Shoftim: Guides on the Way, by Dr. Paul Oberman

This week's parsha, Shoftim, concludes with a discussion about a corpse being discovered without further information available. The elders of the nearest city are obligated to say "Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see." [21:7] Realistically, are the elders of this city suspects? Certainly not. Rashi suggests instead that the elders are explaining that they were not aware of this person, for surely if they had been they would have made sure he was given a meal and an escort. Maharal goes so far as to suggest that the murder might not have happened if there had been an escort for even a small portion of the way, because Hashem responds to this showing of love by providing His own protecting love for the remainder of the journey.  


With the start of school a scant 10 days ago, I've been particularly impressed with the senior class at Atlanta Jewish Academy and how they have gone out of their way to make all of the new students feel welcome. Student Council coordinated activities during orientation, peer leaders have started to plan a year's worth of activities to ensure that the new students are prepared for the year ahead, and senior "big sisters" have surprised their "little sisters" with treats and surprises in their lockers. With a new set of difficult classes and challenges, plus the distracting privilege of the senior lounge, the seniors could easily have chosen to spend time with each other and focus only on themselves. Yet they have chosen to spend the time and energy to bond with the new students, to get to know them, to teach them, and to make sure they feel the same caring that a person feels when being escorted from the home of a host. With this extra effort comes the feeling of safety that Hashem is watching over all of us even more closely than usual.

 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Dr. Paul Oberman, Associate Head of School, 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Re'eh: Beyond the Letter of the Law


In Chapter 12:8, our parsha states: "Lo taasun ish kol hayashar be'eynav, one should not act only in accordance with what seems right in one's own eyes."  An individual's personal judgment is not the scale the Torah permits for deciding what is correct, just as, "might does not automatically make right." 


Further in the parsha, the Torah restates this thought in the positive, "ki ta'aseh hayeshar vehatov be'eynai Hashem, do what is right and good in the eyes of Hashem," asking that the scale we use to determine what is straight, right, and good be calibrated by Hashem's judgment, rather than our own. 


From the context, it is clear that the Torah does not refer here to following "the letter of the law."  Just as in Parshat Vaetchanan, the Torah here is directing us to act above and beyond the letter of the law in our daily interactions.  But how do we know what is straight, right, and good in the eyes of Hashem? 


A society built solely on the letter of the law will not thrive.  The rabbis in the Midrash taught that the Temple and Jerusalem were lost because the courts and society rigidly adhered to the letter of the law, refusing to step beyond. 


A beautiful illustration of this application is found in the Talmud (B.T. Bava Metzia 83b), which records an incident in which two porters transported wine barrels for Rabbah bar Bar Hanan, a wealthy scholar and sage in his own right.  Through an act of negligence on their part, they broke the barrels; Rabbah took their cloaks in payment for their negligence, which is what the law allows.  They complained to Rav, the legal decisor in that area, and he instructed Rabbah to return their cloaks.  "Is this the law?" asked an astonished Rabbah.  "Yes", replied Rav, "based on the verse 'in order that you walk in the way of the good people''' (Proverbs 2). 


The porters once again went to complain to Rav:  "But we are hungry, since we worked all day and received no payment"; whereupon Rav further instructed Rabbah to provide them with a salary as well.  Once again, Rabbah asked:  "Is this, too, the law?" to which Rav replied, "Yes, in accordance with the verse 'and the paths of the righteous shall you observe''' (Proverbs 2).  Clearly, Rav was telling Rabbah that for him--Rabbah bar Bar Hanan, the wealthy scholar, as compared with two poverty-stricken porters--the law would expect that he would act beyond the legal requirement and provide the porters with payment for their day's labor, despite the losses they had incurred for Rabbah as a result of their negligence. 



Rabbah acted in accordance with the law. The workman broke his barrels because of their negligence. The workers claimed their salaries, yet Rabbah rightly refused payment for services not rendered. In his eyes, he owed them nothing. But the great sage and legal expert Rav had Rabbah restore the payment to the workmen, and also pay them their wage so they could feed their families.  


This Talmudic story is more than just a tale. It is part and parcel of the legal tradition and code of Jewish law. It illustrates for us with absolute clarity the intent of what is expected of us in acting yasher and tov in the eyes of Hashem. At AJA, we understand that living a caring and loving life--one that does not hold only our own needs front and center, but also has the best interests of our fellow man at its core--is a learned behavior. Even the great Rabbah had to be reminded of this by the wise sage, Rav. Teaching and living Torah, for us, is learning to be straight and right in the eyes of Hashem in all that we do.


 


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Pinchos Hecht

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Aikev: Lefum Tza'arah Agrah, the Reward is Commensurate to the Effort

This d'var Torah is sponsored by Leslie and Chuck Lowenstein in honor of Betty and Malcolm Minsk, for their wonderful hospitality and devotion to Jewish education.

 


Parshat Aikev retells the story of Moshe's breaking of the first set of luchot, tablets, and Hashem's command to Moshe to carve a second set of tablets to bring with him upon his return to Mt. Sinai.   


This begs the question: What is the difference between the first set of tablets and the second set? If Moshe was correct to break the first set--and, according to the Midrash, Hashem thanks him for breaking them--why does Hashem command Moshe to carve a second set?   


We hope to compare and contrast the two sets of tablets with the two batei mikdash, Holy Temples--both destroyed, may they quickly be rebuilt in our day--that we just finished mourning during the recent three week period. 


Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of what was then called Palestine, taught that the Jewish people possess two distinct kinds of kedusha, holiness. The first he called segula, defined as the innate holiness that resides in each and every Jew, flowing through us as it accumulates and brings holiness from us to all people and to the land of Israel.   


The second type of holiness Rav Kook spoke of is "acquired holiness". It reflects the earned kedusha that we accumulate through keeping the mitzvot, doing good deeds, prayer, and the study of our holy Torah.   


By his nature, man tends to value what is earned by effort more than what is given and requires no effort. The Talmud teaches that "adam rotzeh bekav sheloh yoter mitisha kabin shel chaveiroh". At the end of the growing season, the farmer prefers one measure of his own homegrown produce over nine measures that were grown by his friend. Acquired holiness is therefore more valuable than segula, innate holiness.  


The kedusha of the first Temple, like the holiness of the first set of tablets, was innate, or segula. It was a gift from the Almighty to his beloved children, and it was far more precious than any holiness man could achieve on his own.


But regretfully, we point to the adage, "easy come, easy go". Unearned, the first tablets and the first Temple were not sufficiently appreciated and did not last, despite their unique greatness. We failed to grasp the gift with which we had been blessed.   


The second set of tablets was the work of Moshe, sanctioned and made holy by Hashem. Likewise, the Judaism that emerged during and after the second Temple, what we refer to as "Rabbinic Judaism," is the work and development of the sages and the people, sanctioned and made holy by Hashem. 


It is the creation, creativity, imagination, and works of man that follow from the dictates of our holy Torah--using the G-d-given creativity and talent instilled in us by our creator--that take on an eternal quality, and stand the test of time. Our Rabbis teach us, "kol mah shetalmid atid lehitchadesh nitan beSinai, every word of Torah and every new insight in Torah study was already included and given at Sinai."  


The message to us is clear. Holiness that lasts takes effort and sacrifice. The lasting impact of our Yiddishkeit is directly commensurate with the effort and investment we make. Holy families and holy children are the product of our intentional and engaged lifestyle.   


May we all merit that our efforts on behalf of our people, Torah, and land are sanctioned by the Almighty with the eternal qualities that we seek for ourselves, our families, and our community.



 


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht

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Vaetchanan: Memories of Two Teachers








Atlanta Jewish Academy's D'var Torah is sponsored by Robert and Martha David in honor of the bar mitzvah of their son, Samuel. 


 

Vaetchanan: Memories of Two Teachers


This week's Torah portion, Vaetchanan, begins with Moshe sharing with his beloved people his pleas and prayers asking Hashem for permission to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe's love for the people of Israel, Torah of Israel, and the Promised Land stands as a challenge for all time, serving as the model of what we should feel for our people, our Torah, and our land. His love for the land was directly related to the commandments that could only be fulfilled in Israel, mitzvoth ha'tluyot ba'Aretz


My 5th grade Rebbe, Rabbi Barnetsky, Zecher Tzadik Lebracha, may his memory be a blessing for all of us, shared and modeled for us children this tri-part love of Moshe. 


I recall the week Rabbi Barnetsky taught us the Parsha of Vaetchanan, and the beautiful Midrashim he shared, depicting the depth of the prayers Moshe offered up to Hashem. 


Each day, Rabbi Barnetsky built up the story. He would fall to the floor, demonstrating how Moshe begged and pleaded with Hashem. We felt that we had personally experienced Moshe's love for the land, and the many mitzvoth he so longed to fulfill personally. I was mesmerized by my Rebbe acting out the Parsha and could not wait for Friday, when Rebbe was going to share Hashem's final answer to Moshe, yea or nay. 


As a child, I was so sure that Moshe would persuade Hashem to allow him into the land, if only as a private citizen. How could it be otherwise? 


Friday finally came, and Rebbe, with his head held low, tears streaming from his eyes, shared the information that Moshe had been turned down and commanded not to ask again. To my own shock, I began to cry out loud and shake uncontrollably. I was so deeply connected with Rebbe's characterization of Moshe and his love for Eretz Yisrael that I lost all control, feeling what I thought was the deep pain and anguish Moshe must have felt. Finally, Rebbe had to carry me out of the classroom, hug me and console me.


To this day, tears well up in my eyes when Parshat Vaetchanan is read. I recall my love for Moshe our teacher, and for my Rebbe, and the love for our people and our land they instilled in a young child. These memories are the greatest treasures I possess. 


At AJA, our mission is to transmit and impart this love for People, Torah, and Land deep into the hearts of all of our children. I know for certain that Hashem will answer 'yes' to our prayers. Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael are inseparable; the glue is Hashem, who chose us and blessed us with the opportunity to serve Him.



Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht


 


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Devarim: Leading Our Children to a Meaningful Life

Atlanta Jewish Academy's D'var Torah is sponsored by Jill and Yossi Ovadia, with gratitude to Hashem who watches over our people in the land that He promised us. We encourage everyone to continue praying for those defending our country, especially our Yeshiva Atlanta alumni currently serving in the IDF. 


This week we begin reading from the fifth book of the Torah, titled Devorim. Sefer Devorim consists of a number of speeches and exhortations given by Moshe to the children of Israel. Scholars refer to the book as the last will and testament of the founder of the Jewish people.


Moshe revisits many of the high and low points of his time with the Children of Israel. He shares his hopes and fears for the future, and puts in place a succession plan in which his student Joshua will successfully replace him.


This succession, directed by the Almighty, is one of Moshe's most important acts. Overlooked by many of the major commentators, it is this changing of the guard, so carefully crafted and implemented by Moshe before his passing, that serves as one of the underlying themes of the last of the Books of the Torah.


Despite being his prized student, Joshua was a very different leader than Moshe.  His authority emanated from Hashem, but he governed more as an elected leader, with the obligation to share power with the High Priest Elazar  and the elders.


Moshe understood what many long-serving leaders fail to grasp.  Each period in the history of a people requires its own unique leadership.  While the common denominator is always the absolute adherence to the word of the Almighty, nations and people evolve and so must leadership.


Joshua leads successfully for 28 years. His greatness and leadership was a reflection of his teacher, Moshe, coupled with his own unique personality and character. The Midrash depicts this contrast by comparing Moshe to the sun and Joshua to the moon. The light of the moon is but a reflection of the sun, yet moonlight has its own qualities.


There are always those who argue that we would have been better off if Moshe had led us into the land and settled it for us. The book of Devarim is best understood as a primer for leaders to prepare for the future and put in place the necessary ingredients to ensure proper succession. Leaders and their followers must accept that change is part of the fabric of every period and people.


Following Moshe's model, Jews throughout the ages wrote a last will and testament called a tzavaha. In it the head of the family would communicate to his children, with honesty and deep love, the areas his children needed to improve on, often the kind of feedback a father could not share during his lifetime for fear of alienating his children. 


 


This document was so revered that many families framed it and hung it in their living spaces as a reminder to them of their parents' expectations and deep love.


So, too, the Book of Devarim is the tzavaha of our beloved eternal teacher and parent Moshe left to us for all time. The love Moshe had for his children is tempered by his prophecy of the suffering we as a people would experience due to our historic failures. But in the end, his message is full of love, hope, and promise for us and our children for all time. It needs to be framed and hung in our homes and in our hearts.



Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht

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Parshat Masai: Revenge, Not a Jewish Value

Revenge: Not a Jewish Value


Parshat Masai shares additional detail regarding the laws of the Cities of Refuge, arei miklat.


In Jewish law, the category of horeg beshogeg, or negligence without intent to murder, allows for a member of the family or tribe of the victim to avenge the death.


The Torah provides Cities of Refuge in which the murderer, once convicted of negligent homicide without intent, may live protected from the appointed avenger.  As long as the murderer stays in his City of Refuge, he is safe.


With the death of the Kohen Gadol, High Priest, the murderer may return to his home and tribe, and the avenger may not harm him.


The question posed by many is, how does the passing of the High Priest suddenly cool the tribal and family drive for avenging their murdered relative?  What is to stop the avenger from ambushing the murderer on his way home?


In Judaism, revenge is seen as a negative attribute.  The Torah clearly states, "You must not take revenge!"  Revenge, in the Torah, belongs to Hashem.  In Psalms we read Kel Nekamot Hashem, G-d is the avenging G-d.  It is one of the few times an attribute has G-d's name both before it and after it.


The message here is often misunderstood to imply that the Jewish G-d is full of vengeance and revenge. The exact opposite is true. Judaism is all about forgiveness and repentance.


If, when, and how to take revenge is left to G-d.  The Torah fully understands the human impulse to right perceived wrongs.  To that end, the Torah provides the cooling-down period and establishes a safe place for the murderer to spend his days until the death of the High Priest brings forgiveness and resets the clock. The passing of the High Priest creates a sort of national amnesty, allowing all perceived wrongs between tribes that would otherwise fester and lead to internal strife to be forgiven and erased.


Today, yet again, the Jewish people in the State of Israel are at war with our enemies.  The Israel Defense Forces, from their inception, understood their role: not as avengers assigned to take revenge, but rather as defenders.  Revenge is G-d's business.


If only our enemies shared our culture of forgiveness rather than a culture of revenge.


  


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Pinchos Hecht


 

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Parshat Matot: Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Head of School

This week's D'var Torah is sponsored by Rabbi & Mrs. Pinchos Hecht in honor of Nancy Weissmann and Arthur Kurtz.


This week's parsha, Matot, tells of the request to Moshe by two and a half tribes to separate themselves from the corpus of Israel, to be allowed to settle and live on the other side of the Jordan River, due to the quality of pasture there.


The tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe understandably focused on the great flocks of sheep they now owned; they feared that the land of Israel would not supply enough green pasture for their animals, and here they saw what seemed to be endless grasses, though not in Israel proper.


Moshe at first is disturbed by their request, and responds angrily.  After further discussion and a commitment from the two and one half tribes to lead the battle for the land and commit to remaining part of the body of Israel, Moshe relents.


This small story is a predictor of our very history. Throughout time, groups of Jews preferred living outside of Israel proper for economic reasons.  As long as they remained fully committed to their people and land, their decision was legitimate--as long as they had their priorities right.


The two and one half tribes, in their presentation to Moshe, first asked for permission to build corrals and barns for their animals, and then homes and schools for their children.  Moshe admonishes them for this.  Yes, preserving and protecting your wealth is important, but it must always be secondary to the quality of life, safety, and education of your children.  So the two and one half tribes repeated their request, this time putting their children's needs first.


  Outside of Israel, there are far too many parents who put their desire for wealth accumulation before the need to fully educate and connect their children to our people, and to our beloved State and Land of Israel.  With over 70% intermarriage reported (not including the Orthodox community), we see and suffer this confusion of priorities every day.


Atlanta Jewish Academy parents understand the importance of children first, and make the great sacrifice to build for their children first and foremost. I salute you, and commit to doing everything I can to support your sacrifice and decision.


 


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Pinchos Hecht


 

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