(Numbers: 13:1-15:41)

(Haftara: Yehoshua 2, 1-24)

(Pirkay Avot 2)

1. [13:30]   “And Calev stilled the people…”   There are a number of different explanations for why the Israelites became quiet, and what they expected Calev to say. How many different explanations can there be for this action? How does our image of the Israelites change according to the different explanations? Why does the Torah leave certain stories or actions open to interpretation?

2. [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?

3. [15:37-41] “…tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments…” The Israelites are told to put fringes on the corners of their clothing, including a blue string, and looking at this blue string would remind them of God’s commandments. What is the meaning of this commandment? Shouldn’t there be a better way of being reminded of God’s commandments?

4. [Haftara: Yehoshua 2:1] “…they came to the house of a prostitute…” Yehoshua send the spies to Rachav, the prostitute. Avraham, Moshe, Yitro and others are also outsiders to their societies and are heroes to us. Why are we so sympathetic to outsiders?

5. [Pirkei Avot 2:2] “Everyone who works with the community should work with them without expecting reward…” Being part of the community is an important value in a Torah way of life. In fact, there were many holy Hebrew individuals before Sinai. However, the Torah was given at Sinai to the community of Israel. Why is community valued so much in the Torah way of life?

Commentary

If a person feels that he has a special talent or emotional quality that others don’t have, he should know and believe that this is not accidental. It is a clear hint from God for him to know what his special talent or quality is for serving God and bringing His presence into the world.

–R. Y. M. Shechter, presently in Jerusalem.

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: 8:1-12:16)

(Haftara: Zecharia 2:14-4:7)

(Pirkay Avot, chapter 1)

1. [9:7] “And those men [who were impure and couldn’t do the first Pesach] said to him, “We are impure…’ “. Whoever is ritually impure or too far away and can’t eat the Passover sacrifice on Passover can do it a month later. This law, however, was only instituted after these people asked for it. Why did God wait for the people to ask before he instituted the law?

2. [11:28-29] “…and he said, “My master, Moshe, destroy them.” When Eldad and Medad have prophecy, Yehoshua suggests that they be destroyed, but Moshe says that he wishes all the people were prophets. What is the difference between Moshe’s ideal of leadership and Yehoshua’s ideal of leadership?

3. [12:2] “And they said, “Has God spoken only with Moshe, hasn’t he also spoken with us?”. Didn’t Miriam and Aharon know that Moshe’s prophecy was so much greater than theirs? What was it about Moshe’s behaviour or about the nature of his prophecy that made them think that they were equal to Moshe in prophecy?

4. [12:2] What is Miriam’s complaint against Moshe and what does it have to do with Moshe’s wife?

5. [Pirkay Avot 1:6] In what situation does one judge someone else to the side of merit? Why? Isn’t it better to judge a person according to the facts—even if it is not to the side of merit? Aren’t we interested in the truth, rather than judging to the side of merit?

Commentary

“Search for God when He can be found (Yeshaya 55:6)”—the initiative for the search rests entirely with man…The path to God is not a highway, but rather a narrow winding and challenging road.

–R. Y. D. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993, 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

 

(Numbers: 4:21-7:89)

(Haftara: Shoftim 13:2-25)

(Pirkay Avot:Chapter 6)

(Shavuot)

1. [6:2] “…the vow of the Nazir, to consecrate himself to God.” A person who is seeking more dedication to God or extra holiness can become a Nazir by limiting his or her contact with the world. Is it possible to increase one’s holiness by becoming more involved in the world? Which is more effective—less contact with the world, or more contact with the world?

2. [6:7] “For his father and his mother and his sister and his brother– he will not become impure for them when they die…” A Nazir, who takes extra restrictions on himself, may not attend any funerals. Accompanying the dead to the cemetery is one of our major commandments. Why do we show such respect for the dead–in order to support the survivors, in order to honour the dead, or as a therapy for ourselves? Which of these possibilities supports the idea that a Nazir does not go to any funerals?

3. [6:26] “May God lift His face to you and give you peace.”  It seems that the more conscious a person is of God, the more peace that person has. Couldn’t the opposite be true—the more conscious one is of God, the more one feels obligated to serve God and, therefore, is less at ease?

4. [6:1] “R. Meir says, ‘Whoever learns Torah l’shma (literally: for its name) is worthy of many things…’ ”     In our tradition, there are 2 main explanations of “Torah l’shma”. Torah l’shma is defined as learning Torah without ulterior motives—for the love of God. Others explain the term as meaning learning Torah in order to learn it as thoroughly and clearly as possible—for the sake of the Torah. Which explanation do you prefer? Why?

5. [Pirkay Avot 6:13] “…[He who says] what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, is an ignorant person…” Many people think that sharing everything is an ideal attitude—a utopian outlook. Why is a person who wants to share everything considered ignorant?

Commentary

[10 commandments] “Don’t take the name of the Lord, your God in vain”.

Our souls are drawn into the world from the source of Holiness, and the name of God is upon us. But a person must realize the true value of his or her soul, and not “take [it]…in vain”. If a person doesn’t see his true potential and doesn’t try to fix his own soul and move in a Godly direction—if he takes the name of God within himself in vain—then he will not receive help from above. But when a person realizes what kind of soul he has, and helps himself, then God will help him.

— The Sfat Emet, R. Yehudah Leib Alter, (1847-1905), 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

(Numbers 1:1-4:20)

(Haftara: Hosea 2, 1-22)

(Pirkay Avot Chapter 5)

(Sfirat Ha’omer)

1. [1:1] “God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the tabernacle, in the first month of the second year…” The Torah is a history book and a story book and a book of ethics, etc. How many functions does the Torah serve for us? What is the purpose of telling us so many details of history—exact dates, who helped Moshe count the people and so on?

2. [4:20] “Let them not come and see the sacred things being taken down , or they will die.”   Why would there be such a negative effect on the sons of Kehat. if they saw the tabernacle taken down? What similar things do we have in our lives?

3. [Haftara: Hosea 2:21] “I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice and in kindness and in compassion”. In our daily relationships with family, friends and others, we often have to find a balance between strict justice and kindness. When are we stricter and when are we kinder? Is there a general rule that we can use to help us balance strictness with kindness.?

4. [Hoshea 2:21, 22] “And I will betroth you to me…in honesty and in justice, in kindness and in compassion…in faithfulness, and you will know God.” Honesty, justice, kindness, compassion and faithfulness—is that enough to really know someone, or is more needed?

5. [Pirkay Avot 5:10] “There are 7 qualities in a wise person: …he doesn’t interrupt another’s speech, he answers clearly without confusion, he asks according to the subject and answers properly, he answers in the order of the subjects raised, if he didn’t hear about something, he admits it, and he acknowledges the truth”. This mishna does not say that a wise person must be intelligent. Can a person be wise even if he or she is not especially intelligent?

Commentary

In relation to a corrupt person, it is proper to hate only the corruption of that person. However, in relation to the “image of God” of that person, one should honour it with love. And one should also know that the goodness of that person is more basic to him than the negative qualities.

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

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

(Leviticus: 26:3-27:34)

(Haftara: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14)

(Pirkay Avot: Chapter 4)

(Sfirat Ha’omer)

(Siddur)

1. [Vayikra 26:3] “If you will walk in my rules and keep my commandments and do them”, then you will be greatly rewarded. However, in Pirkay Avot [5:26], it says “According to the effort is the reward”—the criterion for reward from God is effort and not results.   Is accomplishment rewarded or is effort even without success rewarded?

2. [26:3]If you walk in My chukim (statutes)…” Chukim are commandments whose reasons are either not comprehensible, or very hard to understand. For example, the laws of kashrut and the commandment of tfillin are chukim. What quality of character is developed by performing commandments which we don’t understand?

3. [Jeremiah 16:19] “…to You the nations will come from the ends of the earth.” We believe that in the future all the people in the world will recognize the one universal God who revealed the Torah to us. If this belief is the same for everyone, why do the Jews have so many commandments, while the non-Jews have 7 commandments?

4. [Haftara 17:8] “Blessed is the man that trusts in the Lord…He shall be as the tree planted by the waters.” The Torah brings the image of a tree with deep roots beside the water, here, and in other places. What kind of personality is the Torah trying to build that is suggested by the tree?

5. [Pirkay Avot 4:1] “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” What are the personal qualities of a person who learns from everyone?

Commentary

[26:12] “And I will walk among you and will be your God and you will be my people”.

The word for “walk (hithalakhti)” which the Torah uses here, means to walk to-and-fro and not stay in 1 place. God is assuring us here, that if we live according to his ways, he will not be in just 1 place—in the Temple—but rather He will be with each and every 1 of us. Each of us will be His Temple.

–Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno– Italy (14751550)

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

 

(Leviticus: 25:1-26:2)

(Haftara: Yermiahu 32:6-27)

(Pirkay Avot: Chapter 3)

(Sfirat Ha’omer)

1. [25:2] “…the land will keep a Shabbat for God.” In the land of Israel, every seven years, one does not work his land, or demonstrate his ownership of the land. This is called the “shmitta” year and it shows us that the land belongs to God. Why do the commandments of shmitta apply only in the land of Israel? Doesn’t a Jew outside the land of Israel also need to learn that the land really belongs to God?

2. [25:2] ..”the land will keep a Shabbat for God.” How do the commandments of shmitta (giving up ownership of the land for a year) and yovel (slaves and property going back to their original owners) affect the attitudes, mentality and life of the people?

3. [Yirmiahu 32:18] “…He repays the sin of the fathers into the lap of their children after them…” The Torah tells us that children will not be punished for the sins of their fathers (Dvarim 24:16). How can we understand that the children do suffer for the sins of their fathers?

4. [Yirmiahu 32:27] “…is there anything too hard for me?”   In pasuk 17 of this chapter. Yirmiahu says to God, “…there is nothing too hard for you”. In pasuk 27, God says to Yermiyahu in almost the same words, “ …is there anything too hard for me?”. Yirmiyahu knew in theory that God can do anything, but God had to reassure him. This is a major theme in the way of Torah. How can a person take what he or she knows in theory—in his or her mind—and transfer that understanding to the heart—integrate that knowledge totally into one’s personality?

5. [Pirkay Avot 3:11]   “…someone who embarrasses a person in public…has no portion in the next world.” We would have known that embarrassing a person publicly is a sin, but why is it considered among the worst of all sins?

Commentary

The firmer a person’s vision of universality, the greater the joy that he will experience, and the more he will merit the grace of divine enlightenment. The reality of God’s providence is seen when the world is seen in its totality.

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

 

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

 

(Leviticus: 21:1-24:23)

(Haftara: Yechezkel 44:15-31)

(Pirkay Avot: Chapter 2)

(Sfirat Ha’omer)

 

  1. [21:1-2] “…he should not make himself impure for the dead…except for a relative who is close to him…”   The Kohen can go to the funeral of a close relative. Since the Kohen does not go to a married sister’s funeral, it seems that the factor here is emotional closeness. We know, however, that a good friend can be emotionally closer to us than a close relative. Were family relationships different in earlier times? Is this law for the sake of the Kohen or for the sake of the honour of the dead relative?

 

2. [21:11] “He (the Kohen Gadol) will not approach any dead body—for his father and mother he shall not become impure”. However, if the Kohen Gadol finds a dead body that has been abandoned he must become impure and bury the body. What does this law tell us about the Torah’s attitude to death and life and people.

3. [Pirkay Avot 2:4 or 5] Hillel said,”…don’t say something that cannot be understood, hoping that in the end it will be understood”. Does this statement leave no room for poetry? Why are the books of Kohelet and Shir Hashirim included in the Scriptures? How should we understand this statement of Hillel’s?

4. [Pirkay Avot 2:4 or 5] Hillel said, “Don’t judge your fellow-man until you arrive at his situation”.   Rav Ovadiah from Bartinoro (Italy-15th century) says, “If you see someone in a difficult situation, and he does not act properly, don’t judge him until you come to that same situation and you DO act properly.” But how can we ever judge another? Do we ever know another person’s life history and what internal and external pressures that person is dealing with?

5. [Pirkay Avot 2:8 or 9] “If you learned a lot of Torah, don’t take credit for yourself, because that’s what you were created for.” Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin understands this to mean that you were created to learn according to your abilities. But your real duty is to go beyond your natural abilities, and make an effort to learn beyond what comes easily and naturally. Is R. Chaim saying something new to us or is he just explaining more fully the original statement?

 

Commentary

 

The great dreams are the foundation of the world…the prophets dream…the poets dream while awake…the great thinkers dream of the perfected world…we all dream….The crudeness of conventional life, which is wholly immersed in materialism, removes the light of the dream from the world…Then the vision of the dream will return and it will become a clear revelation.

 

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

 

 

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

(Leviticus: 16:1-20:27)

(Haftara: Amos 9:7-15)

(Pirkay Avot: Chapter 1)

1. [19:2] “…be holy, because I, God, your Lord, am holy.” How can God ask us to be like Him? Isn’t this impossible?

2. [19:11] “…don’t lie to each other.”   Our tradition tells us that the place in the Torah where a mitzvah is written is significant. It relates to either what comes before or what comes after. Why does the commandment to be honest with another person come directly after the commandment to care for the poor and the weak?

3. [19:14] “Don’t curse the deaf, and don’t put an obstacle before the blind…”   These behaviours are obviously metaphors for behaviours that are more common. Which behaviours are these metaphors for? What character traits is the Torah trying to develop in us by telling us not to do these things?

4. [19:18] “…and love your fellow person like you love yourself “.   The Torah assumes that one loves himself or herself. If someone has a low self-image, and does not love himself or herself, what should he or she do? How can a person come to love him or herself? How can a person come to appreciate and love another person?

5. [Haftara: Amos 9:15] “I will plant them on their land and they shall no more be uprooted…”  Why is the metaphor of planting and being uprooted a good metaphor for the relationship of the Jewish people to the land of Israel? Does every nation relate to its land the way that the Jews relate to Israel or is there a difference between nations?

 

Commentary

[Leviticus 19:18] “…Love your fellow as you love yourself, I am God.”

Why does the pasuk end with “I am God”? The Torah is God’s Torah, so it seems unnecessary to say “I am God”.

To love your fellow as you love yourself is very difficult. To do it properly one needs time, effort, patience and insight. So God is encouraging a person and saying, “If you really want to integrate this quality of love, I will help you.”

–The “Sfat Emet”, Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter of Gur (1847-1905)

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

(Shmot 33:12-34:26)

(Ezekiel 37:1-14)

(Sfirat Haomer)

(Shir Hashirim [Song of Songs]

1. [Shmot 33:20-23] “…you are not able to see my face…and you will see my back…”  This is obviously a metaphor, since God does not have a body. In the blessing of the kohanim, they say,  “May God shine His face upon you…” What does “God’s face” mean, and what does “God’s back” mean?

2.  [Shmot 34:7] “…visiting the sins of the fathers on the children and on the grandchildren until the third and fourth generations.” The Torah tells us that the children and grandchildren will suffer because of the parents’ sins. Elsewhere [Dvarim 24:16], however, it says, “…each person will die only for his own sin.”  How can we understand the first pasuk in a way that seems fair and makes sense to us?

3. [Ezekiel 37:5] “…I will cause breath to enter into you…”  In this prophetic vision, God causes the nation to be reborn. Does this prophecy mean that national rebirth will come about only through God’s actions, or could this vision be saying that the people will also help to make it happen?

4. [Ezekiel 37:11] “…our hope is lost…”  In the prophetic passage, the Jewish people are saying that hope is lost. In the national anthem of the state of Israel, Hatikvah [The Hope], the poet uses these same words from Ezekiel, but changes them to say that our hope is not lost. What is it about the way of the Torah or about the Jewish people that does not allow us to say that our hope is lost?

5. [Song of Songs] R. Akiva said that all the holy books are holy, but that the “Song of Songs” is the holy of holies. Why is this book, which is about the great love and yearning between a man and a woman considered the “holy of holies”?

Commentary

Through Pesach and especially through the matzah that one eats on Pesach night, one acquires an elevated state of mind, and realizes that God’s Light fills the whole world. However, in order to acquire this state of mind in a more permanent way, one has to pass through obstacles. These obstacles are symbolized by the maror—the bitters—that we eat at the Pesach seder.  These obstacles could be from one’s surroundings or they could be from one’s own stubborn personality. However, God reduces the effect of these obstacles, and this is symbolized by dipping the marror into the charoset (mixture of nuts and honey).  By passing through these obstacles, one comes to that elevated state of mind.

–R. Natan of Breslov (1780-1844) based on R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

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

Shabbat Hagadol

(Leviticus: 16:1-18:30)

(Haftara: Malachi 3:4-24)

1. [16:11]  “…for himself and for his household…”     From this pasuk  we learn that the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) must be married. He cannot do the service of the Temple unless he is married. Why must the Kohen Gadol be married?

2. [18:25] “…and the land will be impure and I will bring its sin against it…”   It seems that the impurity of the land is a result of sexual offenses. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year the Torah reading is also about sexual offences. Why do sexual sins seem to be worse here than idolatry and injustice and insensitivity to suffering and other sins?

3. [Haftara, Malachi 3:7] “…return to me and I will return to you…”   In Hebrew, “repentance” is called  “return”.  If someone never believed in God, and then does believe in God, and wants to keep His Torah, why is that called “return”?  He or she never had a relationship with God, so, to what are they returning?

4.  [Pesach]   The festival of Passover is called “Pesach” in Hebrew because God “passed  over” the homes of the Israelites when the first-born of the Egyptians was killed (Shmot 12:13). A number of our festivals involve wars and violence and our victories. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on positive memories, rather than recounting the extreme difficulties in our history, and our victories?

5. [Pesach] On the personal level, the word Mitzrayim (Egypt) can also be pronounced metzarim in Hebrew—narrow places. Narrowness is a narrowness of mind and of emotion. It suggests fear and unwillingness to expand or to love. It suggests being enslaved by one’s negative habits, opinions, emotions and behaviours.  What can a person do to try to free himself or herself from this narrowness?

Commentary

There is a commandment from the Torah to be joyful on the festivals. Through joy, one achieves brightness of the face. Through that one enlivens the “holy intellect”. And through that one comes to the perception of Godliness.

–Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, 1772-1810, Ukraine.

 

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