(Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

(Haftara: Isaiah 54:11-55:5)

(Pirkay Avot Chapter 6)

1. [11:26] “Look, I am putting in front of you to-day…” Here, we are told to look, but in our most well-known prayer, “Shma Yisrael…”, we are told to listen or understand. For educational purposes, which is more effective, seeing or hearing?

2.  [11:29]  “…the blessing on Mount Grizim and the curse on Mount Eival…”  This very dramatic ceremony presented blessings and curses to the people of Israel. In our religious life, we sometimes have dramatic ceremonies (Pesach seder, blowing of the shofar), and sometimes we have more intimate experiences (living in the sukkah, prayer, asking forgiveness). When are dramatic ceremonies more effective in getting us closer to God, and when are intimate experiences more effective?

3.  [Haftara: Isaiah 54:13] “And all your children will be taught by God, and the peace of your children will be great.”   In this messianic vision, we are told that when God, himself, will teach us, we will have great peace.  Couldn’t it be true that having God as our teacher would bring us anxiety? How can we possibly live up to God’s expectations?

4. [Pirkay Avot 6:2] “Only one who is involved in learning Torah can be called a free person”. From a Torah point of view, what does it mean to be a free person? What is the difference between the Torah’s idea of freedom and the world’s idea of freedom?

5. [Pirkay Avot 6:6, 6:8]  Mishna 6 mentions honour (kavod) in a negative way—the Torah is acquired by distancing oneself from “kavod”. However, mishna 8 says that “kavod” is a good quality for a righteous person. Is honour (kavod) a good thing or a bad thing?

Commentary

Negative thoughts and a confused mind are like a turbulent sea. Therefore one has to be sure to clear up one’s thoughts. All holiness…is dependent on this. Each person achieves holiness in relation to how much the thoughts are purified.

–R. Nosson of Breslov,  1780-1844, Ukraine.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava—Eli ZuckerAnd 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

(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

(Haftara: Isaiah 49:14-51:3)

1. [8:7]  “God is bringing you to a good land with brooks of water… going out in the valleys and the hills.”   In our spiritual literature, the land of Israel represents the ideal state of mind. Why is a land of hills and valleys more ideal than a flat land?

2. [11:24] “Every place that your feet walk will be yours…”   On a spiritual level, this seems to mean that in the ideal mental state, one will feel comfortable wherever one is. On the other hand, we are expected to be sensitive to injustice—to the weak and the poor. Does being comfortable mean that one will be less sensitive to the moral demands of one’s life?

3. [Isaiah 50:1] “…where is your mother’s document of divorce [from Me]…”  Our relationship to God can be like a marriage, or like a master-servant relationship, or like friends and so on. What factors define our relationship to God at any particular time—is it us, or is it our situation in life or is it tradition or some other factor?

4. [Yeshaya 51:1]   “…you that chase after justice, that seek God…”   Why are seekers of God only those who chase after justice.  What about those who chase after love or after peace or inner peace—are they not seekers of God?

5. [Haftara] “…joy and gladness will be found there, thankfulness and the sound of music.” This is a comforting messianic vision. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that the quality of thankfulness is considered like the light of Paradise. What makes the quality of thankfulness so special?

Commentary

            When a person is on a trip and he can’t pray or learn Torah in his normal way, then he should serve God in other ways, and he shouldn’t be bothered by this, because God wants him to serve in all ways—sometimes in this way and sometimes in that way.  That’s why he happened to be going on a certain road, or speaking to certain people, in order to serve God in that particular way.

–R. Yisrael ben Eliezer, 1698-1760, Ukraine.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And to the memory of Sarah Beila Kummer bat Yitzchak and Chana, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(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 Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And  to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

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

(Pirkei Avot: Chapter 3)

  1. [1:9] “…I am not able to carry you alone…”  The book of Devarim is called Mishneh Torah (second Torah) because it is mainly a summary and a repetition of commandments and past events.  The first thing Moshe says is that he never wanted to be the solitary leader of the Israelites. Why does he begin such an important speech with such a negative statement?
  • [1:17] “…don’t be afraid of any man…”  It is a sin for the judges to give a judgment based on fear or any factor other than justice.  This statement is understood by our tradition to be a proper quality for everyone—”fear no human”.  Is it reasonable to expect the average person to be able to achieve this state of mind?
  •  [1:22] “…and you said, “Let us send people before us…” The first and only major sin mentioned here is the sin of the spies.  Of all the sins of the desert, why is this sin considered the most severe? 
  • [Haftara 1:27]  “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her  with righteousness”.  Do justice and righteousness make a perfect society, or are other qualities also needed? 
  •  [Tisha b’Av]   Tisha b’Av commemorates the destruction of the Temples and all the other calamities in Jewish history. Our tradition tells us that in the future, Tisha b’Av will become a festival—a celebration. Chassidut also tells us that “yeridah l’tsorech aliyah”—a going-down precedes an elevation. What does one gain when one has a descent in one’s mood or one’s life’s events? How does this contribute to an elevation in the future?

Commentary

To be attached to God is the most natural aspiration of a person…There can be no substitute in existence for the longing to be absolutely linked with the living God, with the infinite light. As we are under a compulsion to live, to be nourished, to grow, so are we under a compulsion to be connected to God.

R. Avraham Y. H. Kuk, 1865-1935, Lithuania and Israel.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava

—Eli Zucker

And 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

(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 Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And to the memory of Sarah Beila Kummer bat Yitzchak and Chana, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(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 Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And to the memory of Sarah Beila Kummer bat Yitzchak and Chana, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(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 Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And to the memory of Sarah Beila Kummer bat Yitzchak and Chana, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(Numbers: 19:1- 22:2)     

 (Shoftim 11:1-33)    

(Pirkay Avot 4)

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. [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?

3. [Pirkay Avot 4:1]   “Who is wise: he who learns from every person…”  This type of person is a good or an efficient learner. Why is someone who learns from everyone considered wise? What is wisdom?

4.  [Pirkay Avot 4:7] “…anyone who gets personal gain from the Torah, takes his life from the world…”  Is it true that using anyone or anything for personal gain is an undesirable thing to do? When can exploiting someone be justified? Can one ever justify using the Torah for personal gain?

5.  [Pirkay Avot 4:15] “…let the honour of your friend be like the respect that you have for your teacher (rabbi)…”  How can one compare the honour that one gives to one’s friend to the respect that one has for one’s teacher? Doesn’t a person want a more intimate relationship with one’s friend than with one’s teacher?

Commentary

Judaism reveals the purpose of life in this world…to transform the world into a kingdom of the Almighty. Every Jew must serve his Creator by gearing all his actions, words and thoughts toward this goal. Every Jew builds and repairs his personal world, and all of the nation of Israel build and repair the entire world.

–R. Yechiel Bar-Lev, born 1943, Israel.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(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 Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And to the memory of Sarah Beila Kummer bat Yitzchak and Chana, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

(Numbers: 4:21-7:89) / (Haftara: Shoftim 13:2-25) / (Pirkay Avot: Chapter 1)

1. [5:12] “…if a man’s wife goes astray…”   When a husband suspects his wife of being unfaithful, she drinks something which tests her faithfulness. In our modern society, if a person would suspect the faithfulness of the spouse, the couple would or would not resolve the issue. In the old Torah society, the issue would be resolved, but the wife would have to go through this humiliation. Which is better?

2. [5:23] “…and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness.”  God’s name is written on that piece of paper which is put into the water that the woman drinks. It is a sin to erase God’s  name, but it is erased nonetheless only in this situation.  From this action we learn the importance of peace in the family. Is peace in the family really more important than peace between friends, within organizations and countries, etc.? 

3. [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?

4. [Haftara: Shoftim 13:5] “..he will be a nazir for God…”  Shimshon was born with the restrictions and duties of nazirim. A nazir does not cut his or her hair, drink wine or use grape products, or go to a cemetery even for the funeral of close relatives. The Torah does not usually encourage ascetic behavior. What purpose does a nazir serve in Jewish society?

5. [Pirkay Avot 1:1] “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai…”  Shouldn’t this say that Moshe received the Torah on Sinai, or Moshe received the Torah from God. Why does the mishna say that Moshe received the Torah from Sinai?

Commentary

There are two things that one should never worry about– what can be corrected and what cannot be corrected. What can be corrected should be corrected at once, without any worry. And as for what cannot be corrected, worrying will not help.

–R. Yechiel Michel, Zlotshov, Ukraine, 1786.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Gad Eliahu ben David and Kochava–Eli Zucker

And  to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer