Tuesday, March 23, 2010

T'fila L'Parnasa

I don't remember where I heard this story, but I'm pretty sure it's true. I may have embellished it a little.

Yaakov was learning in kollel. Every week, all the men of the kollel would line up in front of the Rosh Yeshiva, and he would pass out their checks. And every week, the check would have the same amount - just enough for Yaakov to support his family. One particular week, Yaakov got in line as usual.  Somehow, as the Rosh Yeshiva was passing out the check, he skipped over Yaakov. When Yaakov asked the Rosh Yeshiva why he was skipped, the Rosh Yeshiva was very surprised. He said that he never missed a kollelman, so Yaakov must have done something that caused this confusion. After a great deal of thought, it came out that Yaakov had been so reliant on the kollel's check, had taken it so for granted, that he had stopped saying the T'fila L'Parnasa during the bracha Shema Koleinu in Shmoneh Esreh.

I just made the same mistake.

I have been temping at an office. When I had my interview there, they basically told me that after I finished the temp work, I would be given a real, permanent job. I took it so for granted, I didn't see the need to daven for a job.  I already had one.

But no.

Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the one who determines who will have parnasa, and who won't. Who will have a job, and who will not. There are no assurances in this life - about anything. Shidduchim, parnasa, health, etc. Hashem gives us everything, and if we are not deserving - if we don't appreciate and acknowledge where our plentitude comes from - He can take it all away.

And davening is the only way to get it back.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Parshas Vayakhel/Pekudei

(from Parsha Potpourri by R' Ozer Alport)
ויבא את הארן אל המשכן וישם את פרכת המסך ויסך על ארון העדות כאשר צוה ד' את משה (40:21)

In his commentary on our verse, the Baal HaTurim points out that the Torah emphasizes that every aspect of the construction and assembly of the Mishkan was done precisely as Hashem commanded Moshe. In fact, the phrase “as Hashem commanded Moshe” is used 18 times in Parshas Pekudei. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, the Baal HaTurim explains that this number alludes to the 18 blessings recited thrice-daily in the prayers known as Shemoneh Esrei.

I once heard a beautiful and profound insight into the comment of the Baal HaTurim. Hashem told Moshe (31:1-5) that Betzalel should be in charge of building the Mishkan and its vessels, for He had imbued him with Divine wisdom and with expert craftsmanship skills. We are accustomed to viewing artists as free-thinking and creative spirits, valuing self-expression over adherence to strict guidelines.
As many of the specifications for the Mishkan weren’t absolute and even numerous deviations wouldn’t invalidate it, one might have expected Betzalel, with his “artistic spirit,” to improvise and attempt to “improve” upon Hashem’s blueprint. Therefore, the Torah stresses that he followed each and every instruction down to the smallest detail.

Similarly, many people today complain that they feel constrained by the standard text of our daily prayers, which was established almost 2000 years ago. They feel that as our daily needs change, so too should our expression of them. However, based on the Baal HaTurim’s comparison of the daily prayers to the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels, we may suggest that on a deeper level, he is hinting to us that we need not feel stifled by the repeated expression of our needs and entreaties using identical phrases, as illustrated by the following story.

A close disciple of Rav Yechezkel Abramsky once mentioned that an acquaintance of his had recently undergone a difficult kidney transplant. Rav Abramsky sighed, feeling the other Jew’s pain, and then remarked, “I pray every day that I shouldn’t be forced to undergo such a procedure.” The surprised student questioned why he made a special point of reciting this unique prayer daily. Rav Abramsky responded that this request is included in the standard wording of Birkas HaMazon, in which we request that we not come to need מתנת בשר ודם – gifts of flesh and blood (e.g. transplants).

The student challenged this explanation, as the simple understanding of the words is that we shouldn’t need monetary gifts from other humans (“flesh and blood”). Rav Abramsky smiled and explained that the Sages incorporated every need we may have into the text of the standard prayers. Any place we find in which we are able to “read in” a special request we have into the words is also included in the original intention of that prayer.

Just as Betzalel followed Hashem’s precise guidelines for the creation of the Mishkan and still found room for creative expression by doing so with his own unique intentions and insights, so too our Sages established the standard wording of the prayers with Divine Inspiration, articulating within them every feeling we may wish to express. Many times, in the midst of a difficult situation, we begin the standard prayers with a heavy heart, only to find a new interpretation of the words which we have recited thousands of times jump out at us. This newfound understanding, which has been there all along waiting for us to discover it in our time of need, is perfectly fit to the sentiments we wish to convey, if we will only open our eyes to see it and use our Sages’ foresight to express ourselves.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Parshas Ki Sisa

וירא העם כי בשש משה לרדת מן ההר ויקהל העם על אהרן ויאמרו אליו קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו כי זה משה האיש אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים לא ידענו מה היה לו (32:1)

Rashi writes (Bamidbar 19:2) that Hashem declared the mitzvah of parah adumah to be a “chok” – Divine decree with no readily apparent rationale – regarding which we are not permitted to inquire or attempt to understand. Shlomo Hamelech declared (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3) that after using all of his intellectual capabilities to attempt to understand this mitzvah, he was still unable to do so.

Yet Rashi also writes in the name of Rav Moshe HaDarshan that the parah adumah served as atonement for the sin of the golden calf, and he proceeds to explain how each detail of its laws specifically atoned for a corresponding aspect of the golden calf. After writing that the parah adumah is the quintessential chok, the purpose of which even Shlomo couldn’t grasp, how can Rashi proceed to explain the rationale behind the mitzvah in great detail? Secondly, in what way did this mitzvah specifically effect atonement for the golden calf?

The Beis HaLevi explains that when the Jews incorrectly concluded that Moshe died, they were distraught by the lack of an intermediary to lead them and teach them Hashem’s will. They yearned to build a place for the Divine presence to rest among them to fill the void left by Moshe’s perceived death. Because their intentions in building the calf were for the sake of Heaven, they selected Aharon to lead the project so that it would succeed. If so, what was their mistake, and why did their plans go so awry?

The Beis HaLevi explains that each mitzvah contains within it deep, mystical secrets which have tremendous effects in the upper worlds when performed properly. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people erred in thinking that if they discovered the Kabbalistic concepts behind a mitzvah, they could perform it based on their understanding even without being commanded. As a result, although their intentions were proper, they lacked the Divine assistance which comes only from performing His will, and they ended up sinning with the golden calf.

The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 51:8) teaches that the Mishkan also served as atonement for the golden calf. The Beis HaLevi explains that because the sin of the golden calf was caused by doing something without a command from Hashem to do so, the Torah repeatedly emphasizes in Parshas Pekudei (e.g. 39:5) that every aspect of the Mishkan was made exactly as Hashem commanded Moshe.

With this introduction, we can answer our original questions. The mitzvah of parah adumah is indeed a chok, the logic of which escaped Shlomo and certainly Rav Moshe HaDarshan. If so, what does he mean when he says that the red heifer comes to atone for the golden calf? As we now understand that the root of the sin of the golden calf was the Jews’ attempt to “outsmart” Hashem by doing something which He didn’t command them to, the ultimate rectification of this sin is to completely subordinate one’s intellect to Hashem’s dictates. This was manifested by their willingness to perform a chok, a mitzvah which appears to make no sense but which we do solely because Hashem commanded it.

(taken from Parsha Potpourri by R' Oizer Alport)
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