The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments

Learning Group—Parshat Ve’etchanan

(Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

(Haftara: Shabbat Nachamu: Isaiah 40:1-26)

1. [4:1] “…the laws which I teach you…” Moshe was the leader of the Israelites. He gave laws, prayed that they would win wars, defended them and did many other things. However, we call him Moshe Rabbenu—Moshe our teacher. Why is teaching considered the most praiseworthy role for Moshe and for us?

2. [4:1] Rav Kuk (1865-1935) respects the role of teacher, but says that there is a negative aspect to teaching–the teacher is in a role that presupposes a kind of superiority—“I know more than you”. Do you agree with this criticism? Is there a way of avoiding this negative aspect of teaching?

3. [4:34] “…by trials, by signs, and by miracles…” In modern physics, we speak about anti-matter, and black holes in space and many very strange phenomena. What is a miracle in modern times?

4. [4:39] “…God is God in heaven above and on the earth below…” There are religious systems that only value heaven, and there are others that only value earth. We try to make heaven on earth—make earth heavenly. What commandments do we have that try to “make earth heavenly”?

5. [Haftara 40:4] “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low”. This messianic vision seems to say that in messianic times there will be no need to struggle. Other sources, however seem to say that there will be struggle in the time of messianic consciousness. The messianic era is supposed to be the ideal era. Do you think that there will be struggle in the messianic era or not?

Commentary

[5:5] “I stood between God and you…”

The “I-ness”—the selfish ego of people is that which stands between God and the person. As long as a person is ruled by his or her selfish ego, he or she cannot come to Godliness, but if one rules over one’s own passions and desires, then one can come to Godliness.

–Rabbi Moshe Pallier of Kobrin, Belarus (Chassidic Rebbe, 1784 – 1858)

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Parshat Devarim

Learning Group—Parshat Devarim

(Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

(Haftara: Shabbat Chazon: Isaiah 1:1-27)

1. [1:13] “Get men who are wise, understanding and knowledgeable…” The first commandment that Moshe recalled is the appointment of judges and the necessity for justice, honesty and integrity. While justice is very important, one would think that proper beliefs, or devotion to God are more basic values in the Torah. Is justice our most basic value?

2. [1:17] “…don’t be afraid of any man, for the judgment is God’s…” This pasuk is speaking to a judge. What does it mean?

3. [2:3] “You have circled this mountain (Sinai) long enough. Travel to the north.” Why were the Israelites circling the mountain? What change in mentality is represented by renewing their traveling?

4. [Haftara: Isaiah 1:11] “What do I need your many sacrifices for? says God.” God tells us through the prophet that He has no pleasure in the festivals and sacrifices if the Jews don’t act morally. Can giving sacrifices with the right motivation help to make a person moral? What effect are the sacrifices supposed to have on us?

5. [Haftara 1:27] “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her with righteousness”. It seems that the collective redemption is dependent on justice, while the individual redemption is dependent on righteousness. Is there individual redemption without collective redemption? What is the difference between justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedek)?

Commentary

1:17 “…that which is difficult for you, you will bring it to me…”

When you are in doubt about a specific act, and you don’t know whether it is permitted or not, separate yourself from the pleasure of that act. Then, if you want to know the truth—whether that act is God’s will or not—you will see the truth.

Bring it to the life-force of God which is within you. Any difficulty in these areas is caused by the fact that the outside world blocks our vision of the truth, but if one attaches oneself to one’s inner spirituality, then the truth becomes clear.

–R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847 – 1905), Góra Kalwaria, Poland—the Sfat Emet

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Mattot
Mattot

Learning Group—Parshat Mattot-Masay

(Numbers: 30:2-36:13)

(Haftara: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1,2)

1. [35:11-34] “…cities of refuge will be for you…” If someone killed a person accidentally, he could run away to a “city of refuge”, and he would be safe there from revenge. In those days, it was rare that someone killed by accident. Why does the Torah devote so much space to the “cities of refuge”? What principles of law and behaviour are being taught here?

2. [Bamidbar 33:1] “These are the journeys of the children of Israel…” The Baal Shem Tov, (1700-1760), the founder of modern Chassidism, tells us that the stopping places of the Israelites represent levels in spiritual-psychological development toward a more perfected, whole personality. Why does Chassidism talk about levels (madregot) of development? Doesn’t this make a person self-conscious and self-centered? Why not just say that a person should be more compassionate, more controlled, and so on, and ignore what level a person may or may not be on?

3. [Haftara: 2:19] “Your own wickedness will correct you…” How does one’s wickedness correct him or her? Is this an effective way of learning or an inferior way of learning?

4. [Haftara: Jeremiah , 3:4, 4:1,2] If a haftara ends with a negative statement, then positive psukim are added. That is the purpose of the last psukim in this haftara. Is this wise? In this haftara, God has been rebuking the Jews. Wouldn’t it be more proper to finish with a negative statement so that the Jews will regret their actions and return to God?

5. [Calendar] We are now in the 3 weeks before Tisha b’Av. During this time, we have no weddings, no dancing, no playing musical instruments, or cutting hair. Our tradition wants to prepare us to mourn properly on Tisha b’Av. Why do we need 3 weeks to prepare us to mourn on Tisha b’Av?

Commentary

[33:1] “These are the journeys of the children of Israel…”

The forty-two “stations” from Egypt to the land of Israel happen in the life of every person from his birth until his return to his source. Leaving Egypt represents birth, and one moves on until one comes to the land of elevated life (elevated life in this world and in the next world).

–R. Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, (1700-1760)

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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The Division of the Land
The Division of the Land

Learning Group—Parshat Pinchas

(Numbers: 25:10-30:1)

(Haftara: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)

1. [25:12] “Therefore I am giving him my covenant of peace.” The Talmud Yerushalmi tells us after Pinchas killed Zimri and Kozbi and stopped the plague, the chachamim wanted to excommunicate him. However, when they saw that Pinchas was rewarded by God with the priesthood and the covenant of peace they changed their minds. How can it be that the wise men of the time were so out of touch with God’s way of seeing this incident?

2. [26:52] When the land of Israel was divided among the tribes, the Torah tells us that the bigger tribes should get bigger portions and the smaller tribes should get smaller portions. Then the portions were divided according to a lottery. How was the land divided according to the size of the tribes if there was a lottery? The Talmud and the commentaries tell us that it was miraculous—the larger plots of land went to the bigger tribes in the lottery. What was the point of the lottery if it was all “fixed” anyway.

3. [27:1] Tzelafchad died and left behind 4 daughters and no sons. The daughters requested that the inheritance go to them, and Moshe asked God and God agreed that the inheritance should go to them. Why wasn’t this law obvious? Why did Moshe have to ask God?

4. [27:1] Apparently, if the daughters of Tzlafchad had not requested the inheritance, they would not have received it. What might the Torah be trying to teach us here?

5. [27:7] “The daughters of Tzelafchad are correct…” The people of Israel were guilty of 2 major sins in the wilderness—the sin of the golden calf, and the sin of the spies. The midrash (midrash rabba) tells us that in each case, the women of Israel were the ones who were faithful to God and our mission, while the men were the ones who sinned. What is it about the quality of women that would make them more faithful to God and our mission than the men?

Commentary

[27:16,17] “…set up a leader over the community…who will take them out and who will bring them in…”

“Take them out and …bring them in” implies being part of the physical world and being part of the spiritual world. The leader that Moshe is asking God to appoint for the people of Israel is one who can connect the physical to the spiritual—a leader who can take the physical and infuse it with spirituality.

–The Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, (1700-1760).

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Ha-shem warns Bil'am
Ha-shem warns Bil’am

Learning Group—Parshat Balak

(Numbers: 22:2-25:9)

(Haftara: Micah 5:6-6:8)

1. [23:9]  “…a people that will dwell alone and will not  be counted among the nations.” This is presented as a blessing. How is this a blessing?

 

2.  [23:19 ]  “God is not a man, that He should lie; or a person who changes His mind…”   However, even in this parsha, God changes His mind [22:12-20].  Our prophets tell us that God is beyond human qualities—is total positivity. However, God reveals Himself to us with human-like qualities. When we pray, should we think about God beyond human qualities, or should we think about God with human-like qualities?

 

3. [Haftara: Micha 5:6] “And the remnant of Ya’akov will be in the midst of many nations like dew from God, like showers on the grass…”  This pasuk is understood by some commentators as negative in relation to the situation of the Jews, and by other commentators as positive in relation to the situation of the Jews. How can this pasuk be understood in a negative way and how can it be understood in a positive way?

 

4. [Haftara: Micah 6:8] “…what does God ask of  you: only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.  Are people who love kindness and walk humbly capable of doing justice.  It would seem that one must be aggressive and obstinate to achieve justice in society.  Is it realistic for the prophet to ask that a person have all three of these qualities?

 

5. [Haftara: Micah 6:8] “…what does God ask of you: only to do justice, to love chesed, and to walk humbly with your God”.  If these are the main things that God asks of us, what is the purpose of the other commandments of the Torah like eating kosher, keeping Shabbat, and so on.

 

Commentary

[24:17] “…a star will step out of Jacob…”

This pasuk is telling us that every Jew has a spark of the Messiah in his soul.

–The Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, (1700-1760).

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Parshat Chukat: "The Red Cow " Offering to Hashem

 

Learning Group—Parshat Chukat

(Numbers: 19:1- 22:2)

(Shoftim 11:1-33)

1. [19:2] “This is the law of the Torah…” This section tells us about purification. The pasuk should say that “This is the law of purification…”. Why does it say “This is the law of the Torah”?

2. [20:1] “And Miriam died there…” In relation to Miriam’s death, the Talmud tells us that “the death of the righteous brings purification from sin.” How can we understand this in a natural, non-mystical way. How does the death of righteous people affect the people he or she left behind and purify them from sin?

3. [20:8] “Take the stick, and gather the congregation…” According to the Rambam, Moshe’s sin at the rock was that he spoke in a disrespectful way to the Israelites. According to the Ramban, Moshe’s sin was the fact that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, as he had been commanded. What is the difference between these two interpretations and which do you prefer?

4. [21:18] “and from the wilderness to Mattanah [gift].” Our mystical tradition understands that each of these stops in the wilderness represents a psychological, spiritual matter. From this pasuk it is understood that the Torah–closeness to God and spiritual wholeness– can be acquired even by someone who has not worked at it step by step, but rather acquires the Torah as a gift because of some personal quality or action. What personal quality or action could bring a person to God and spiritual wholeness?

5. [Shoftim: 11:15] “Israel did not take away the land of Moav…” Yiftach felt that he had to morally justify the fact that Israel took over the land of Moav. In the political climate of that time, he did not have to do that. Why did he try to justify the acts of the Israelites?

Commentary

[21:18] “and from the wilderness to Mattanah [gift].”

At first it was thought that a person can integrate the Torah into himself by developing in the 48 ways (that are enumerated in Pirkay Avot). Then it was understood that the Torah can be acquired even by someone who has not worked at it, but rather acquires the Torah as a gift. This happens when someone becomes devoted to serving God constantly in every way that he can serve.

–Sfat Emet, R. Yehudah Leib Alter, (1847-1905, Ger, Poland).

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Parshat Korach

 

Learning Group—Parshat Korach

(Numbers: 16:1-18:32)

(Yeshayahu 66:1-24)

(Rosh Chodesh)

1. [16:3]  “All the people in the community are holy…”  What is so bad about what Korach said?  It sounds true.

2. [16:3]  “All the people in the community are holy…”   Korach’s argument is a good argument, but his is our classical case of an argument which is not “l’shem shamayim” – not argued out of pure motives. However our sages tell us (Talmud Nazir) that one should learn Torah even if not “l’shem shamayim”, and he will eventually achieve learning which is for pure motives. What is the difference between Korach’s lack of pure motives and a lack of pure motives in learning?

3. [18:1] “…bear the sin of the holy place…”   What is meant by “the sin of the holy place”, and “the sin of the priesthood”?

4. [18:8-20] “…I have given you the charge of my gifts…”  The tribe of Levi gets gifts from the people of Israel.  Doesn’t this seem like favouritism toward Levi? Won’t it cause jealousy?

5. [Rosh Chodesh] Rosh Chodesh is our time for renewal. Is the fact that we need rejuvenation a fault of ours, or a natural part of life? Is there a way that we could live where everything always seems fresh and new?

Commentary

 [17:23]  “…the rod of Aharon, of the house of Levi, blossomed, and it put out buds and blossoms and ripe almonds”.

This was a miracle.  Blossoms fall away before the fruit grows. Why did the flower remain even after the fruit came out? In matters of spirituality, the efforts and the preparations toward the goal are as precious as the goal itself.  In fact, achieving the goal without working toward it and making efforts, is a deficiency in the whole spiritual activity. So here, the blossoms remained with the fruit to show the importance of the means to the goal, as well as the goal.

–R. Moishe Feinstein, (1895-1986, Byelorussia, USA.)

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Parshat Shlach

Learning Group—Parshat Shlach-Lecha

(Numbers: 13:1-15:41)

(Haftara: Yehoshua 2, 1-24)

1. [13:27, 28] “…the people who live in the land are fierce…” Our tradition looks upon the spies as the ultimate traitors. What was so bad about the spies’ message to the Israelites?

2. [13:27, 28] “…the people who live in the land are fierce…” Our tradition looks upon the spies as traitors. The spies were not betraying the Israelites. They were afraid. Is fear a sin? Is fear a betrayal? Why are people sometimes afraid of changing a bad situation for a better situation?

3. [13:30] “And Caleb stilled the people”. Rashi says that Calev said to the people, “Is this the only thing that Moshe has done to us?”. This would get their attention and then he could encourage them to go into the land. The Sforno says simply that Calev told them to be quiet so that Moshe could be heard. Each explanation has a different image of the Israelites. What is the difference between the explanations? Which seems more accurate to you?

4. [14:29-35] “In this wilderness, your bodies will fall…” The Israelites complained before the episode of the spies, but this time they were punished with 40 years in the desert. What exactly was their sin? Isn’t this too severe a punishment for their sin?

5. [Haftara: Yehoshua 2:1] Why did Yehoshua send the spies to Rachav, the prostitute, and what significance is there in the fact that Rachav, who protected the spies and helped the Israelites, was a prostitute?

Commentary

[13:32] “…a land that consumes its inhabitants”.

The Hebrew word for “its inhabitants” in this verse—”yoshvehah”–literally means “its settlers”.

The Holy Land does not tolerate those who settle down, who are complacent and content with their achievements. One should always be aspiring to improve—to get closer to God, to people and to one’s real self.

–R. Yitzchak of Vorka (1779-1848), Poland.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Learning Group—Parshat Naso

(Numbers: 4:21-7:89)

(Haftara: Shoftim 13:2-25)

1. [5:6] “…when they do any of the sins of man to betray God.” Rabbenu Bachya (Spain, 11th century) says that any sin that a person does against his fellow is also treason against God. Why is doing wrong to a person a betrayal of God?

2. [5:7] “And they will confess the sins that they did…” Specifying one’s sins through verbal confession is necessary in order to be forgiven by Heaven. Why isn’t it enough that a person sincerely changes his or her behaviour? Why is verbal confession so important?

3. [5:14] “…and a spirit of jealousy comes on him…” When a husband suspects his wife of being unfaithful, she drinks something which tests her faithfulness. One would think that there should be a better way of dealing with this difficult situation. In what kind of a society could this ceremony be understood as an enlightened way of dealing with this difficult situation?

4. [6:25-26] “May God shine his face on you and be gracious to you.” In Hebrew, a number of single things are written in the plural–for example, sky, life, water and others. These seem to be things which are not simple objects. “Face”, in Hebrew is also in the plural. However, it seems to be a simple object. Why is face in the plural in Hebrew?

5. [Haftara: Shoftim 13:5] Shimshon (and Shmuel) were born with the restrictions and duties of nazirim. Their mothers had declared that they would be nazirim. In our parsha, the nazir chooses to be a nazir by himself, and does so for a limited amount of time. Who do you think would be more committed to being a nazir—one who doesn’t choose it and does it all his life, or one who chooses it and does it temporarily?

Commentary

[7:84] “This is the dedication offering…on the day it was anointed”.

[7:88] “This is the dedication offering…after it was anointed”.

When one begins to get involved with God and with Torah, one feels an awakening, a renewal and an elevation. After a while, however, the freshness begins to wear off. One must try to keep the clarity of the beginning forever. One must always return to the original light that one had when one first started getting involved with Torah. — R. Avraham Mordechai Alter of Ger (1866-1948)

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Learning Group—Parshat Bamidbar

(Numbers 1:1-4:20)

(Haftara: Hosea 2, 1-22)

(Pirkay Avot Chapter 6)

1. [3:12] “I took the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first-born…” The priestly tribe was originally supposed to be the first-born males. After the sin of the golden calf, the first-born lost their status as the priestly class, and Levi took their place, because they were loyal to God. What qualities would the first-born have that would have made them suitable to be the priestly class?

2. [Haftara: Hosea 2:21] “I will betroth you to me in righteousness (betzedek) and in justice (bemishpat), and in kindness (chesed) and in compassion (rachamim)”. What is the difference between righteousness and justice? What is the difference between kindness and compassion?

3. [Haftara: Hosea 2:21] “I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, and in kindness and in compassion”. One would think that this should say, “I will marry you to me…” Why does it say, “I will become engaged to you”?

4. [Pirkay Avot 6:6] “…the Torah is acquired in 48 ways…with humility…” There is humility that is a result of low self-image, and there is a positive kind of humility. What self-image and what relationship to others does a person with positive humility have?

5. [Rosh Chodesh] On Rosh Chodesh we pray the Hallel prayer. What does the following sentence mean: “The stone that the builders despised became the most important stone”?

Commentary

[3:12] “…And I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel… and the Levites shall be mine.”

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but each and every person in the world, whose spirit has moved him and has understood himself that he should separate himself to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know God and to walk in a straight way like God made him, and he has given up all the various calculations that men make–this man has become holy like a holy of holies, and God shall be his portion and his inheritance forever, and shall give him his needs in this world, as He has given to the Kohanim and the Levites…”

–Rambam, R. Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204, Spain and Egypt

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kumme

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