Nitzavim-Vayelech: From the Heart

There are three kinds of mitzvot that one can do, as it says in the parsha, "Keeping the Torah is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it" (Devarim 30:14). Rabbeinu Bachya says that these three types are mitzvot that we do with our mouths, mitzvot that we do with our hearts, and mitzvot that we do with actions. 

 

Rabbeinu Bachya comments that the mitzvot that we do with our hearts are the most important and significant. Things in your heart have the greatest effect on you, because they're inside of you. The mitzvot that you do physically are outside of the body, and they leave you, but mitzvot that you do with your heart stay with you. With this idea, we can understand the statement of Chazal that says that thinking about an avairah--a sin--is worse than actually doing the avairah (B. Yoma 29A). The Rambam says that the reason for this is because the power of thought is a "great elevation of a human, with the power of intellect and from the intellectual prophecies; and when a person sins with his thoughts, he is sinning with the choices of his Middot [character traits]" (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 2). 


When you are using something more personal, it is more serious than doing something with your hands. Your intellect and free choice is the most human and precious thing that you own. This is why later in the parsha, it describes the process of Hashem bringing everyone back to do teshuva, repentance, as  "circumcising our hearts" (30:6), because the heart is the most basic part of serving God.  Hence, it is with the service of the heart that one truly becomes a servant of Hashem, and, consequently, that's the first and main step of doing teshuva.  I find this message so appropriate for the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as it is the prime time to be thinking about teshuva. 


Shabbat Shalom, 

 

Aharon Davidson, Grade 11 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Ki Tavo: Chosen?

 



In this week's parsha, Ki Tavo--as in many parshiot--several laws are mentioned that deal with what Bnei Yisrael must do when they enter Eretz Yisrael. Among these are the laws of bringing the first ripened fruits to show gratitude to Hashem, and giving 1/10 to the Levi'im or the poor (also known as a tithe). But the verse that I would like to focus on is Moshe's re-emphasis of the idea that B'nei Yisrael are Hashem's "chosen people." The passuk in the Torah says the following: 

 

18. And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as he spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments.

 

19. And to make you supreme, above all the nations that He made, [so that you will have] praise, a [distinguished] name and glory; and so that you will be a holy people to the Lord, your God, as He spoke.

 

We, B'nei Yisrael, are Hashem's chosen people. But what does it even mean to be known as Hashem's chosen people? Doesn't that imply that we think we're better than everyone else, the root of bigotry? Here in America, where equality is a key concept to the foundation of our country, people are very uncomfortable with the idea of a "chosen nation." 

 

The main problem, however, is that we aren't proud to be the chosen nation because we are just as uncomfortable with the idea as non-Jewish people are. Whenever a non-Jew asks us what it means to be the chosen people, we shy away from the question, saying that everyone is equal, and we aren't really chosen or better than anyone else. While this is nice in the sense that we don't want to seem like we are better than anyone else, we also are completely avoiding the question that still looms unanswered. Why are we the chosen people, and what does that mean? 

 

Being the chosen people is a responsibility. When God chose us in the famous midrash, he offered the Torah to other nations; however, this does not mean that the other nations could have been Jews. What this midrash demonstrates is that no one could have accepted the Torah but the Jews, because the Torah is an inherent part of Judaism. The holidays--for example, Pesach--would not have been pertinent to other nations, because they were never enslaved in Egypt! So, the Jewish people really had an extra responsibility--to prove they wanted their history to belong to them. 

 

Any person with a special talent will demonstrate it for the world to see, and the world won't hate him or her for it. For example, according to Rabbi Manis Friedman, nobody felt that it was unfair that Einstein was so smart or Beethoven so talented. Rabbi Friedman emphasizes the idea that when you have a talent, or are chosen, you should be proud of it, not act mysteriously and try to hide it. The reason that we were chosen is that Hashem needed an embodiment in this world, a group of people who could bring His spirituality into the mundanity of the everyday world. Hashem chose the Jewish people not because he wanted us to feel arrogant, but because he wanted to encourage our humility. 

 

By being closer to Hashem, one realizes just how powerful Hashem is--thus making us smaller in comparison. It is our sense of relative insignificance that is inflated, not our egos. After leaving Egypt, our pride had already been humbled; we had served as subordinates for many years. We were therefore somewhat prepared for the task before us, even though being a spiritual leader in this world takes a lot of strength. But with this strength, we can live up to the title Hashem gave us.


 

Shabbat Shalom,

Talya Gordon, Grade 12, Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Ki Tavo: A Knowing Heart

 


In this week's parsha, Ki Tavo, right before he dies, Moshe calls the B'nei Yisrael to him and says, Vayikra Moshe el kol Yisrael vayomer aleihem: Atem rei'item et kol asher asa Hashem l'eineichem beretz mitzrayim, l'pharoah ul'chol ahvodov ul'chol artzo, "And Moses called all of Israel, and said to them, "You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land" (29:1). 

 

Moshe's intention here is to help the B'nei Yisrael recognize all of the good that Hashem has done for them in the past years: The powerful plagues that He brought over Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and all of the other wondrous occurrences that Hashem had shown his people over the 40 years in the desert. But a moment later in 29:3, Moshe says, V'lo natan Hashem lachem, lev lada'at ...ad hayom hazeh, "And Hashem has not given you a heart to know...until this day." 

 

"Hashem hasn't given you a heart to know"? After all the time that the B'nei Yisrael spent in the desert, and after everything Hashem did for them, they still didn't have a lev lada'at, a knowing heart, to realize the greatness of Hashem? 

 

He supplied them with clothes. All of the people in the midbardesert, had one set of clothing; the garments never got dirty or worn out, and they grew with the people over their forty-year tenure. Hashem also gave them food. He said, Lechem lo le'echol, "you will not eat bread," meaning that every morning, manna will fall from the sky and that food will be the tastiest thing they have ever eaten. The same goes for drink; the Jewish people had the Be'er Miriam, the well of Miriam, follow them throughout their travels. After all of this, how could Moshe say that the Jewish people received a lev lada'at, a knowing heart, only at the end of the forty years, right before he died? How is it possible that the Jewish people didn't have a heart to know Hashem when he was doing all of the miracles for them from Egypt through the desert? Couldn't they recognize Him? 

 

The answer, says Rashi, is a very sentimental one. On the day that Moshe died, he wrote a sefer Torah and gave it to the tribe of Levi. Later, the rest of the shevatim came complaining to Moshe, asking him why they did not get a Torah written for them, too. They told him that they were afraid that one day, after Moshe was gone, the Levi'im would keep the Torah for themselves. They kept reiterating the fact that they, too, wanted a Torah. It was because of this incident that Moshe rested in happiness, because he felt that the Jews had really captured the crux of lev lada'at

 

So what is this "knowing heart"? It is the WILL, the DESIRE, for the merit of Torah! Surrounded by Hashem and the Torah 24/7 in the desert, perhaps they took the miracles that surrounded them for granted. The mere fact that the B'nei Yisrael were terrified of losing the Torah shows their recognition of the importance of the Torah and of Hashem, which brought out their lev lada'at. The B'nei Yisrael finally recognized that Torah is the essence of life!

 

At some point in everyone's school life, thoughts have crossed our minds like,Why should I learn this piece of gemara, or why should I daven right now? But after we graduate and our religious observance is left completely up to ourselves, we should realize the importance of Torah and--to a point--be scared of what life would be like without it. The Jews complained A LOT in the desert; but they became upset at the mere thought of the Torah not being with them after Moshe died! That shows the true acknowledgment of, appreciation of, and indebtedness to Torah, and the quintessence of our religion.

 


Shabbat Shalom,

 

Sam Kalnitz, Grade 12

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
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Ki Teitzei: Paying It Forward, by Rabbi Pinchos Hecht


"Paying it forward" is a phrase that describes a Jewish idea, recently popularized by a beautifully produced movie. The idea is that, by bringing goodness into the world through any act of g'milut chasadim, kindness to others, we create a chain reaction of blessings that will, over time, return blessings to the contributors to the chain many times over.



This week's parsha reinforces this idea. The Torah assures us that, when we do the right thing, we will experience a blessing that allows us to continue doing the right thing, and enjoy ever-increasing blessings.



Our rabbis described this phenomenon as mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one good deed inspires another, and so on, and so on...



Returning lost objects to their rightful owners, a beautiful mitzvah to fulfill, will result in a blessing from Hashem that leads to owning a new garment. Ensuring that the garment is not made of shatnez, or a mixture of wool and linen, will lead to the mitzvah of tzitzit when these ritual fringes are placed on the four corners of the new garment, which will, in turn, lead to the blessing of building a new home. Putting proper fences on the roofs of that home to ensure that visitors are safe will lead to the blessing of planting a new vineyard, from which we will be able to feed and support the needy. And the blessings continue, mitzvah goreret mitzvah!



The opposite is also true: Averah goreret averah, one sin leads to another. Doing the wrong thing or missing the opportunity to do the right thing can start a negative downward spiral.



Paying it forward is Hashem's way of motivating us to do the right thing. Of course, on the ladder of possible motivation for goodness, the higher rungs involve elements of selflessness--doing the right thing because it is the right thing. At the same time, those higher rungs are attainable only after we safely climb the lower rungs of the ladder; and they are sustainable only as long as all of those rungs are tight and secure. The proper motivation for our children to encourage them to do good should not be limited to selfless altruism. Paying it forward, or mitzvah goreret mitzvah, is completely legitimate, and very much the message of this parsha.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht

Head of School, Atlanta Jewish Academy
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Ki Teitzei: Mandatory Goodness, by Dr. Paul Oberman

In this week's parsha, Ki Teitzei, we are instructed not to take interest from fellow Jews. We are allowed to take interest from non-Jews, but "you may not cause your brother to take interest, so that Hashem, your G-d, will bless you..." [23:21]. Ramban points out that it's unusual for a blessing to result from refraining from a negative commandment; we do not earn blessings for not killing or not stealing, we simply avoid punishment. The implication seems to be that charging interest per se is not wrong, but just as we must give tzedakah to fellow Jews, so too must we give loans at no cost. Then this mandatory kindness is rewarded, in recognition of the positive side of this negative commandment.


In the Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School, we mandate a certain number of hours of service to the community; yet we also take great pride in the fact that our students contribute those hours. As in this week's parsha, this is a seeming contradiction. Still, we are proud of our students for following through on this service learning for a number of reasons, among them that they come up with the opportunities themselves, that they take joy in performing these hours, and that they often exceed the mandated number of hours by a large margin. By and large our "commandment" is either redundant or simply a quick kick-start to an impressive career of serving the community. Even though it is part of the graduation requirement, our significant investment in service is a significant point of pride for our students and our school.


May we all take great joy in following through on the "mandatory opportunities" presented to us by Hashem.


 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Dr. Paul Oberman, Associate Head of School, 

Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School

 

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Shoftim: The Pursuit of Justice

Parshat Shoftim is replete with reminders to us to ensure that justice is enjoyed by all.  We are commanded, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof; righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue." The Midrash shares a reason behind the repetition of tzedek, and teaches that it is incumbent upon us all to do all we can do to pursue justice, even when it works against our own best interests. 

 

It may be for this very reason that our sages, may their memory be a blessing to us, have such profound respect for even the radically divergent opinions of their rabbinic colleagues.  The lesson of "Alu ve'elu divrei Elokim chayim, both the opinion of the minority as well as the majority are the words of the Living G-d," confirmed that all informed opinions are divinely inspired.  The goal behind this attitude is the creation, development, and growth of an open minded, trained, disciplined, and dedicated group of scholars, judges, rabbis, teachers, and students to lead and direct the people toward a purposeful and fulfilling life of service to both the Divine and mankind. 


The minority opinion is always recorded alongside the majority opinion.  Yet one has to ask: Once the decision is made, why record the abandoned opinion? 


The rabbis, in their great wisdom, knew that by preserving the minority positions issued by trained and accepted scholars, they left open the possibility that a later court could decide an issue in accordance with the minority.  An example of this follows. 


Rav Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema, served as the Chief Rav of Krakow, Poland, during the sixteenth century.  He was considered one of the outstanding experts and judges in Jewish law, and his religious-legal decisions are accepted as authoritative for Ashkenazic Jewry to this very day.  Rav Moshe Isserles opens his responsum (no. 125) with the words, "I hear behind me a great rushing noise," the roar of an angry community who questioned him--and were even thinking of deposing him from his rabbinical position--because he allowed a wedding to take place on Friday night! 


This was viewed as problematic because the Mishnah (Beitzah 5, 2:20a) forbids conducting a wedding ceremony on the Sabbath. The reasoning behind this decision is explained in the subsequent discussion of the Gemara as, "lest you come to write out the Ketuba, marriage document," without which the couple cannot live together as man and wife.  Nevertheless, Rav Moshe Isserles performed such a ceremony. 


In a rare introduction to his responsum, the great rabbi explained that the bride's parents had promised a considerable dowry to the groom's parents, but that the bride's father had died shortly before the wedding. The bride's lack of dowry meant that the wedding had been called off at the last moment.  At 10:30 on Friday night, an aunt of the groom had convinced her nephew to go ahead with the marriage despite his parents' objections. They arrived at the rabbi's home at that very late hour, and since the rabbi understood that the groom could easily change his mind should there be a delay, the Rema immediately performed the ceremony. Only an immediate wedding would save the bride from the shame of the broken engagement and poverty that would most assuredly have doomed her to spinsterhood. 


Rav Moshe Isserles goes on, in his responsum, to cite the minority view of Rabbeinu Tam--that the prohibition against a Shabbat wedding only applied to a couple who already had children from a prior marriage--noting the fact that even Rabbeinu Tam himself would only permit a Shabbat marriage "under extreme duress" (bedohak gadol). The Rema felt that this minority opinion was sufficient to rely on in the case of the couple who stood before him; thus, the importance of preserving every minority opinion!  


In a similar vein, why was the School of Hillel recorded as the source of all final halachot, and not the School of Shammai? Were not the words of Shammai also called the words of the Living G-d?  


The scholars of Bet Hillel were accepted as the decisors "because they were sweet-tempered, modest, and accept rebuke; moreover, when asked the law, they first presented the opposing opinion of the Academy of Shammai, and then presented their own view" (BT Rosh Hashanah 14). A system of laws taught and developed by such great rabbis is truly a testament to the words of our holy and eternal Torah, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof."  


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Pinchos Hecht


Head of School, Atlanta Jewish Academy


 

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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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