Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Vayigash – Live Torah

Many of the Ba’alei Mussar ask a famous question in this week’s parsha. The psukim say that when the Brothers came and told Ya’akov that the son he mourned for so intensely was still alive, Ya’akov initially didn’t believe them. On a basic level, it’s quite difficult to understand. What did Ya’akov think? That the Brothers were playing a joke on their old man? This was the news that Ya’akov Avinu was waiting to hear for years and years! How could he think that the Brothers were lying to him?

Rav Elya Lopian (amongst others) answers that in reality, Ya’akov Avinu knew that Yosef was alive. He knew that the shvatim would never lie about such a sensitive issue. But there are two different types of living. There’s physically breathing, and having a sense of chiyus, which means really living; connected to the reason behind why one was created. When the brothers told Ya’akov that Yosef had just spent the past 22 years in Mitzrayim, Ya’akov Avinu was bothered. “You tell me he’s alive; but you really expect me to believe he’s still living?” Ya’akov believed that Yosef was physically breathing, but that he was still alive? For that, Ya’akov Avinu thought it was impossible. He thought that it was virtually impossible for someone to exist amongst the tumah of Mitzryaim and still be considered alive. It was only when he saw the agalos, the allusion to the last sugya which Yosef had learned with his father, did Ya’akov truly believe that Yosef was still the same tzadik who left eretz Yisrael.

We see from here a very important nekudeh which is relevant to existing with a sense of kedusha even in the most tumah-dik environment. Someone asked me today, why did Yosef need to send agalos to allude to Ya’akov the last sugya they had learned? Why not just send Ya’akov a message saying “eglah arufah” or something of the like? Why did this message need to be sent through an actual physical agalos?

I told him that there are two different ways of learning Torah. There’s a type of learning where the ideas learned exist as mere ideas and nothing more. However, there’s another type of learning, one in which the ideas become a part of the person; that is, the Torah he learns becomes his reality. This is alluded to when chazal tell us “Ein ben chorin eleh mi she’oseik b’Torah”, “there is no free person besides for one who toils in Torah”. Chazal learn this out of a pasuk which says that the words of Torah should be “Charus al luach libo”, “engraved into the walls of his heart”. Chazal say, “don’t read charus, rather cheirus, freedom”. The Sfas Emes says that when chazal make drashas like this, there’s always a connection between what we’re learning and where we’re learning it out from. With this in mind, the meforshim say that only when a person makes Torah charus does he merit cheirus. What’s the big mailah of having something engraved as opposed to just writing? The answer is best understood through a parable. When a person writes something on a rock, the rock and the ink exist as two separate entities. The ink just happens to be on the rock. However, if a person would engrave a message into the rock, the rock itself would speak the message. This is what it means to make Torah charus. To engrave it into our hearts, so that the Torah doesn’t exist as something which is separate from us, rather as a part of us, so that our hearts themselves speak the message of Torah.

This is why Yosef had to send actual agalos. Because just sending a hand-written message wouldn’t have been enough to convince Ya’akov that he was still alive. It wouldn’t have told Ya’akov that Yosef was still connected to his higher existence. Yosef had to send actual physical agalos- to hint that the Torah he had learned with his father wasn’t merely ideas; it was his reality. It was a part of him. Only when Ya’akov knew that Torah was his reality was he convinced that Yosef was still truly alive.

When I was learning in Yeshiva in America, I was able to have a chavrusa a few times a week at nights for a mussar seder. This certain bochur had just left full time yeshiva to put more of an emphasis on his college work. I remember, he came in once looking very down and somewhat depressed. He told me that even though he felt that he had spent much time working on himself, his secular college environment was having a negative effect on his Ruchniyus. I told him this nekudah that we learn from Yosef. We live in a time where there’s a tornado raging outside. Everyone agrees that the tumah of the outside world is oft times unbearable! So how do we deal with it? It’s not practical to say you’ll lock yourself in a room to protect yourself. So how do the Jews deal with it? When the entire world tells us to reform our ideals and goals to be consistent with a vastly immoral society, how do we remain stagnant? The answer is that we make Torah our metzius. We make it our reality. We get in touch with that deep point of light hidden within each one of us which makes us unique.

This yesod is a deep, powerful and practical lesson for life. We see from Yosef haTzadik a lesson for how to survive amongst an environment of even the worst types of tumah. In the first perek of tehillim, David Hamelech tells us that we should be like a tree with deep roots next to a river. The mishna in avos says that a tree with deep roots can never get uprooted, no matter how strong the wind is. This is one explanation to what our roots are. They’re our definition, our essence- the Torah. When we get in touch with that and make it our reality, we strengthen our core. And when we strengthen our core, even the greatest wind won’t be able to uproot us.

Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Vayishlach – The Malach And The Essence Of The Yetzer Hara

In this week’s parsha, we find the famous episode of Ya’akov Avinu’s fight with the malach. It’s brought down in different seforim that this malach was the epitome of the yetzer hara, or some even say, the satan himself. Because of this, the malach attacked Ya’akov Avinu and not the other avos because the essence of Ya’akov Avinu was the truth of Torah which was diametrically opposed to everything the malach stood for.

The question really lies in the aftermath of their battle, when Ya’akov Avinu asks the malach his name. The Malach responds, “Why is that you ask my name?” With this, the conversation ends and the malach blesses Ya’akov and they both go on their separate ways. The ba’alei mussar all ask very similar questions regarding this episode. What exactly was the malach answering? From the fact that Ya’akov accepted his answer seems to indicate that it was a full answer, however he answered Ya’akov’s question with another question! What’s the pshat in these psukim?

The ba’alei mussar answer this question with a very deep idea which is very applicable to each individual. They say that the malach’s retort wasn’t merely dodging the question, rather it was the answer. “Why is it that you ask my name?” wasn’t a question back to Ya’akov- rather it was the actual name of the malach.

What’s in a name? In Parshas Breishis, it says that Hashem brought every animal in front of Adam Harishon and he called each one by its name. The meforshim point out that Adam knew what to call each animal by looking into its essence and then calling it a name which describes it. That is, the essence of anything we can find in the world is alluded to by its name. (This idea is also brought up in regard to naming children. Seforim bring down that when a parent names a child, there’s a special ruach hakodesh which rests on him to be able to call the child after its essence, and if the child is named after a person, the child assumes a piece of the identity of the person he was being named after.)

With this understanding behind what a name is, when the angel was telling Ya’akov his name, he wasn’t just saying what he happened to be called; rather he was revealing his essence. This malach was the shoresh of ra, he was the epitome of the yetser hara. And how does he describe his essence? “Why do you ask my name?”, that is- don’t ask questions! Don’t think about it! That’s the essence of the yetzer hara. To blind us from thinking. Once we begin to think and ask questions, the yetzer hara lacks its essence and is then revealed as nothing.

This idea can be brought out with a mashal. Before modern technology, movies were shown by portraying images onto a screen via a projector. To someone who didn’t understand how the system worked, he would think that there’s an actual reality happening on the screen! Yet to the thinking individual who knew how the movie worked, he needed to only shine a flashlight onto the screen to reveal the reality that there was nothing there.

The same is true with our yetzer hara. He fools us into thinking that he’s this serious reality! And even more so, he tricks us into not asking questions. When a person is always thinking about his life and his purpose, he doesn’t fall into the hands of the yetzer hara. It’s impossible to have the conscious thought that one is standing in front of Hashem and still rebel against His will! Rather, that’s not the way the yetzer hara gets us. He gets us by convincing us not to ask his name – to cease our constant thinking and meditation. Only by doing that can he fool us towards sin.

This yesod is very deep. Within mussar, there are many different approaches for one to work on himself. In one such approach, the emphasis is put on understanding the self and the individual components which comprise the self. With this understanding, the hope is that we can come to a heightened level of consciousness and control. One of the major parts of the self which then needs definition is the yetzer hara. And for that we have this pasuk. The yetzer hara is really nothingness. We just believe he’s our greatest enemy because we fail to ask his name. So, the next time the fight with the yetzer hara comes to the door, all we need to do is look at it and ask, “What’s your name? Who are you? What do you want?” to which he’ll be forced to concede that in reality, he’s really nothing.

Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Chaya Sara – The Middah Of Giving Your Whole Self

In this week’s parsha, Avraham sends out Eliezer to find a shidduch for his son Yitzchak. Beforehand, Avraham makes Eliezer swear that he’ll find a girl from the land where Avraham was born, and not from eretz Kna’an which was where they were residing at the time. Why? What was so terrible about the people of Kna’an?

The drashos Ha’Ran explains that the reason Avraham wanted to distance himself from the people of Kna’an was because the people of Kna’an had bad middos. Imbued in their nature was negative character traits which Avraham didn’t want to be incorporated into the gene pool of Klal Yisrael. As a result, Avraham made Eliezer swear to go back to his homeland to find a wife for Yitzchak.

However, it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. We know that Avraham fled his original homeland because the inhabitants there were worshipers of Avoda Zara. When he came to Kna’an, he became a massive mekareiv. All the people would flock to hear him, he was truly “Vayikra bsheim Hashem”! In contrast, the Medrash tells us that the people of Avraham’s birthplace sought to kill Avraham for his “heretical” teachings.

These were the type of people who Avraham wanted for his son as a shidduch? These people are better than those who believe in Hashem, yet have bad middos? It can be compared to a father who looks for a shidduch for his son and two prospects emerge. One is a really nice guy, yet he happens to be buddhist, and the other is a little rude but is yid and shomer mitzvos. Of course, a father would go with the latter! The former isn’t even a considerable option. So how could Avraham request such a thing from Eliezer? Even though the people of K’naan had bad middos, they should still have been better prospects than the people of Avraham’s birthplace, for they did seem to genuinely believe in Hashem?!

Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg answers this question based on a Rashi in Chagigah (a similair vort I heard a few years ago in the name of the Tiferes Yisrael in Parshas Toldos when Rivka says “Lamah zeh anochee”). Many people tend to think that emunah comes solely from a knowledge of Hashem. They believe that the greater a person’s mind, the greater level he can acquire in his belief. However, in Jewish consciousness, we believe there is a simpler level to our emunah which isn’t necessarily connected to the power of one’s intellect. In fact, Rav Elchonon Wasserman says (in the very first ma’imer found in the Kovetz Maimarim) that we see throughout history people who had tremendous minds yet were absolute kofrim of Hashem. The pshat, he says, is that the reason people tend not to believe is based on the individual’s negius. Because a person WANTS to believe in something which contradicts Hashem, he’ll end up denying Hashem’s existence; for his personal desires and Hashem ratzon can’t coexist.

Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg says that the exact opposite was the essence of Avraham Avinu. Rashi in Chagiga 3a says that Avraham’s greatest asset wasn’t that he was smarter than everyone else. Rather, Avraham gave over his entire heart to Hashem. All of his negius, all of his inclinations, he channeled towards Hashem. All of his desires were just to do the ratzon Hashem. He never let his negius get in the way of his relationship with Hashem. He gave over his heart and pointed his desires towards Hashem. As a result, he alone was able to see clearly through the fogginess of the world and successfully attain truth.

This is also the pshat why Avraham told Eliezer to take a bride for his son from the land which he had come as opposed to Kna’an. Avraham understood that in order for the Jewish people to have nitzchiyus, we need to be able to give over our hearts to Hashem. We need to at least have the ability and the potentiality to point our desires to Hashem’s will. The people of Kna’an weren’t like that. They lacked this ability. They were people who were wishy washy. We see this from the fact that only 70 people ended up leaving Kna’an with Yaakov Avinu. What happened to everyone Avraham was mekareiv? The answer is that although they understood Hashem’s existence and were periodically inspired, they never fully gave themselves over to Hashem. Avraham saw this bad middah in them, and therefore made Eliezer swear to take a wife from his homeland. There, though the people knew of the miracles surrounding Avraham, like the surviving of the fiery furnace, they were still able to believe their own opposing beliefs. The only way this would be possible is if they were fully able to give themselves over to a certain ideal. Although they pointed themselves in the wrong direction, they still possessed this ability, to ignore their natural preferences and create a new personal preference of total self-nullification before something else. Avraham needed this middah for his children; he needed a woman who was able to give over her entire self for Hahsem, because only with that middah can a nation last.

The Ran continues to explain that middos are hereditary. They’re passed on from generation to generation since our forefathers. As a result, we have this middah of Rivkah Imeinu. We have the ability to truly give over ourselves for something. The only question is what we choose to give over ourselves to. For people who aren’t Jewish, it may be sports, jobs, girlfriends, liberal ideas etc… But for Jews it has to be different. Hashem chose us to be different. He chose us to give over ourselves to Him and find meaning and purpose in His service. It’s our avodah. It’s up to us to remove our personal negius, and wholeheartedly make the choice to truly do what Hashem wants from us.

I remember once talking to a non-religious acquaintance I had met through a Kiruv organization. We spoke about the Haskalah and if there could exist any Judaic truth in the belief system of the Reform. After a long discussion, I remember telling him that I wasn’t against the idea of reforming, but it needs to be the right reform. Instead of taking people with little connection to Judaism and alienating them further from their heritage under the banner of Reform Judaism, why not focus a reform to bring the person closer to his roots? Why not a change in the opposite direction? Even though it may not be admitted, a strong basis for Reform is to grant an individual more “freedom” within the stricter structure of Orthodox belief and practice. In essence, the person can now choose what to give themselves over to. I told him that I’m not against reform, but instead of trying to reform something kadosh to fit our desires, why not try to reform our desires to fit something kadosh? Instead of changing a religion, why not first try on changing yourself. This is the avodah of a lifetime, but it’s something we have the power to do. It’s in our genes. We inherited it all the way back from Rivka. It just requires the desire to do it. It requires us to make a conscious choice, that instead of giving oneself over to finite and limited ambitions, I will strive for something greater. Each of us has to consciously say, “I will be an eved Hashem”.

Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Lecha Lecha – Internalizing G-d

The Ra’avad points out a contradiction in the Rambam (hilchos Melachim) which is connected to this week’s parsha. In one place the Rambam says that Avraham Avinu came to a recognition of Hashem at age three, while in another place, the implication is that he came to realize Hashem’s presence at age forty-eight. What could be the explanation to these Rambams?

Rav Wolbe in his sefer Alei Shiur is medayek the Rambam and comes to the following answer. At the age of three, Avraham had already started asking questions about the world which led him to realize that the world has a Creator. However, the knowledge he possessed at this time remained as a mere intellectual knowledge of Hashem. Rav Wolbe calls it a “yedia b’mocho,” that is, “a knowledge of the mind.” When he became forty-eight years old, this knowledge went through a maturation process and entered his heart.

A common theme when learning Sefer Bereishis is to realize that the foundation of our neshomos and who we truly are today are found in our Avos (Drashos Ha’Ran on Parshas Toldos). Therefore, when we learn about Avraham and the rest of the Avos, we’re really opening up a portal of understanding about ourselves. The question then becomes, what point is there to take out of this yesod of Rav Wolbe that we can relate to?

One thought came to mind when I saw this piece in the Alei Shur. The Ramban says on the pasuk of “v’kedoshim tiheyoo” that even after a person does all the mitzvos, he still has an obligation to become kadosh. Meaning, there could exist people in the world who fulfill all the mitzvos in the Torah yet are still considered a “neveilah” (carcass). Achronim say that the Ramban could mean people who live lives of Halacha yet whose hashkafa stands diametrically opposed to da’as Torah. I think the pshat could be a little different. The wording of the Ramban, is that someone who performed the mitzvos can still be considered a neveilah. What’s the connection to a neveilah? There are many people who believe that fulfilling the action of a mitzva suffices to fulfill our obligation, but it’s not true. People could do the mitzvos and still be considered dead. Why? Because the mitzvos are supposed to accentuate a change. They’re supposed to make a person feel differently than he did before. Doing the mitzvos out of rote and habit, without any feeling whatsoever is considered doing the mitzvos; however, the person doing them is still considered dead. We are required to infuse our mitzvos with feeling and without that, we’ve done the mitzvos, but we’re still so far from being kadosh (which is a tachlis of yidden, as the pasuk says –You should be a goy kadosh…).

I think this may be the point of the Alei Shur. Avraham achieved a level of recognition about Hashem as early as age three, but it wasn’t enough. It’s not enough to just know about Hashem. We have to feel it.

Additionally, we see from Avraham that it took him forty-five years to come to this type of knowledge. Forty-five years! It’s possible this is coming to teach us that feeling the Ribbono shel olam’s presence is not just something that happens overnight; rather, it’s an avodah. It’s not something that just comes about if you happen to know Hashem exists. Rather it’s an avodah to work on- to repeatedly realize and recognize shvisi Hashem L’negdi Tamid. Only by doing that can one really feel Hashem’s presence.

The truth is, that we inherited this gift from Avraham. It’s in our genes to be able to constantly live with Hashem. But living with Hashem like Avraham doesn’t just mean knowing He’s there. It means feeling He’s there. It means not just saying words of Tefilla as fast as we can, but to realize that we’re actually speaking to Someone. There’s Someone on the other end of the line! I once spoke to a Rebbe of mine about this. He said that this avodah takes a lifetime. To feel as if one is doing a mitzvah right in front of Hashem is no small feat. To not just understand that we’re talking to someone during tefillos, but to feel it? It’s a lifetime of work. But that’s what we’re here for. So, we have a lifetime to achieve it.

Yacov Nordlicht – Nitzavim And Teshuva

In this week’s parsha, we read about Klal Yisrael entering a bris with Hashem. In perek 29 pasuk 15-16, Moshe Rabbeinu says a reason as to why Klal Yisrael had to take an oath. The reason he gives is because, “You have seen the other nations’ abominations and idol-worship.”

Rav Yitzchak Isaac Sher asks a very simple question on this. Why did they needed to take an oath just because they saw idol worship? This was a nation which witnessed the miracles of the Midbar!? They saw yad Hashem almost every day! Why is this a valid reason to warrant the necessity for an oath not to stray off the path of Hashem?

Rav Sher explains that the answer lies in the following pasuk, “Perhaps there is among you a man or woman whose heart turns from being with Hashem.” That is, as the Ramban explains, that there could exist some small inkling of evil and bitterness inside the person. And that little inkling of bitterness could be the seed which could grow until it ultimately destroys the human being.

I think we see a very powerful point here which is very related to the upcoming yom tov of Rosh Hashana. The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (16b) says that four things warrant a negative judgement to be ripped up; tefilla, tzedakah, shinui sheim (the changing of one’s name) and shinui maisov (the changing of one’s actions). The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva writes that the way of teshuva is to cry out to Hashem, then to give tzedakah,  and then separate himself from the actual sin and finally to “change his name,” meaning that the person should say to himself, “I am a different person,” and to change his ways for the good. The problem is that the Rambam implies that all these are necessary stages towards a correct teshuva and to tear up a negative judgement. However, as the Lechem Mishna asks, each one is enough to tear up a negative judgement?! And furthermore, it’s made clear in many different places that a person doesn’t even need one of these things to tear up a bad judgement, rather it’s enough to feel bad, be mekabel for the future, and do a verbal confession!? So, what’s the explanation in the Rambam?

Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman answers that in reality, to achieve teshuva all one needs is to feel bad, accept upon himself to no longer sin and to do a verbal confession. However, even after a person does this, there could remain inside of him small inklings of evil which resulted from the sin. These little “roots” of evil was what the Rambam was pinpointing. It’s true, one doesn’t need to go through the Rambam’s whole process to attain teshuva; but he does need to go through that to change himself.

The point is penetrating. We see from this week’s parsha and from this Rambam that if a person wants to walk on the path of teshuva, it’s not enough to attack the sin itself, rather one needs to attack the root of the problem. Rosh Hashana always warrants introspection. But instead of looking at our actions and deciding what we need to change, the real focus should be within. “What do I need to change about myself” is the correct question. Hopefully, armed with our heightened sense of self and what “roots” need changing, we can successfully daven to Hashem and warrant a successful year.


Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Ki Tavo – The Mitzva Of Bikkurim

In this week’s parsha, we come across the mitzva of Bikkurim. Chazal comment in Breishis Rabbah on the pasuk of “Breishis Bara Elokim” that the world was created solely for the mitzva of Bikkurim. The question is, why? What ‘s so special about the mitzva of Bikkurim? And furthermore, nowadays we don’t have the Bikkurim of the Beis Hamikdash, so is this saying that we’re currently unable to fulfill the purpose of creation?

Furthermore, it says in Sifri that Klal Yisrael was zocheh to enter the Eretz Yisrael because of the mitzva of Bikkurim. Again, why was this mitzva so special, and what’s the specific connection between this mitzva and entering into Eretz Yisrael?

The to these questions lies in the foundation of the mitzva of Bikkurim. The mitzva wasn’t just to give fruit to the Ribbono Shel Olam, rather the mitzva was to give the first fruit. Why? Chazal tell us that a person would spend his whole year working on these fruit, putting so much time and effort into growing them and sustaining them. One morning he would walk past them and finally see the fruits of his labor. The desire to pluck off that fruit and take a bite would be so great. This fruit, it’s his baby! And yet its specifically this fruit which he’s commanded to bring as Bikkurim. We see that the yesod behind Bikkurim isn’t just giving something you own. Rather, it’s giving the thing you cherish most. When a person pours so much effort into something, it becomes a part of him. That desire to then reap the benefits of his labor is so strong and powerful. That desire is all funneled into that first fruit. And its specifically this fruit he brings for Hashem.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos says that a goal of a person is to nullify his desires in favor of Hashem’s. We’re here to do Hashem’s will, to become closer to Him through serving Him. That may sometimes mean that we have to do things which we don’t want. But nevertheless, just as a servant would do anything a king would request, so too we do everything Hashem commands us, even if it runs contrary to our desires. This concept is the yesod of the Bikkurim. The mitzva was a representation that even though one may have his own desires, in the end of the day we give up everything to serve Hashem.

Bikkurim aren’t physically around today. We can’t go and give offer up our first fruits at the Beis Hamikdash. However, the underlying principle of nullifying our desire to serve Hashem will always exist. The ability to put all our efforts into something, to desire it so much yet to give it away for Hashem, that does still exist.

That’s the yesod behind Bikkurim and that’s the explanation of Chazal. This world wasn’t just created for the actual giving of the Bikkurim at the Beis Hamikdash; rather it was created for us to funnel all of our desires into serving our Creator. This is also the pshat in the Sifri. Klal Yisrael only entered Eretz Yisrael because of this mitzva, for at that time they were about to experience the “eretz zavas chalav u’dvash” and acquire many things of Gashmius and Olam Hazeh. For this Hashem needed to give the mitzvah of Bikkurim, so we would recognize and realize that even amidst the pleasures of this world, we can never lose sight of what’s really important. As a result, we were given the mitzva to channel our desire into a gift for Hashem.

Rosh Hashana is nearly here. Chazal say that when Klal Yisrael would bring Bikkurim, they would bow in front of Hashem and in that moment there was no separation between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. When one would give himself to Hashem in such a way, he would connect to Hashem on the highest plateau imaginable. Elul and the climax of Rosh Hashana is all about connecting. We want to show Hashem that we deserve another year of life, health and wealth (in every category). But why do we deserve such a thing? Who says we should have these things?

We answer these questions with our actions. By showing Hashem that everything we have is for Him. From our most cherished possessions to what we barely care about, everything we use for a connection. If we really care, and we really work on showing Hashem that we try as hard as we can to grow closer to Him, we can hopefully merit a good judgement and have a successful year.


Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Ki Teitzei – The Ben Sorer u’Moreh

This week’s parsha deals with the laws of the ben sorer u’Moreh which is loosely translated as a wayward and rebellious son. In such a case where the son exhibits certain traits required to be a ben soreh u’moreh, the Torah says that he’s given the death penalty. However, none of his actions warrant such a penalty. Rather, the reason he’s put to death isn’t because of what he has done, but because of what he will do in the future.

This is seemingly very difficult to understand. We learn in Sefer Breishis by the Parsha of Yishmael that a person is only judged by his present actions. How is it then justifiable to kill a young teen based on what we perceive he’ll do?

The Ibn Ezra gives an explanation to the ben sorer u’moreh which seemingly answers the question. He says that a ben sorer u’moreh’s biggest problem isn’t the sins he’s committed in the past, rather there’s a much deeper and fundamental issue. All the requirements the Torah gives are just ways to reveal to us the ben sorer u’moreh’s outlook on life. He doesn’t care at all about good deeds, or service to HaShem; his sole drive and motivation for his actions comes from a belief that the focal point of life is to derive as much enjoyment as possible from Olam Hazeh. A person like this will do whatever he can to give himself just as few more drops of enjoyment. It could be the desire to be licentious, or to experience the thrill of murder. This person doesn’t differentiate between right and wrong, nothing matters besides for his personal pleasure. Such a person, the Torah says to be killed now, because a person with such an outlook has no hope in the future.

I think there’s a very big mussar to be learnt out of this issue. Oft times, the worst things about a person aren’t the actual sins he commits, but the deep seeded roots where those actions came from.

We’re now in the month of Elul, a time for some much needed reflection about the past year.  I don’t know with a certainty about everyone else, but every year at around this time I try to make a few resolutions to change for the better. And although I almost unilaterally start off strong, over time the “yamim noraim” inspiration fades and the resolutions become more infrequent, until the point where I reflect a year later, wondering “what happened?” What’s pshat? Why is it so hard to keep a simple resolution to be better?

I think the answer is what we learn from the ben sorer u’moreh. When someone does something which isn’t entirely appropriate, its normally not an isolated incident. Normally, there’s a deep seeded root inside the person which caused him to act that way. And without ever changing the root, no matter how many resolutions one makes, they’ll never stick.

In order to be able to build on something, it requires a strong foundation. If a person tries to build a house on foundations of playdoh, the house probably won’t last very long. In order to build a building, the foundation needs to be even stronger. The same is true with all of us. In order to really grow and build ourselves, the deep seeded foundation of our Emunah in HaShem needs to be strong. It’s the most important thing to strengthen. When a person sins, it isn’t merely because he felt a desire which he succumbed to, rather because at that precise moment, he forgot HaShem was watching. He forgot he was standing in front of his Father, his King.

We learn from the ben sorer u’moreh how bad it can be when someone’s roots are polluted. The real lesson to us, which is increasingly relevant as we approach Rosh Hashana, is to look deep down and asses what our essence is. What do we attribute importance to? What’s our outlook on life? Only when we’re able to say with confidence that we truly want to get closer to HaShem can we begin to change. Only when we know which way our heart really points can we be confident we’re heading in the right direction.




Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Shoftim And Elul – Guard Yourself And Search Your Heart

In this week’s parsha, the opening pasuk says, “Shoftim v’shotrim titain lecha…”, “And you shall make for yourself judges and officers…”. Rabbeinu Bachye explains that the Shofet and the Shoteir explained in the pasuk are incumbent on each other. Just as it wouldn’t be sufficient to have a judge without whom to enforce the rules, so too it wouldn’t work to just have a police force without any lawmakers.

The Sh’la Hakadosh says that the pasuk ends with a lashon yachid, in singular tense. He explains, that this mitzvah to institute officers and judges isn’t just a mitzvah which was given to Yisrael as a klal, but also a lesson to each individual as a prat. Meaning, the pasuk isn’t just referring to an obligation given specifically for the community, rather it’s also teaching a real necessity for each individual.

The Shla explains that the pasuk is coming to teach us a very important correlation. Just as the community needs to appoint judges and enforcers for themselves in order to function properly, so too each individual needs to become a judge and an enforcer on himself in order to function properly. Being a judge refers to using the sechel; the ability to think about an action and determine whether or not it’s in accordance with the will of HaShem. However, like Rabbeinu Bachye explained, it’s not enough to just have judges. A person can’t just be the sechel. He needs to also be a shoteir, to enforce the right path on himself.

The Shulchan Aruch in siman 231 defines what it means to be an eved HaShem. He explains the obligation as being literally, an avdus to HaShem. Just as a servant who stands before a king is in a constant state of introspection, so too every individual in this world must be in a constant state of thought, to determine if he’s acting the way HaShem wants. We all stand before the king constantly, as the pack says “Shvisi HaShem l’negdi tamid”, and therefore our thoughts should be like a slave before a king whose constant thought process is focused on his actions. That’s what it means to be an eved; to think about your actions and enforce a change if it’s necessary.

This is the mitzvah of “Shoftim v’shotrim”, says the Sh’la Hakadosh. There are many times in life when we realize that we aren’t acting in an acceptable manner. However, the realization by itself is never enough. With just the realization, we become like the servant who realizes he isn’t performing the will of the king, yet refuses to change. That’s not called a real eved. To become a real eved HaShem, one needs to become a shoteir as well, and enforce the necessary change for the better.

There’s a pasuk we now say every day in “L’dovid” which I feel really encapsulates the message of Elul. The pasuk says “Lecha omar libi bakshu ponai es panecha HaShem avakeish”, “to you my heart has said seek My presence, Your presence, HaShem I seek.” On the surface, this pasuk seems cryptic. Who is Dovid Hamelech talking to when saying “to you my heart has said”? It seems as if he’s talking to HaShem, but then the continuation of the pasuk doesn’t seem to make any sense at all!?

Possibly anticipating this issue, Rashi explains the word “Lecha” as “On Your behalf”. In other words, Dovid Hamelech is telling us that on the behalf of HaShem, the heart says, “seek My presence”. We can glean from here a groundbreaking yesod in Avodas HaShem and the month of Elul. Deep down inside, each one of us has a heart which is on a mission from HaShem to enlighten us to change. To give us that desire, to seek out truth and meaning in life. It isn’t something which is external to us which needs to be acquired. It’s an inherent part of us deep down inside.

Being a shofeit on oneself does mean using the sechel. It does mean thinking about whether or not our actions align with the Ratzon HaShem. That seems like a daunting task. To assess all of our actions every day? How could a person have time for such a thing? We see from the pasuk in “L’Dovid” that sometimes using the sechel doesn’t mean actively assessing each and every action. Sometimes it just means listening to the heart, to the message our neshama is telling us. It’s a reality, deep down inside. Using the sechel sometimes means peeling away the layers of filth which separate us from the true connection with the “heart’s” message. For the heart is always deep down aligned with Ratzon HaShem. Deep down we always know and feel what’s right. Being a shofet on ourselves just means knowing how to listen.

This is the message of Elul. In Elul we try to enlighten ourselves to Teshuva and to return to HaShem. It’s a time of deep introspection. The pasuk is telling us where our introspection should lead. It should lead to us listening to ourselves. The heart says seek out HaShem. It tells us to do Ratzon HaShem. It’s just up to us to take the time to really listen


Yacov Nordlicht – Why Does Tisha B’Av Have The Potential To Be A Holiday

This coming Sunday will be Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Jews around the world will sit on the floor in mourning, crying over the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed many years ago on this day.

We find something somewhat alarming in the texts describing the essence of Tisha b’Av. On the one hand, we have an obligation to mourn. As our Sages have explained, the mourning isn’t merely over the physical building of the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed, rather we mourn the disconnect which resulted between us and HaShem. We cry because we realize how far away we are from HaShem and how far we’ve strayed from His presence. On the other hand, the Medrash tells us that Tisha b’Av is called a “mo’ed”, a holiday. Yet in Jewish consciousness, holidays were given to represent a connection to HaShem! Their sole purpose is to celebrate the closeness of our eternal relationship with our Creator! This is seemingly a contradiction. How can Tisha b’Av be a day whose essence is the expression of the great distance we feel between us and HaShem while also being a day where we celebrate our closeness with Him?

The previous Slonimer Rebbe of Yerushalayim answered this question with a parable. A father has two children. One child grew up, went to medical school and became a successful doctor. He was able to pay back all of his student debts and was able to build himself a nice house with his newfound income. Being the loyal son that he was, every Friday, before Shabbos, he would call his father to see how the week had went and to wish him a gut Shabbos. The other son wasn’t as fortunate. After getting into some trouble in high school, he found himself in one difficult situation after the other. He grew up, scrimping and saving to pay off his debts, but it never seemed to be enough. He would also call his father every week before Shabbos, but his conversation would look vastly different then his brother’s. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, Dad, how are you?… How was your week?… Have a gut Shabbos..”, this brother would call his dad and say “Dad, I’m sorry to ask you again. But I need help. I can’t do it by myself. I feel like I’m drowning… please, dad, please help….”

Who do you think the father feels more love towards? Sure, he’s probably much prouder of the first son. But to which son does he think and worry about?  Which son occupies his thoughts, and gives him a longing to just be with that son, and make everything all right?  To which does he feel closer? To me, it seems obvious that the answer is the second son.

Our relationship with HaShem is oft-times likened to the relationship between a father and a son. On Tisha b’Av, we sit and we cry because we’re so far from HaShem. But that itself brings us closer to Him. At the times where we feel like we just can’t do it anymore, like we can’t function by ourselves without Him – those are the times where HaShem feels closest to us. Just like a father, when the son calls out for help, the father is always there.

That’s the reason why the day is considered both a day of mourning, but also a holiday. Because within our mourning and sadness we come closer to HaShem.

I think the lesson here goes even a step further. When are the times that HaShem is close to us? When we mourn and cry because we’re so far away from Him. The lesson here isn’t just in a theoretical sense. It’s practical as well. How many of us fail to mourn? How many of us come to a day like Tisha b’Av without being able to cry? HaShem wants to be close to us. But how can it be if we’re not even the son who calls up the father to say, “Dad, I need help”. How can it be if we’re the son who neglects to call his father at all? The lesson here isn’t just that HaShem is closest to us in our times of despair, it’s that we need to look to Him within that sadness and use it to draw closer to Him. It means being the son who calls his father and says “please, dad, please help me…”

The first step is to know the father. That’s really what it’s all about. To not be the estranged son who neglects his father’s. Only after that can we use the tools at our disposal to draw closer and closer to Him.


Yacov Nordlicht – Parsha Matot-Massei – Travel And Growth

This week’s parsha recounts all the travels of Bnei Yisrael from when they left Mitzrayim until the final climactic entrance into Eretz Yisrael. Each period is recounted, from the seemingly superfluous to the obviously necessary.

The Apter Rav asks a question in this week’s parsha. We know that the Torah is eternal. It wasn’t just written for the generation which physically received it at Har Sinai, rather it was written for the Jews of every generation. If that’s true, then why does the Torah feel the need to recount to us the number of travels of Bnei Yisrael in the mibar? It seems like this part of the Torah only really has a connection to those who experienced it, namely those who left Mitzrayim! What practical difference does it make to our lives?

I always thought that there was an important lesson to be learnt from this episode in the Torah. The Torah tells us 42 different times Bnei Yisrael uprooted themselves form a certain place and traveled to somewhere else. 42 times they traveled further and further away from Mitzrayim until they finally reached their destination, Eretz Yisrael. They couldn’t just leave Mitzrayim and enter Eretz Yisrael. It took time and patience, traveling to each place necessary to enter Eretz Yisrael in the right way.

In life, people fall. The reality of the world is that we’re not perfect. Everyone has their own demons. After nearly all of our sins, we experience a yeridah. The cognoscenti are attuned to it, some can even feel it. Others who are so ingrained and used to the sin may not feel anything at all, yet the change itself is there. The question is how to proceed. How to go on. Of course, the first step is to always pick oneself back up, even though it’s easier said than done. But where do we go from there? How do we grow to ensure that such a thing won’t happen again?

That’s what the pasha is coming to teach us. Klal Yisrael didn’t just leave Mitrzayim and directly enter into Eretz Yisrael. They had to travel, again and again and again. Entering Eretz Yisrael didn’t happen overnight. Over a span of 40 years Klal Yisrael constantly set up camp and then, a little while later, resumed traveling. After 40 years they were finally able to enter into Eretz Yisrael.

All of us have periods of “Mitrzayim” in our lives. When we feel like we’re on such a low level of tumah that we’ve become blind to HaShem’s presence. The psukim are telling how to deal with it. We can’t expect ourselves to just pick up, leave Mitrzyaim and enter into Eretz Yisrael overnight. It takes time. It takes patience. It means conquering one level at a time. And after that level is conquered, to pick up and move onto the next level.  This is why these psukim aren’t just relevant to the generation of the midbar, rather they’re relevant to each and every one of us. Everyone has times when they’re immersed in a period Mitzrayim. The psukim are telling us how to leave Mitzrayim and how to enter into a place of kedusha like Eretz Yisrael.

To enter into a makom of kedusha in our lives takes time and work. It can only happen if a person takes it one step at a time. The psukim aren’t just telling us how to enter into Eretz Hakodesh, they’re telling us how to achieve a life of kedusha. Each one of us has the ability inside to become great, to connect with HaShem in a way few could dream imaginable. But it doesn’t just happen. A person needs to constantly be traveling, to grow from level to level until he reaches a place of dedication where the sole purpose is avodas HaShem. With this thought in mind, we can pick ourselves up, and navigate the pitfalls and trials of life in order to fulfill our purpose of closeness with our Creator.