In his silk socks he jumped down from the wagon and then—to the surprise of the Chasam Sofer—he began to dance. His face shone with a holy fire and he was obviously overjoyed.

The Chasam Sofer wondered what it was that had made his rebbe so happy that he spontaneously began to dance. “You know I spend most of my day in the beis midrash. I do as many mitzvos as I can, but there are many mitzvos which are virtually impossible for me to fulfill. One of these unusual mitzvos is to avoid kil’ayim.

“But now don’t you see? The wagon driver brought a team of oxen to help pull his wagon out of the mud. As a non-Jew, this is his right, but we are forbidden from sitting in the wagon while it is being towed out by a mixed team. If we would have sat in the wagon we would have violated the prohibition of kil’ayim. Now that I have finally merited to fulfill this rare mitzvah I feel filled with joy and cannot stop myself from dancing!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Mixed Team”
Chullin 79

While this example of gratitude and appreciation may seem obscure and even nonsensical to someone without the benefit of a traditional Jewish religious education, if you take a moment to think about it, this is a story of a rare opportunity. Bringing the illustration back to the present, those opportunities that God gives us to serve others, even when they significantly interrupt our otherwise orderly and scheduled lives, are really opportunities for our benefit. Helping someone else not only benefits the other person, and it not only lets us bless God for all He has done for us, it is also the act of God blessing us by letting us be of further service to Him. In committing even the smallest act of repairing the world, God is giving us His loving compassion by repairing us, for there is no difference between helping another person, honoring God, and receiving God’s blessings on our soul.

In every person, there lie all souls that ever were and will be.

After all, humanShabbat candles consciousness began in a single being, with a single breath of G‑d within that being.

And so, just as every cell of the human being contains the blueprint of every other cell and of the entire person from the synapses of his brain to the swirls of his fingerprints, so every single person contains the entire humankind.

In this way, our Creator has rendered each of us the master of human destiny. In the liberation of any one of us lies the liberation of us all.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Any Soul”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

Transforming Darkness with Light

Inner lightHusbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.Ephesians 5:25-33 (NIV)

The relation of husband and wife is the way our world reflects the relationship of the Creator with His Creation. There is nothing more pivotal to the world’s ultimate fulfillment than this.

Therefore, as the world nears closer and closer to its fulfillment, the resistance grows stronger and stronger. By now, absolutely everything appears to be undermining the most crucial key of peace between man and woman.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Peace at Home”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Anyone who’s ever been married knows that, even in the best of relationships, there can be strife and disagreement at times. It isn’t always easy to maintain peace in the home at every moment. The world around you may never know that you and your spouse aren’t getting along, but you know, your spouse knows…and God knows.

How much more does God know about the state of our relationship with Him, if we are on good terms or are feeling estranged. As Rabbi Freeman states, our relationship with our spouse is a reflection of our relationship with God. As the world progresses to a condition of ever greater darkness, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain peace in the home and peace as we attempt to enter the Temple of Hashem.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. –2 Timothy 4:1-5 (NIV)

Even in the community of faith, “peace is the home” is getting harder to secure. As Paul predicted, we are living in an age when “people will not put up with sound doctrine”, although it is ironic that some very shallow viewpoints on the Word of God are considered to have “deep meaning”. We also see values that once were great in the hearts of believers, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, are now considered passe’ and have been replaced by the latest fads in church “feel-good-about-yourself” programs. And yet, in any relationship, no matter the circumstances, we can still overcome the barriers as long as we keep our focus on the object of our love and faith:

Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written [in Genesis 3:21], “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them,” so too should you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, as it is written [in Genesis 18:1], ‘Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre,’ [while he was still recovering from circumcision,] so too should you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, as it is written [in Genesis 25:11], “After the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac,” so too should you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written [in Deuteronomy 34:6], “And He buried [Moses] in the valley in the land of Moab,” so too should you also bury the dead. –b.Sotah 14a

Here we see God’s love for us and His example in how we should show love to others. We also see this in the life of the Master:

Yochanan heard in prison about the deeds of the Mashiach and sent two of his disciples. They said to him, “Are you the one who comes, or should we wait for another?” Yeshua answered and said to them,

“Go tell Yochanan what you have heard and what you have seen. The blind are seeing, the lame are walking, metzora’im are becoming pure, the deaf are hearing, the dead are rising, and the poor are receiving good news. And O, the gladness of th eman who does not stumble because of me!” –Matthew 11:2-6 (DHE Gospels)

Holding onto lightAs the time of darkness approaches, we can push it back and indeed, by our acts of trust and faithfulness to Jesus, we can actually transform the darkness into light, at least in part, and when he returns to us, he will  make everything complete and restore the world to light.

When light pushes away the darkness, eventually another darkness shall come. When the darkness itself is transformed into light, it is a light that no darkness can oppose.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Is it any wonder we have this comparison?

Yeshua spoke to them once more saying, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will not walk in darkness, for he will have the light of life.” –John 8:12 (DHE Gospels)

You are the light of the world. A city that sits on the mountain will not be hidden, nor do people kindle a lamp just to put it under the bushel measure, but on the menorah, to illuminate all who are in the house. So also, shine your light before sons of men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your father who is in heaven. –Matthew 5:14-16 (DHE Gospels)

Just as we see the light of our Master and strive to imitate him by also becoming light, our Master did nothing on his own:

Then Yeshua said to them, “At the time you lift up the son of man you will know that I am he and that I do not do anything of myself. But as my Father has taught me, so I speak. The one who sent me is with me; the Father has not abandoned me to be alone. For I always do what is good in his eyes.” –John 8:28-29 (DHE Gospels)

Just as he was sent in the Name of the Father, now we are sent in the name of the Son. So we should do all that is good in His eyes, that we might become one with our Father in Heaven, that there might be peace in our homes and in “the Home”, and that the darkness may be dispelled by our light, and His light.

Note: Quotes from the Gospels were taken from the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, Hebrew/English translation adapted and published by Vine of David from the original 1890 text, produced by Franz Delitzch and supervised of Gustav Dalman.

Quotes from Sotah 14a and John 8:28-29 were adapted from the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tavo, Imitating God.