Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Eikev – The Two Aspects Of Chessed

Devarim, 10:12: “And now, Yisrael, what does HaShem, your G-d ask of you, except to fear HaShem, your G-d, to go in all His ways…”

Sifri, Devarim, 11:22: “’To go in the ways of HaShem’ – these are the ways of Hakadosh Baruch Hu…

In the midst of his speech to the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu exhorts them to go in the ways of HaShem.  The Sifri explains that a person should emulate the character traits of HaShem – for example, in the same way that He is kind, a person should be kind.  Thus, when a person does an act of kindness, it would appear that he fulfils this Mitzva of emulating HaShem. 

There is another Mitzva that a person fulfils when doing kindness – that of V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’.[1]  Accordingly, the question arises as to why there are two Mitzvos for the same action.  My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlit’a suggests that there is a fundamental difference in the two Mitzvos in that the motivation for each Mitzva is very different.  Rav Berkovits suggests that the primary aspect of V’ahavta lereyech kemocha is to develop a love for one’s fellow man, and this motivates a person to help him in the same way that he would help himself.[2]  Thus, if one’s focus is on the desire that his friend succeed, and his concern for his well-being, then he fulfils ‘V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’.

In contrast, the underlying focus of the Mitzva of ‘V’halachta b’drachav’ is to improve one’s character traits so that they emulate those of HaShem.  Therefore, just like HaShem is kind, a person should strive to be kind.  Accordingly, if his primary focus is on improving his middos in order to emulate HaShem, then he fulfils ‘V’halachta b’drachav’.[3]

Needless to say, it is possible and ideal to simultaneously have both intentions and thereby fulfill two Mitzvos at the same time.[4]  One person who exemplified both aspects of doing kindness was Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l. There are numerous examples of his outstanding chessed that seemed to emanate both from his midda of chessed and his great love of his fellow man.  The following example shows how on occasion, doing chessed might require considerable effort and time, and yet, just like HaShem’s chessed is limitless, a person should strive for his chessed to be as limitless as possible.[5]

A couple from Ofakim where Rav Pincus was the Rav, gave birth to a premature baby in Yerushalayim.  The baby would have to remain there for at least three weeks.  The doctors urged the mother to remain nearby so she could feed the baby herself, because that would aid the baby’s development and enable him to come home earlier.  Unfortunately, this was not possible, so instead the hospital said they would feed the baby with special formula milk, which was not as effective as mother’s milk.

The father relates what happened next:

“…I went to Rav Pincus who was like a father to us all, to share the exciting news personally, and he in turn wished me a hearty Mazal Tov and Refuah Sheleimah to both the infant and mother.  Three days later the Rav called me over after Shacharis and informed me that he was traveling to Yerushalayim that day and would be happy to deliver mother’s milk to the hospital….Presuming the Rav was traveling to the city center, which is nowhere near the hospital, I tried to dissuade him…yet Rav Shimshon refused to take no for an answer…This was the first of numerous trips that Rav Shimshon made on our behalf to the hospital.  Incidentally, the Rav ‘just so happened’ to travel to Yerushalayim every day for the next two weeks, and he insisted on delivering a daily shipment of mother’s milk to the hospital, since he was ‘going anyway, and what a shame to forfeit such an opportunity’.  I have no doubt that these trips were made especially on our behalf.

This level of chessed is already incomprehensible, but when the father came to take the baby home, he found out the full extent of Rav Shimshon’s chessed.  The first time that Rav Shimshon brought the milk, he suspected that the nurses had no intention of feeding the milk to the baby, as it takes more time and energy than feeding formula.  Accordingly, he obtained special authorization as the ‘Family Rabbi’, despite the fact that official hospital policy permits entry only to parents and grandparents.  He visited the emergency unit every day and with endless patience, fed the baby it’s mother’s milk.[6]

Needless to say, Rav Pincus reached a level of chessed beyond most of us, yet his example can motivate us to make a little extra effort in our fulfilment of the Mitzvos of Chessed – to love one’s fellow, and to emulate HaShem’s ways.

[1] Needless to say, there are a number of ways of fulfilling the Mitzva of ‘V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’ – doing kindness is just one of them.

[2] It is important to note that the Rishonim point out that in most instances one is not obligated to do Chessed because of the concept of Chayecha kodmim – that one should put himself first.  However, doing Chessed is highly praiseworthy, and one should not be overly makpid on always putting himself first.

[3] In addition, there are situations where one Mitzva could apply while the other would not -for example, showing kindness to an animal could be a fulfillment of emulating HaShem but would not constitute the Mitzva of ‘V’ahavta lereyecha kemocha’ since that Mitzva only applies to one’s fellow Jews.

[4] In the Summary and Halacha Lemaaseh Section we will discuss other possible nafka minas between the two Mitzvos.

[5] This should not be at the expense of one’s own well-being or that of his family – such chessed is misplaced.  Evidently, Rav Pincus was on the level where there was no contradiction between his chessed for others and for his own family.

[6] ‘The Life of Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus’, pp.191-193.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Va’etchanan – Keeping Our Torah Learning Vibrant

There is a program called “V’haarev na” created by Rabbi Dovid Newman that has brought the joy of Gemara learning to thousands of teenagers. The program expanded with “Kinyan Mesechta” to both adults and children. The concept is simple: review, review and review again! Not surprisingly, each time the person reviews, the Gemara becomes sharper and clearer, and—v’haarev na—more enjoyable. The key to a feeling of vibrancy regarding Torah learning is to keep Torah perspectives new.

Each year, Rabbi Newman puts on an event called the Simchas haTorah Event, in which over 600 boys come to a wedding hall to learn for three hours without interruption. Each table has ample snacks, so no need to get up! Everyone diligently reviews their assigned mesechta, some even completing it. When the three hours are up, the music and dancing begin. Next comes a lavish meal and inspiring speeches and testimonies from some of the participants on the joy of overcoming their learning challenges.

Torah learning that creates such excitement is a critical message in Parshas Va’eschanan. The Torah reading on Tisha B’Av morning was from this parsha. “Ki tolid banim… v’noshantam ba’aretz vehishchatem—when you bear children and grandchildren, they will be established in the land and become corrupt.” Rashi and Onkoles explain that the root of the word “v’noshantam’ is “yashan” (old), as in: “when you grow old in the land.” Rav Hirsch notes the difference between zaken—an elderly person—and the word yashan—old. A zaken is elderly, the opposite of young in age. Yashan is old, the opposite of new or fresh. The message of the reading on Tisha B’Av is the danger of becoming dull, losing a sense of vibrancy and freshness, be it in our Torah observance or regarding our living in Eretz Yisrael. This change in perspective is a part of human nature we must guard against. Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin says that after a time, Jews will come to feel that their success in Eretz Yisrael comes from their efforts, rather than Hashem’s involvement.

The Torah portion read on Shabbos Nachamu is always Parshas Va’eschanan. “Nachamu,” read in the haftorah, indicates “comfort”—something we truly need after properly observing Tisha B’Av. But how does the parsha fit in?

Va’eschanan contains the first paragraph of Shema, which says “…veshinantam levanecha,” translated as, “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children.” Rashi quotes the Gemara that says the root of the word veshinantam is shein, tooth. We should learn Torah until the words are sharp in our mouths, so if someone asks you a question regarding what you learned, your mouth can articulate a clear, quick response.

The key to nachamu, to being truly comforted, is to find excitement and sharpness in our Torah!

Let’s face it. A major challenge for our Torah learning is to always review. Our minds tell us, “It’s boring, I learned this already.” But this is the advice of the satan, who wants to rob us of enjoyment in our Torah learning. In fact, our Torah learning is always enhanced by review!! Moshe Rabbeinu set up a mitzvah process to learn the weekly parsha twice in Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation. When one makes a siyum (completion) on a Gemara, he recites the Hadran, which says, “I will come back.”

The mitzvah of veshinantam, to attain clarity, fluency and enjoyment in our learning, is specifically about teaching our children. Veshinantam levanecha—you shall teach your children. So why is the focus on our own learning? What’s the link?

The greatest mode of teaching is through modeling. If we want our children to learn Torah, we can’t just assign them a Gemara or Chumash and say, “learn!” The Torah says our learning must be fluent in our mouths, which comes from true commitment and constant review. This can only happen if we are excited and passionate about our learning. That passion is contagious. Our children will catch on…that Torah is a good thing.

When the Torah discusses “v’noshantam ba’aretz vehischatem,” it’s in relation to children and grandchildren, as they will pick up if we are positive or negative in our attitude toward achieving closeness with Hashem. Our Torah learning needs to be fresh and exciting; our families see the difference!

Let us leave the Three Weeks and look forward to the days of Elul by renewing our commitment to Torah and letting our children (and spouses, friends, neighbors…everyone!) see our passionate exc

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Va’etchanan – The Difference Between ‘Elohim Acheirim’ And ‘Hashem Echad’

Devarim, 5:7: “You shall not recognize other gods in My Presence”.

 Devarim, 6:4: “Hear, Israel, HaShem is our G-d, HaShem in the One and Only.”

Two of the most well-known passages in the Torah appear in Parshas Va’eschanan: The Ten Commandments and the Shema. On close analysis, there seems to be a repetition between two of the Mitzos that feature in these passages. The second of the Ten Commandments is the Prohibition to follow other gods (elohim acheirim), and the Shema itself is the Mitzva to believe that G-d is the one and only G-d, (Yichud HaShem), which indicates that it is forbidden to believe in many gods.  This Prohibition seems to have been already covered in the Mitzva not to follow other gods, so what is added by the Mitzva to believe that there is only one G-d?

Evidently, the Mitzva of Yichud HaShem goes a lot further than just the requirement to believe that there is only one G-d.  In order to fully understand this Mitzva and contrast it to the Mitzva of elohim acheirim it is first necessary to explain what it means not to follow other gods and how this applies nowadays.  In earlier times, there was a widespread desire to actively worship false gods so this Mitzva was highly pertinent.  However, from the time that the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah removed the inclination of Avoda Zara, it would appear that this Mitzva is basically obsolete, so how does it apply to us.

However, in truth, the idea behind this Mitzva is highly pertinent at all times.  A false god is not just a physical idol, rather it is anything that a person ascribes power to, meaning that he believes that this thing is the source of a person’s success. It can include money, desires, oneself, one’s boss, or any number of other things that a person feels are the key to his success in life.

The Gemara[1] points out another false god that influences everyone.  David HaMelech in Tehillim[2] states that “there should not be within you a strange god”.  The Gemara explains that this strange god refers to the yetser hara that actually pervades a person’s very consciousness.  One possible meaning of this is that the yetser hara itself is what controls a person’s drives and fulfilling its desires will provide a person with satisfaction.  And in this form, it is a kind of false god.

Thus, the Mitzva not to have other gods tells us that all those forces that convince us that the way to succeed is through them, are null and void when contrasted to the all-powerful G-d.   Yet, there is still something lacking in what a person’s attitude should be towards the various sources of power outside of G-d – that is where the Mitzva of Yichud HaShem steps in:  Yichud HaShem teaches that, in truth, all of these powers are not ‘fighting’ HaShem, they are not against Him. Rather, in truth, they are part of HaShem’s purpose just like everything in Creation.  For example, the ultimate goal of the yetser hara is not, chas v’Shalom, to cause us to turn from HaShem, rather its goal is for us to overcome its temptations and thereby become closer to Him.   This is why Chazal state that when G-d saw that the creation on the sixth day was ‘very good’ in contrast to the other days where it was merely ‘good’, He was referring to the creation of the yetser hara – it is indeed very good because it brings us closer to our purpose of coming closer to HaShem by overcoming its challenges.  So too, the other powers that we view as taking away from closeness to HaShem are also tools to get closer to Him.

In this vein, another application of Yichud HaShem is that everything that happens to a person is directed at the same purpose of bringing him closer to HaShem.  Thus, seemingly ‘bad’ events that take place come from HaShem just as must as pleasant Hashgacha.  Both are there to bring us closer to him, albeit in different ways.  My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlit’a expresses this even regard to ‘minor’ suffering that we view as nuisances.  In his words:  

“We say that some things are good and some things are bad. What are you talking about? That negates “Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” You mean some things are working in one direction and some things in the other direction? Everything was created for the same purpose, because it has the same source, and its source is only good! Everything is made up of this Hashem-liness. Everything is good. Everything is created only for the sake of bringing us back to being misdabek b’HaShem, being one with HaShem, and taking pleasure in it! Oh, I’d really want to learn, but I keep getting these problems in life. I really want to learn but I caught a cold, what a nuisance. It’s standing in the way of my Avodas HaShem. Baloney! You mean there’s something other than nature that is there for the sake of bringing you to eternal pleasure? You mean this cold is a nuisance that came in from Mars, it came from another sphere? This cold was created to bring you closer to Hashem no less than anything – than your siddur and your gemara and your chumash. It is just that there are lots of different aspects of our growth. There are many different things we have to learn, and there are some things you can only learn when you have a cold. Now go figure out what that was for. Absolutely everything is pointing in the same direction. Everything has the same purpose. There’s total unity in everything. There are no other forces. There’s no evil. It’s illusion! We’re misunderstanding it, because we take it seriously. We think it’s really, really evil. It’s not.”[3]

Thus, Yichud HaShem builds on elohim acheirim and tells us that as well as viewing these perceived sources of success in our lives as null and void against HaShem, we should actually look at them as helping us get close to HaShem.  May we all succeed in fulfilling both of these seminal Mitzvos in the ideal fashion.

[1] Shabbos, 105b.

[2] Tehillim, 81:10.

[3] From a Shiur on the Six Constant Mitzvos.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI- Passaic Torah Institute – Tisha B’Av: Feeling The Love

Sometimes we get Divine inspiration from an action we performed. The Gemara records the episode of Rav Avahu asking his son Rav Avimi to bring him a drink of water. When Rav Avimi returned with a glass of water, his father had dozed off. Instead of putting the water on the table next to his father, Rav Avimi waited, glass in hand, to present it to his father the moment he awoke. While waiting, an explanation to a puzzling line in Tehillim occurred to him. In Tehillim 79, Dovid Hamelech says “Mizmor L’Asaf”—a song by Asaf—and goes on to describe how the nations came into the Beis Hamikdash and defiled it. Why are the opening words that introduce this calamity presented as a song? It would seem more appropriate to say it’s a kinah—lamentation—as we recite on Tisha B’Av. The answer to this question popped into Rav Avimi’s head as he was waiting. The element of song is there because klal Yisrael really deserved to be wiped out because of their actions! Yet, Hashem in His infinite mercy caused the Beis Hamikdash, the meeting place of klal Yisrael and Hashem, to be destroyed instead of destroying the Jewish people themselves.

Why did this idea occur to Rav Avimi at this apparently random time? Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that since Rav Avimi performed an extra measure to honor his father, Hashem rewarded him by giving him an understanding of the compassion our Father in Heaven has for us.

The month of Av is the month the first Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. The second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed by the Romans, who were descendants of Eisav. Eisav excelled in the mitzvah of kibud av—honoring his father, Yitzchak. This attribute gave Eisav’s descendants the upper hand on klal Yisrael, giving them the power to destroy the Beis Hamikdash (but not the people) in this month. However, Eisav’s kibud av was just on the surface, as Eisav was planning on murdering Yaakov as soon as his father passed away—something Yitzchak would not have wanted.

The Jewish people’s relationship to Hashem is unique. With the other nations, Hashem is their Creator. With us, Hashem is not only our creator but also our Father, and we are His children, as expressed in the pasuk “banim l’Hashem,” and when Hashem chastises us, He does so as a father chastises his children—constructively—with deep love and caring.

For most people the month of Av brings a feeling of sadness. We experience the Nine Days with all its restrictions, especially on Tisha B’Av. Yet Tisha B’Av is called a moed—holiday. What kind of holiday is Tisha B’Av? Rav Wolbe explains that the word moed means “to meet” as in the term “Ohel Moed”—Tent of Meeting—which refers to the Mishkan during our sojourn in the desert. The Torah refers to a Yom Tov as a moed, as it’s a time we meet with Hashem. There are two types of festivals: most are festivals of closeness. But there is also a festival of distance—Tisha B’Av.

Rav Motty Berger, from the Aish Discovery program, would often say a relationship is only as strong as its weakest link. On Tisha B’Av we need to confront ourselves in a very serious manner, to take stock of how distant we feel from Hashem and how much we want to connect to Him. Only from that fragile beginning point is our relationship able to grow.

We are about to sit on the floor on Tisha B’Av and face our loss of the Beis Hamikdash, all the tragedies throughout the millennia, and recent tragedies as well. Let’s find one area in our daily lives in which we can honor our Father, Hashem, in a better way. This step will demonstrate our yearning for a closer relationship. We pray that as a result of our efforts Hashem will show His love for us and recognize how much our suffering pains Him.

A week after Tisha B’Av, which compares to the mourning period of a relative, is Tu B’Av—the 15th of Av, which the Mishnah tells us is one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar. May we end the mourning period of Tisha B’Av to Tu B’Av together with Moshiach, and merit a sweet, close relationship with Hashem.