In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Pharaoh asked Moshe to pray to end the plagues in a particular way. Why didn’t he?
Various plagues were wrought by HaShem, Moshe and Ahron.  Why was barad, in particular, brought about by Moshe?

“Try and test me” Moshe replied. “At precisely what time shall I pray אעתיר for you, your servants and your people … ridding you and your homes of the frogs so that they will only remain in the canal [i.e. the Nile]?”

— Shemos 8:5

Moshe and Ahron left the Pharaoh. Moshe cried out ויצעק to HaShem concerning the frogs that He’d brought upon the Pharaoh

— Shemos 8:8

Moshe replied “Behold I am leaving your presence. Tomorrow I will pray  אעתיר to HaShem, the mixed wild beasts will go away from the Pharaoh,  his servants and his people … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and prayed ויעתר   to HaShem.

— Shemos 8:25,26

[The Pharaoh asked them] “pray העתירו to Hashem. There’s been too much of this Elokim-induced thunder and hail. I will send you/ your nation away; you will not have to stay.” … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and exited the city. As soon as he spread his palms up ויפרוש כפיו to HaShem the thunder and din ceased and the hail and rain no longer fell to the ground.

— Shemos 9:28,33

There are six things which HaShem hates, seven which His Soul abominates: 1. stuck-up eyes, 2. a lying tongue, 3. and hands that shed innocent blood; 4. A heart that works out malicious thoughts, 5. feet that are quick in running to evil; 6. A false witness who exhales lies, 7. and one who causes conflict among brothers.

— Mishlei 6:16-19

Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say … One whose deeds surpass his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom surpasses his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.

— Pirkei Avos 3:9

There are 10 different expressions [in Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue;] for prayer …

— Sifri on Devarim 3:23

In an abstract way we are aware of the Chazal that teaches that there are 10 near-synonymous expressions in Lashon Kodesh to describe humans communicating with HaShem. On a theoretical level we are also cognizant of the fact that diverse words carry assorted shades of meaning and that, as such, there must be 10 different ways to pray, 10 distinct media for prayer.

Yet, we are accustomed to congregational prayer during which everyone must be on the same page, both figuratively and literally. We also pray using a liturgy fixed by the anshei k’nesses hagedolah-the men of the great assembly; with later accretions canonized by tradition. And so on a practical level for us there is only one way to pray.  Gradations in the quality of our prayer vary according to levels of ones understanding of the liturgy and ones sincerity and depth of kavvanah-directing his heart and attention towards G-d. To us, the notion that varying circumstances require a different substance or even style of prayer seems utterly foreign.

In Parshas VaEra the Izhbitzer school teaches that the style and substance of prayer must react and respond to the particular needs being addressed and to the root causes of the distress that one is praying to resolve. Just as no two crises are exactly alike so too no two prayers can be clones of one another.

In each of the makkos-plagues; of frogs, mixed wild-beasts and hail we find the Pharaoh of Egypt beseeching Moshe to pray for the cessation of the makkah.  The Pharaoh is consistent. Every time he requests Divine intercession of Moshe he employs a conjugation of the word עתירה atirah-pleading. Yet only in requesting the end of the makkah of the arov– mixed wild-beasts; does Moshe actually plead with HaShem. In order to get the frogs back into the Nile Moshe employs tzeakah-shouting or screaming;  and to stop the makkah of barad-hail composed of fire and ice; Moshe prays with perishas kapayim-spreading his palms outwards and upwards.  The second Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Bais Yaakov, offers insight into the three crises and why the three different prayers were appropriate for each one.

Observing that both the makkos of tzefardea-frogs; and arov were incursions of wild animals into human habitats, the Bais Yaakov asserts that all creatures, both domesticated and wild, yearn for the proximity of human beings for they have a deep-seated, instinctive consciousness that their own actualization and fulfillment can only be brought about by human beings.  But for the vast majority of baalei chaim-animals; hobnobbing with human beings is not the proper means through which man might perfect and fulfill them. Among the Creator’s creatures Man alone is endowed with free-will and thus, with the capacity to exercise free-will to serve G-d.  These acts of avodah-serving HaShem; distinguish man from beast and are what drive away undomesticated animals from human habitats. The power inherent in various types of avodah is what make the different baalei chaim maintain their distance.

The croaking frogs and toads are distinguished by their ability to give voice to wordless cries, groans and screams. They have voices, but their voices cannot inform words.  Correspondingly, the type of prayer-based avodah that keeps frogs separate and distinct from human society is human tzeakah which is similarly inarticulate and wordless. When tzeakah is wielded by a human being it is a non-verbal, yet voice-based, form of communication.  This is why, when the time came to end the makkah of tzefardea, Moshe prayed with tzeakah.

Read more In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Turning Ourselves Upside Down and Inside Out

Ki Sisa 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Moshe turned away and began descending the mountain with the two Luchos HaEdus-Tablets of Testimony, in his hand. They were written on both sides with the writing visible from either side.  The Tablets were made by HaShem and written with HaShems script engraved upon the Tablets.

-Shemos 32:15,16

Rav Chisda said: “the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously” and, he added, “what was written on the Luchos could be read from ‘the inside and from the outside’ [i.e. from the front and from the rear] for example נבוב/בובן =nevuv/ buvan; רהב/ בהר =rahav/ behar; סרו/ ורס=saru/v’ras.

-Shabbos 104A

The writing pierced the entire Tablet. Hence a miracle was required so that the entirely circular letters of [the closing] mem and samach could be read accurately [without the circle in the middle falling out.]

-Rashi ibid

The words of Torah engraved upon the Luchos-tablets, penetrated the stones all the way through, from the front of the stones to their backs.  To illustrate this point, Rav Chisda mentions three words and their dyslexic inversions. Both Rashi and Tosafos ad locum are puzzled by the words that the he chose to use as examples.

Rashi simply states that these words did not actually appear in the tablets; that Rav Chisda chose words at random. Rashi further maintains that we learn nothing more from these examples than that the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously. Per Rashi, Rav Chisda seems to be repeating himself.  Tosafos is more explicit and asks why would Rav Chisda do such a thing when he could have illustrated the same point using words that actually do appear in the aseres hadibros-Decalogue.

Additionally there is a margin gloss on that page of the Gemara that changes the sequence of one of the pairs of words; from rahav/ behar to behar /rahav, presumably because in the other two pairs of words the familiar, meaningful word appears first followed by the inverted, and apparently nonsensical, gibberish word.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Rav Chisda was describing two distinct miraculous, gravity-defying properties of the Torah; the ability to keep things that ought to be moving and falling stationary and the ability to effect drastic movement on things that otherwise would petrify and stay frozen in their places. The former being the stone “donut holes” in perfectly chiseled circles and the latter being the midos-character traits, of set-in-their-ways human beings.

None of the words that Rav Chisda uses to illustrate the latter point are gibberish, nor were they chosen at random.  The Izhbitzer presents a close study of the root etymology of these words to reveal that they are polar opposites and not mere word jumbles arbitrarily spelled backwards.  The inverted spellings serve as a metaphor for the words antithetical meanings. Think of an easy-to-remember lexicon of antonyms where every words antonym was merely the same letters arranged in the opposite order e. g. if the antonym of “cold” was not “hot” but “dloc” or if the antonym of “bottom” was not “top” but “mottob”.

The words that Rav Chisda chose describe midos that are antithetical to one another.  Taking issue with margin gloss the Izhbitzer asserts that the Gemara’s text stand as is, for in each illustrative example the first word describes a negative, antisocial midah-character trait, while the second defines it’s positive polar-opposite midah.

The outer, copper mizbayach-altar of the Mishkan was constructed by filling in a copper plated acacia wood shell with soil or sand.  The Torah calls this construction method nevuv luchos-a hollow structure made out of boards (Shemos 27:8).  This is the precedent for the word nevuv describing something hollow.  When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to an empty-headed ignoramus, void of any Torah content.  Whereas the word buvan is etymologically related to the word binah, the word that defines the cognitive faculty for understanding and deductive reasoning.  Torah has the power to transform minds and spirits that are vacuum-like voids into minds and spirits filled to overflowing with meaningful, intelligent content and wisdom.

The Zohar (parshas Terumah 170B) teaches that the “prince”/guardian angel of Mitzrayim-the Egyptians, was named  Rahav.  In Jewish lore the ancient Egyptians were infamous for their licentiousness and unbridled passion.  This is the precedent for the word “rahav” describing something sensual and lusty. When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to a ba’al ta’avah-someone overly drawn to, and even obsessed with, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world. Whereas the word behar-“in the mountain” connotes both being elevated from the earth and its mundane concerns and materialistic pleasures and being in an atmosphere that is less humid and drier than the air in lower elevations, in particular, in valleys.  Dry mountain air is symbolic of a dispassionate, sober and abstinent sensibility. Torah has the power to transform minds plagued by untoward thoughts and spirits drawn to immorality into drier, cooler minds and spirits that aspire to the noble, the lofty and the otherworldly.

The word saru (generically translated as: ”they strayed ”) refers, in particular, to one who has ossified and hardened because of anger and bitterness; as in “the king of Israel went to his house (סר)surly and  (וזעף) disgruntled, and came to Samaria.” (Melachim I 20:43) Or as we find the Gemara admonishing as us against verbally abusing a disenfranchised minority because “their hardened anger is terrible.” (Bava Metzia 59B)  The word v’ras is etymologically related to the root ras which connotes softness and fluidity. E.g. “so long as one would be memareis –shake or stir, the blood of the Passover sacrifice … [in order that it retain fluidity and not harden and coagulate.”] (Mishnah Pesachim 61A) Or as in laros es hasoles– and 1/3 of a hin of oil, to moisten the fine flour. (Yechezkel 46:14) Torah can help spirits hardened by rage and bitterness, regain gentleness, suppleness and goodwill.

According to The Izhbitzer’s interpretation both the word choices and the sequence in Rav Chisda’s second statement were very specific.  All three word pairings convey the concept that the Torah is more than a guide to self-improvement; it is transformative and empowers those who study it and observe its mitzvos to achieve a 180° turnaround and makeover.

ADDENDUM AS OF 12:20 AM EST 2.14.14

This concept is echoed by other Chasidic masters in their commentaries to Avos and Tehillim.

He (Rabi Yaakov) would also say: A שעה אחת sha’ah achas– single hour, of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than the entire life of the World to Come. 

-Pirkei Avos 4:22

 … and HaShem turned towards-vayisha, the offering of Hevel. But to Kayin and towards his offering, He did not turn-lo sha’ah and Kayin became very furious and depressed.

-Bereshis 4:4,5

He [HaShem] has distanced our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.

-Tehillim 103:12

The Kozhnitzer Maggid provides a novel translation of the word sha’ah.  Based on the pesukim describing the HaShems acceptance of Hevels offering His rejection of Kayins offering the Maggid translates the word to mean — turning. I.e. A sha’ah achas– a single transformative “turn”; of repentance and good deeds in this world — an epiphany, a consciousness altering revolution, that turns someone completely around; upside down and inside out, that kind of teshuvah — THAT is what’s greater than the entire life of the World to Come.

The pasuk in Tehillim begs the question; just how far is east from west?  Is it the vastness that intervenes between California and Eastern Europe?  Is it the expanse of continents and oceans that separate New York and China?  Or, perhaps, is it a short as the relatively minor distance between an address on west 57th street and east 57th street on Manhattan Island?  The Rebbe Reb Avraham the second of Slonim explains that the distance between east and west is minute.  If one is standing facing the east, rotates on his heels, and does a 180° about-face, he has “traveled” as far as the east is from the west. One needn’t journey far in order to be distanced from his transgressions.  What one must do, however, is to make a U-turn.

As one great and influential 20th century rosh yeshivah put it “teshuvah is nisht dehr taitch besser tsu verren … nohr anderish tzu verren-teshuvah is not ‘becoming better’ but ‘becoming different’” It is not about self-improvement but about total transformation.  This is the message and the power of the Torah words that were engraved all the way through the Luchos.

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Ki Sisa D”H Vayifen

and from MiMayaanos HaNetzach Pirkei Avos 4:22

Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

What was the immediate purpose of Yoseph being privy to the dreams of his fellow prisoners?
Why is one dream about plants and the other about processed foods?
Why was the wine steward reinstated and the baker slain?

Soon thereafter the Egyptian king’s wine steward and the baker offended their master, who was the king of Egypt.

Bereishis 40:1

 [Regarding] this one (the wine steward) a fly was found in his goblet, and [concerning] that one (the baker) a pebble was found in his bread.  (Bereishis  Rabbah 88:2)

Rashi ibid

The wine steward told his dream to Yoseph,  “in my dream” he said, “there was a grape vine right in front of me and in the vine there were three shoots; and as soon as it began budding, its blossoms flowered, and its clusters matured into ripe grapes … I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s chalice and placed the chalice into the palm of Pharaoh’s hand.”

Bereishis 40:9-11

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Yoseph: ‘I also saw myself in my dream and there were three baskets of fine white bread on my head; and in the topmost basket there were of all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh [to eat] but birds were eating from the basket on my head.

Bereishis 40:16,17

Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “Woman is destined to give birth every day, for it is said, ‘the woman conceived and gave birth all together (Yirmiyahu 31:7).’” A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun (Koheles 1:9).” Rabban Gamaliel replied ”Come, and I will show you its simile in this world [currently under the sun]”. He went out and showed him a hen [hatching her daily egg]. On another occasion Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “Trees are destined to yield fruit every day, for it is said, ‘ and it shall bring forth branches, and bear fruit (Yechezkel 17:23).’ Just as the branches [exist] every day, so too new fruit will ripen every day.” A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Rabban Gamaliel replied “Come, and I will show you its simile in this world”. He went out and showed him the caper bush. On another occasion Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “[The soil of] Eretz Yisrael is destined to bring forth pastries and silk robes, for it is said, ‘there shall be grain as large as a handbreadth in the land (Tehillim72:16).’”  A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Rabban Gamaliel replied “Come, and I will show you its simile in this world”. He went out and showed him morels and truffles; and for silk robes [he showed him] the bark of a young palm-shoot.

Shabbos 30B

 Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Of all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not create a single thing lacking a purpose.

Shabbos 77B

The kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Zohar Miketz 197A

Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rav Yonasan: in his dreams a man is not shown anything other than the musings of his own heart.

Brachos 55B

The musings of his own heart. i.e. what he ponders during the day/ waking hours [is what he dreams about while sleeping]

Rashi ibid

On a superficial level the fall from grace of Pharaohs wine steward and the baker and the wine steward’s rehabilitation reads like just another instance of palace politics that have characterized the courts of kings from time immemorial. However Rav Leibeleh Eiger avers that, as the primary “audience” watching this drama unfold was Yoseph haTzaddik-the righteous; there is a profound lesson to be learned from it. As Rav taught everything has a purpose even if the purpose is not readily apparent or easily understood.

The episode of Rabban Gamiel and his skeptical student teaches us that some of G-ds creations serve a dual purpose; their utilitarian function in the temporal here-and-now world, as well as serving as symbols and allegories for matters spiritual or belonging to the eternal world-to-come. The sanctified-poetic sensibility and the discerning eye perceive some of the loftiest, transcendent matters in the most mundane of allegories.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger goes a step further and says that some creatures and historical events one and only purpose is to function as hints and allusions to the inner metaphysical realities that they allegorize.  This is particularly true in the politics, intrigues, pomp and ceremony of royal courts as the operative principle is that “the kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is even truer here with Yoseph haTzaddik as the Divinely intended audience. It is part of a tzaddiks job description to cultivate a penetrating and discerning awareness to tunnel in and mine lessons from the pnimiyus-inner content; of all that meets his eyes.

The primary qualitative difference between the respective dreams of the baker and the wine steward is that the bakers dealt with a final product , a processed food; fine white bread, while the wine stewards dealt with the most primary source of the beverage; the grapevine itself.  Both men found themselves incarcerated and in a dire predicament for having been deficient in their service to Pharaoh. The wine steward desired to do teshuvah-repentance; and tikun– repair; to restore his former relationship with his master and invested a lot of time reflecting on what went wrong and how he could set things right.

Read more Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

What is the significance of HaShem making promises to an unconscious , sleeping Yaakov?
Why did HaShem allow Yitzchak to be duped by Rivkah and Yaakov to be deceived by Leah?
Why does our mystical tradition refer to Rachel as the “revealed world” and to Leah as “the hidden world?

Yitzchak summoned Yaakov, bestowed a blessing on him and commanded him “Do not marry a Canaanite girl”.

— Bereishis 28:1

Yaakov left Beersheba and headed toward Charan … taking some stones he placed them about his head and lay down to sleep there … Suddenly [he observed] HaShem Standing  over him … [HaShem said] I am with you. I will Safeguard you howsoever you go.

— Bereishis 28:10,11,13,15

HaShem Elokim said “it is not good for man to be alone. I will Make him a challenging helper.”

— Bereishis 12:18

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a Bas Kol-Echo of the Divine Voice; emanates and proclaims, The daughter of A is destined for B.’”

— Sotah 2A

House and riches are the legacy of fathers; but a sensible wife is from HaShem.

— Mishlei 19:14

We see from all segments of the tripartite Torah that the match between a woman and a man is from HaShem[‘s Divine Providence.]

— Moed Katan 18B

There are those who must go after their mates and others whose mates come to them. Yitzchak’s mate came to him, as it is written “(He raised his eyes) and beheld camels coming [transporting his bride Rivkah.] (Bereishis 24:63)” Yaakov went after his mate, as it is written “Yaakov left Beersheba … (Bereishis 28:10) “

— Bereishis Rabbah 68:3

Yaakov loved Rachel and said [to Lavan] “I will work for seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.” … In the evening he [Lavan] took his daughter Leah to Yaakov who consummated the marriage with her … In the morning discovering that she was Leah [not Rachel] he said to Lavan  “How could you do this to me? Didn’t I labor with you for Rachel[‘s hand in marriage]? Why did you cheat me?

— Bereishis 29: 18, 23,25

A reasonable argument can be made that THE greatest enigma in all of Jewish thought is the conundrum of Yediah u’bechirah-HaShem’s perfect infallible Foreknowledge vs. human free-will. But spinning off of this supreme enigma there are many sub-riddles and mysteries e.g. the particular Providential involvement that our sages ascribe to one’s destined marriage partner. Another example are narratives, both scriptural and personal, of “all’s well that ends well.” There are times when what we think, say or do seems to be thoughtless, ethically neutral or even contrary to the Divine Will. However when later chapters of these biographies are written by the Divine Author, with the passage of time and with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, we realize that, in truth, what we thought, said or did carried a positive ethical charge and was consistent with the Divine Will.

Our sages divide the Providential involvement in matching men with their destined marriage partners into two broad categories:  those who must go after their mates and those whose mates come to them.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that when the Divine Will ordained the creation of woman as a helper to man that, this help too, would manifest itself in two different ways: There are times when a man is proactive in the pursuit of a woman and chooses a mate based on what his rationale, and the rationale of his heart, dictate. He marries a woman in whom heperceives the qualities that will aid him in his life’s work and mission. Such men are among those “who must go after their mates.”

Then there are men whose mates are not at all in accordance with what would naturally be assumed or expected. They come to their husbands without the latter having invested any intellectual, spiritual or emotional capital in determining whether or not they would “make sense” as a married couple. HaShem sends this woman to this man in ways that are counterintuitive and that, at first, seem to thwart both the Divine Will and hinder or delay the achievement of the husband’s goals.

Read more Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Keys to BT Success from a Shabbos in Monsey

I had the pleasure of spending some time this Shabbos with two Beyond BT contributors. Rabbi Label Lam was my host and he davens on Shabbos morning at a Shtiebel where he and Yaakov Astor alternate giving the weekly Shabbos drasha. Yaakov’s drasha this week included recounting some fascinating Torah lessons he taught on his recent trip as a tour guide through Poland.

The area of Monsey that they live in observes a high level of halachic stringency, which can presents challenges for a BT. Yet, both Yaakov and Rabbi Lam have thrived there. I think there are three factors which contribute to their success.

The first factor is that they have accepted the norms of the community. It’s easy to find fault in any community, and our ego makes it easy to fall into that trap. However, publicly following the norms shows respect for the residents, which makes a lot of sense if you want to live and grow there. Most communities allow for some room for deviations from the norm in the privacy of your home.

The second is that they connect with their neighbors. Connecting to others is a major determinant of happiness and success. The demographics in Monsey have become increasingly Chassidish due to a large migration of Yeshivish families to Lakewood. Although neither Yaakov nor Rabbi Lam are Chassidish, they do connect with the commonalities they have with their neighbors. They pray together in the same Shuls, they learn Torah, and they are focused on connecting to Hashem. These are major commonalities and a strong basis for friendship and connection.

Thirdly, they are continually growing in Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chassadim. This is perhaps the most important factor. In my many years as an observer of BTs, continued growth in these three area is the number one determinant for success – by far.

These keys to BT Success are in fact universal and are highly recommended, wherever you may reside.

Forbidden Kiruv

Why didn’t Yaakov simply pass Esav by instead of engaging him?
Why did Yaakov send Angels to his brothers rather than humans?

Yaakov sent representatives ahead of him to his brother, Esav, to Edom’s Field toward the land of Seir.

— Bereishis 32:4

The representatives returned to Yaakov and told him: “We came to your brother, Esav, and he’s also heading toward you. He has [a force of] 400 men with him.”

—Ibid:7

One who grows angry while passing by a quarrel that does not concern him is akin to one who seizes a [sleeping] dog by the ears.

Mishlei 26:17

Let sleeping dogs lie

Popular idiom version of passuk in Mishlei

Our Sages (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2) criticized Yaakov for this [sending representatives and gifts to Easv] comparing it to waking a sleeping dog by yanking its ears: The Holy Blessed One said to Yaakov “he [Esav] was going his own way [not considering any hostilities to Yaakov] and you had to send him representatives and remind him [of the old dormant enmity] ‘to my lord Esav. Your humble slave Yaakov says … ’”?

— Ramban Bereishis 32:4

Yaakov remained alone. A man wrestled with him kicking up dust until the darkness lifted

— Bereishis 32:25

… Our Rabbis explained (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3, 78:3) that the wrestling man was the prince (guardian angel) of Esav.

— Rashi Ibid

… Rivkah became pregnant. But the offspring clashed/ scurried inside of her …

— Bereishis 25:21,22

Our Rabbis (Bereishis Rabbah 63:6) interpreted it [the word וַיִתְרוֹצִצו] as an expression of running/ scurrying (רוֹצָה) . When she passed by the entrances of [the] Torah [academies] of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would scurry and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of [a temple of] idolatry, Esav would scurry and struggle to come out. 

— Rashi Ibid

Question: Isn’t it true that the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; is not operative in-utero and that it is not within man until man is born … [if so why was Esav drawn to evil before he was even born]? The answer is that while it’s true that man has no yen and desire for evil, as part of his free-will equation, until after he is born; what Esav was doing here [when scurrying towards the temples of idolatry] was qualitatively different.  Esav was not yielding to the seductions of his yetzer hara, instead he was magnetically drawn towards his source, nature and species, as it were. For all things are aroused by, and inexorably drawn towards, the source of their intrinsic nature and self-definition.

— Gur Aryeh- supercommentary of the Maharal to Rashi Ibid

It is indeed odd that Yaakov would have awakened the sleeping dog/ giant. At first glance, what could possibly have motivated him to do so is incomprehensible.

According to one approach of the Midrashic sages the representatives that Yaakov dispatched to Esav were heavenly angels. Many commentaries have addressed Yaakov’s “need” for angels. Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that Yaakov was on what, in the contemporary parlance, might be called a mission of kiruv rechokim-bringing those distant from righteousness/ G-d closer.  Yaakov was unwilling to stand idly by as his twin brother degenerated deeper and deeper into the hellish depths of evil. He had hoped that the angels would prove equal to the task of discovering and nurturing Esav’s deeply buried goodness until it overwhelmed all his accretions of evil and washed them away in a cleansing wave of teshuvah-repentance.  After all, the passuk teaches us that angels are uniquely endowed with the capacity of advocating for deeply flawed individuals who possess as little as one tenth of one percent of decency and goodness: “If one has even a single angel out of a thousand advocating on his behalf by declaring his uprightness, then G-d will be gracious to him and say ‘redeem him from descending into destruction [i.e. the grave] for I havefound atonement/ ransom for him.’” (Iyov 33:23,24)

His interpretation is supported by a fuller, closer reading of the Midrash of “awakening the sleeping, vicious dog.” After citing the passuk in Mishlei the Midrash continues: Shmuel the son of Nachman  said “this is comparable to a traveler who awakened the leader of a gang of thieves sleeping at the crossroads and warned him of the imminent dangers [from wild animals]. Instead of thanking the traveler, the gang leader began beating his benefactor. The traveler cried foul ‘you cursed man [is this how you repay me for trying to save your life?]’ The gang leader then said ‘[you deserve it, it’s your own fault] I was slumbering comfortably and you woke me!’”

In this allegory Yaakov is represented by the traveler while Esav’s role is played by the gang leader. Nowhere in this allegory do we find a frightened Yaakov devising strategies and tactics to save himself and/or his family.  On the contrary, Yaakov is a selfless do-gooder trying to save the life and limbs of someone else, fast asleep and unaware of the looming, lurking dangers.  Yakkov’s good deed did not go unpunished and not only is he forced to struggle with the malicious ingrate Esav but, later, he was forced to contend with his evil guardian angel as well.

While it’s often said that “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” it is still hard to grasp what occurred in this case.  Why did Yaakov’s well intentioned plan to save his twin from the wild animals of spiritual ruin go so badly awry? This is especially quizzical in light of the Zohar’s observation that “praiseworthy is he who takes the guilty/sinful by hand [and leads them along the path of repentance and tikkun]”

The Biskovitzer explains that while kiruv is a most praiseworthy endeavor it is wasted upon those whose evil is intrinsic and incorrigible rather than those whose evil is acquired through the incorrect exercise of their free-will. Echoing the Maharal’s clarification for Esav’s in-utero scurrying towards temples of idolatry and, no doubt, paraphrasing earlier sources, the Biskovitzer goes so far as to identify Esav with the primordial serpent who enticed Adam and Chavah into Original Sin.  In other words; Esav is not a good kid gone bad, he is just plain bad. He is not one who falls prey to the yetzer hara he IS the yetzer hara. Such evil is incorrigible, dealing with it in any way, even for the noble goal of its rehabilitation, is doomed to failure and to vicious, attacking ingratitude.

Read more Forbidden Kiruv

When Opposites Attract

Why did Avraham consider Eliezer to be cursed if Lavan referred to him as “the blessed of HaShem”?
If the cursed cannot bond with the blessed how are we to understand the unions of Shechem and Dinah, the Queen of Shevah and Shlomo the King et al?
Why didn’t Eliezer seek a girl who would do chessed proactively before having to be asked?

He [Noach] said, “Cursed is Cannan! He shall be a slave’s slave to his brothers”

— Bereishis 9:25

 “I will compel you with an oath in the name of HaShem, L-rd of Heaven and L-rd of earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.”

— Bereishis 24:3

“My master compelled me with an oath ‘Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I reside. Instead you must go to my father’s house, to my family, and get a wife for my son there.’ I [then] said to my master ‘Perhaps the woman [from your family] will not follow me [back to Canaan]’? “

— Bereishis 24:37-39

Perhaps the woman will not follow me: It [the word אֻלַי (perhaps)] is written [lacking a “vav” and may be read] אֵלַי (to me). Eliezer had a daughter, and he sought a pretext so that Avraham would tell him, to turn to him [i.e. Eliaezers family], so that Yitzchok would marry his daughter. Avraham said to him, “My son is blessed, and you are cursed [Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach], and an accursed one cannot bond with a blessed one.”

— Rashi ibid

And Lavan said “Come O he who is blessed by HaShem! Why are you still standing outdoors? I have cleared the house [of what you might find offensive] and prepared a place for the camels.”

— Bereishis 24:31

Why is Mt. Sinai so called? [Sinai is, alliteratively, similar to the lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word for hatred] Because it was there that hatred descended to the idolaters [for they rejected the Torah that was revealed there].

— Shabbos 89A and Rashi ibid

The intensity of the hatred that ignorami have for Torah scholars exceeds that of the anti-Semitism that the idolaters bear towards the nation of Israel …

— Pesachim 49B

As faces in the reflecting pool mirror one another, so too do the hearts of men.

— Mishlei 27:19

He [Eliezer] prayed O HaShem, L-rd of my master Avraham, be with me today and grant favor to my master Avraham … If I say to a girl ‘Tip over your jug and let me have a drink’ and she responds ‘drink and I will also hydrate your camels’ she will be the one whom You have designated [as a bride] for your servant Yitzchok.”

— Bereishis 24:12,14

When discussing the metaphysics of matchmaking Avraham declares “… an accursed one cannot bond with a blessed one.” Yet TeNaC”h-the Jewish Torah canon; is replete with desired, attempted and actual unions, both marital and extra-marital, between evil and good.  The assertion that evil cannot unite with good, that curse cannot cleave to blessing; seems to be unsupportable in light of such matches and near-miss marriages as those of Shechem and Dinah, Potiphar’s wife and Yoseph, Kozbee and Zimri and Achashveirosh and Esther, et al.

Moreover Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, observes that while, per Chazal, Avraham rejected Eliezers marriage proposal on the grounds of Eliezer being cursed the Torah quotes Lavan as describing Eliezer as “he who is blessed by HaShem.”  Presumably “the Torah of truth” would not record nonsense, hyperbole or the insincere flattery of a sycophant. If Lavans words are true it means that at some point between Avraham rejecting his shidduch proposal and Lavan greeting him, Eliezer underwent a qualitative transformation from being accursed to being blessed.

The Lubliner Kohen illuminates the dynamic of a metamorphosis at least as astonishing as that of the caterpillar-into-butterfly variety.

Evil and Good are in a state of constant and intense antipathy towards each other.  They want no truck with one another and do not desire merger. Shlomo the king teaches in Mishlei that “as faces in the reflecting pool mirror one another, so too do the the hearts of men.” The nature of “emotion” is cyclical and reciprocal and so, the vicious cycle of abhorrence and recrimination between Evil and Good perpetually intensifies the alienation between the two.  But, at the risk of sounding trite, this begs the question: Who started the hostilities and estrangement?  Who’s to blame for the inability to come together?

A close reading of Rashi, “an accursed (one) cannot bond with a blessed (one)”reveals that it is evil that finds itself incapable of cleaving to good; it is not the other way around. I might add that this understanding is further supported by the gemara in Pesachim 49B that speaks of the hatred of the ignoramii and the idolatrous nations first, although it is safe to presume that the Torah Scholars and the Nation of Israel bear reciprocal loathing towards those who hate them. The passage in Shabbos 89A that pinpoints the origin of the Divine Hatred of the idolatrous nations at Sinai, only after they rejected the Torah, further bolsters this argument. Yet this makes it even more difficult to understand why it was Eliezer who initiated the proposed match between the daughter of Eliezer the cursed and the son of Avraham the blessed.

It is important to note that that Eliezer never articulated an explicit marriage proposal.  The proposal, such as it was, was an insubstantial allusion, a mere wordplay.  The Vilna Gaon explains that Chazal detected the subliminal marriage proposal in Eliezer employing the word אֻלַיperhaps; connoting a desired outcome, rather than פן–lest; connoting a scenario to be avoided. Moreover the Kotzker Rebbe insightfully points out that even this mere hint of a proposed match does not appear in the Torahs narrative of the actual dialogue between Eliezer and Avraham.  It is only later, during Eliezers repetition of that conversation to Rivkas family, that he had an epiphany and understood why he had employed the word אֻלַי rather than פן.

Along these lines, and to address the issues of evil and good bonding, the Lubliner Kohen maintains that during his actual conversation with Avraham, Eliezer revealed his subconscious desires in what contemporaries might call a Freudian slip, because he only had blessed potential at the time, but was not quite ready to transform into a full-fledged blessed being until after his encounter with Rivka. The nascence of his transformation from cursed to blessed began as soon as he accepted the mission of his master Avraham but, as he had not yet actualized his potential for blessedness he was, as yet, incapable of verbalizing his desire to unite with and cleave to the good and blessed on an overt level.

Read more When Opposites Attract

I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Is Judaism a meritocracy or an aristocracy?
Why do we dwell in our Sukkos on Shabbos but do not fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav on Shabbos?
Why is a stolen Lulav invalid for performing the mitzvah when one does fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah in anothers Sukkah?

[The nation of] Israel was crowned with three crown: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Ahron merited the crown of priesthood, as the passuk-verse; declares: “And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants following him.”(Bemidbar 25:13).  David merited the crown of royalty, as the passuk declares: “His progeny will continue eternally, and his throne will be as the sun before Me.” (Tehillim 89:37)

The crown of Torah lays at rest; waiting and ready for all, as the passuk declares:  “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4).  Whoever desires may come and take it. Lest you say that the other crowns are superior to the crown of Torah, consider that the passuk declares: “By me [Torah], kings reign, princes decree justice, and nobles rule” (Mishlei 8:15,16).  Thus, you have learned that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.

— Rambam: Laws of Torah Study 3:1, 2

 

Today is to do them (the mitzvos) and tomorrow is NOT to do them. Today is to do them and tomorrow is to receive their reward.

— Eruvin 22A

Judaism contains elements of both an aristocracy and a meritocracy. On the one hand being a Kohen, a Levi or a candidate for Moshiach– the Messiah; is purely an accident of birth.  Jewish identity itself is determined by biological matrilineal descent while tribal identity is determined by patrilineal descent.

But on the other hand our sages teach us that a mamzer-one born from a kares prohibited union; who is a talmid chacam-Torah scholar; takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol-High Priest; who is an am haaretz-ignoramus. Anticipating sociological patterns, Chazal comment “take heed of [the dignity of] the children of the impoverished, for Torah [scholarship] shall emanate from them”(Nedarim 81A) and “[why is it] that the sons of talmidei chachamim are rarely talmidei chachamim themselves?” (ibid).  Some of history’s greatest Jews e.g. Onkelos, Rabi Meir and Rabi Akivah were geirim-righteous converts; or their descendants.  On this level Judaism is the ultimate meritocracy with no glass ceilings that impede upward social-spiritual mobility.

We will see that paradoxically; the aristocratic, heredity-based aspect is actually the more egalitarian, classless of the two elements whereas the meritocracy creates a stratified, multi-tiered hierarchy. Based on two Halachic differences between Sukkah and Lulav-the four species; the Izhbitzer understands the two mitzvos of the holiday in light of the hereditary- and merit-based components of kedushas Yisrael-Jewish sanctity.

On Shabbos the Halachah exempts us from fulfilling the mitzvah of Lulav whereas we are still obligated in the mitzvah of Sukkah.  The reason for the contrast is that Shabbos is a scintilla of Olam Haba-the Coming-World wherein avodah-serving the Creator through the exercise of free-will; no longer exists. There (then?) all that the person toiled to acquire in the here-and-now world through his choices and actions are secured in his heart. This is why all 39 categories of creative activity are prohibited on Shabbos. Whether we are speaking of our weekly Shabbosos or “The Day that shall be entirely Shabbos and eternal rest”, only one who has exerted himself on Shabbos eve will enjoy the fruits of his labors on Shabbos (Cp. Avodah Zarah 2A). Sukkah is an effortless mitzvah, one is merely “there.” Sukkah represents the hereditary kedushas Yisrael present in the heart of every Jew passed along like spiritual DNA from the patriarchs. The mitzvah of Sukkah resonates with same the kind of “all our work is done” sensibility that inform Shabbos and Olam Haba.

But Lulav, which we take up in our hands and move in every possible direction of human endeavor, is characteristic of all mitzvos maasiyos– the mitzvos requiring decision-making, exertion and activity. The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Laibeleh Eiger points out that the gimatriya-numerical value; of Esrog is 610. When we count the other three species used to fulfill the mitzvah along with the Esrog the sum is 613, the precise total of all of the mitzvos. The 4 species embody every possible avodah endeavor. There is something very proactive, workmanlike and this-worldly about Lulav that makes it inconsistent with Shabbos.

Read more I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Beauty may be Skin-Deep but Some Hideousness is to the Bone

Today, 29 Adar Sheini is the yuhrzeit-anniversarry of the death of the great Polish Chassidic Master Reb Shloimeleh Rabinowicz; zy”a, the first Radomsker Rebbe, as well as other tzadikim and talmidei chachamim-Torah sages. The following Devar Torah is adapted from his work on the Torah and Holidays, Tiferes Shlomo, and is dedicated l’iluy nishmas –for the ascent of the sou,l of

Mrs. Lottie B. Valberg who shares the same yuhrzeit by her grandson lhbc”c Mr. Simcha Valberg, sponsor of the weely Izhbitzer Torah.

אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים.

If a person (Adam) has a white blotch, discoloration or spot on the skin of his body and it [is suspected] of being a sign of the leprous curse on his skin; he should be brought to Ahron the Kohen or to one of his descendants; the kohanim…

—Vayikra 13:2

זֹאת תּוֹרַת, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶגַע צָרָעַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תַשִּׂיג יָדוֹ, בְּטָהֳרָתוֹ

This is the Torah governing he who has within him the leprous curse…

—Vayikra 14:32

Comparing and contrasting  these two pesukim we find that there are two distinct types of metzoroim; one whose tzaraas-leprous curse is superficial; no more than skin-deep and the other whose tzaraas is described as being “within him”; at the core of his being. Moreover the first type of metzora is described as being an adam, the word in lashon kodesh –Torah Hebrew, that connotes human-beings at their highest level.

Reb Shloimeleh Radomsker, echoing the Ramban, (Vayikra 13:46 D”H v’habeged) reiterates the concept that the entire spectrum of negaim –skin ailments that exude tumah-ritual impurity, and their purification has nothing to do with physical maladies nor are the kohanim mandated by the Torah to deal with negaim dermatologists.

Negaim are HaShems way of disciplining the afflicted person and affording him the opportunity to cast his sins aside and return to HaShem where he will find mercy and healing. Read more Beauty may be Skin-Deep but Some Hideousness is to the Bone

So Bad That it MUST be Good

A SPECIAL REQUEST: Please do not begin reading this devar Torah unless you intend to learn it thoroughly and reach the disclaimer at the very end. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to your spiritual development and health.

How can it be that a small spreading of the white negatzara’as rash causes ritual impurity but that if the rash spreads over the entire body it then becomes a sign of ritual purity?

Why is it that on a Sanhedrin tribunal judging capital offenses a mere majority of two voting for guilt is sufficient to execute capital punishment but that if the Sanhedrin votes for guilt unanimously that the accused is declared innocent and “walks”?

But if the white mark increases in size on the skin after it was shown to the Kohen, who purified it, the person must again show it to the Kohen.  If the Kohen observes that the rash on the skin has increased in size he shall declare the person impure, it is the leprous curse.

—Vayikra 13:7,8

[This is the law] if the leprous area flourishes over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the afflicted person from head to foot wherever the Kohen can see: When the Kohen sees that a leprous discoloration has covered all the [person’s] skin he must declare the afflicted person pure. It has turned completely white [and so] he is pure.

—Vayikra 13:12,13

Rabi Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously found [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? —Because we have learned that final sentencing must be postponed till the next day [after the completion of the trial] in the hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But these [judges who voted unanimously] will no longer [be capable of] see[ing anything exonerating or meritorious] for him

 —Sanhedrin 17A

Rabi Yochanan said, “Yehudah wanted to pass by [Tamar], but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, ‘Yehudah!  Where are you going? Where will kings come from? Where will great men come from? Where will redeemers come from?’”… “And he veered towards her on the road” (Bereshis38:16)—Coerced against his will [not in his best interests

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

Belief in human Free-Will is a fundamental of our faith. In Hilchos Teshuvah (chapters 5,6) the Rambam argues spiritedly and convincingly for the veracity and reality the human Free-Will refuting the arguments and beliefs of the determinists and incompatibilists, even the ones who attempt to support their contentions by quoting pesukim from the TeNaC”h.  Later commentaries point out that the eleventh Maimonidean article of faith is Divine Reward and Punishment and that such a belief is untenable unless human Free-Will is real and not a myth.

That said it is equally important to remember that our Free-Will is limited and not absolute or all-encompassing.  In his treatise on Free-Will, Rav Elya Lazer Dessler uses the following allegory to illustrate this point: When two neighboring countries are war with one another in theory the potential exists for the absolute victory of one country or another.  In this scenario country “A” would conquer and annex every last acre of enemy country “B”s land, raising their national colors and imposing their laws and governmental system over every inch of what was formerly enemy territory.  But in practice, on any given day during any given battle of the war only a small portion or, in a multiple front war, several small portions of territory are actually being contested.  Armies advance and retreat and what was firmly under the control of one country or another last week, last month or last year may be in enemy hands today.  Nevertheless, in a long wars ebb and flow the actual current battlefronts comprise a relatively small to tiny portion of the combatant countries total land mass. Read more So Bad That it MUST be Good

Thinking Inside THE Box(es)

Terumah 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

HaShem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel and have them lift an offering up to Me. Take My offering from anyone whose heart stirs them to give.

-Shemos 25:1

Make an Ark of Shittim-Acacia wood 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ cubits wide and 1 ½ cubits high.  Envelop it with a layer of pure gold; it should be covered on the inside and the outside, and make a gold lip all around its top. 

-Shemos 25:10,11

Betzalel (the chief artisan constructing the Tabernacle) built three Arks; two of gold and one of Acacia wood.  All had four walls and a floor but no roof (i.e. the “Arks” were boxes, open on top).  He inserted the wooden one within the exterior golden one and the interior golden one within the wooden one.  He then coated the upper lip with gold. As such (the Acacia wood Ark) was covered on the inside and the outside. 

-Rashi ibid

None of the furnishings of the tabernacle were made exclusively of gold other than the Menorah. (but I’m puzzled) Once a golden Ark was made, why was a wooden one necessary? 

-Ibn Ezra ibid

Several peculiarities distinguished the Aron HaBris–the Ark of the Covenant from the other structures and furnishings of the Mishkan-tabernacle. The specs for its dimensions were in half, rather than in full, ahmos-cubits. Unlike the Menorah it was not made of solid gold but unlike the other wooden Mishkan structures and furnishings coated with metal, it was composed of three substantial inlaid boxes, akin to Russian nesting dolls, rather than plated with a paint-thin coating of gold or copper.

The Aron HaBris was the vessel for the Luchos HaBris–the tablets of the covenant and so it serves as a powerful allegory for human bearers of the Torah, talmidei chachamim-Torah sages and, in a larger sense, Klal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Chazal drew a metaphorical lesson from the design and structure of the Aron HaBris: Rava said (the fact that the inner and outer boxes of the Ark were composed of the identical substance [gold] teaches us that) “any talmid chacham-Torah sage, whose interior is inconsistent with his exterior (i.e. who is insincere or hypocritical, who lacks yiras Shamayim-the awe of Heaven) is no talmid chacham at all.”(Yoma 72B)

Based on this homiletic precedent the Izhbitzer School provides many insightful interpretations about the design and structure of the Aron:

The Izhbitzer taught that in order to acquire Torah a person must view himself as incomplete without the Torah that, as was the case with the measurements of the Aron, that they’re only “halfway” to completion and fulfillment. On the other hand, if one only has an intellectual curiosity about Torah similar to an academic interest in other disciplines HaShem will not allow him to become a receptacle for the Torah.  If a person feels as though he can live without Torah, he may study and contemplate it for years, but he will never truly absorb it.

The Izhbitzer’s younger son, the Biskovitzer Rebbe, explains that the reason for the three individual inlaid boxes was to demonstrate the Torahs intrinsically hidden nature.  It is not merely that the true meaning of the Torah’s narratives, mitzvos and teachings often eludes us; the proverbial “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” but that there are three barriers that must be transcended and pierced in order to perform the mitzvos fully. The following impediments prevent people from committing themselves single-mindedly to the service of HaShem and, thereby, transforming themselves into abodes for His Divine Indwelling:

1.  So many millennia have come and gone and so many “end times” have been predicted without the long-awaited dawning of the messianic era-kalu kol hakitzin.  The dispiriting sense of hopelessness in Mashiach ever actually arriving cools our ardor for the mitzvos.

2.  The leadenness of our natures steers us towards undemanding, path-of-least-resistance, mitzvas anashim melumadah-rote performance of the mitzvos.  Bringing a sense of awe, wonder and freshness to the performance of mitzvos time after time is very challenging when we’ve been trained to do the mitzvos from our earliest youth.

3.  The burden of our past sins weighs us down.  We feel humiliated before HaShem and utterly convinced that our relationship with Him has been irrevocably broken.

The Biskovitzer explains that the midrash (Shemos Rabbah 33:3) interprets the pasuk “I am asleep but my heart is awake” as an allusion to these three barriers. “I” may be insensate to the end of days, but “my heart” — the Holy Blessed One, is awake, maintaining and stoking the very last embers of longing for the messianic era within me.  “I” am deadened to the vitality of the mitzvos by my robotic, by-rote performance but “my heart” — the merit and legacy of my forefathers, who were trailblazers and who were forever breaking new ground, is awake.  “I” am anesthetized and alienated by the ether of guilt wafting malodorously from the incident of the golden calf, but “my heart” — HaShem, my Merciful Father, refusing to give up on even the most wayward of sons, is awake.  The Holy Blessed One called for me to build the Mishkan.  If the alienation caused by sin was truly irrevocable would HaShem ever have invited me to participate in the building of an abode for His Divine Indwelling?

He cryptically concludes that, of the three boxes, it is davka the wooden one that symbolizes the impediment of sin-engendered guilt feelings and especially, on a national level, the guilt engendered by the incident of the golden calf. Puzzling, because the Midrash Tanchumah that he cites (Parshas Vayakhel 8) says the Aron was made of Shittim wood to atone for the sin committed at Shittim. This is an apparent reference to the sin of licentiousness with the Moabites that occurred at Shittim and not referring to the sin of idolatry of the golden calf (that occurred at the foot of Sinai).

[A more direct reference might have been the Midrash Tanchumah from our own parshah (Terumah:10) that states; HaShem told Moshe “they committed a folly (shtus) and angered Me with the calf; let the Acacia wood-atzei Shittim come and gain atonement for their folly.”  The problem with the latter citation is that the Acacia wood in question is that of the mizbayach-altar and not of the aron.]

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, asserts that the essential aron was the one that was made of wood.  Unlike inert-mineral gold, wood came from a living, thriving, flourishing tree.  The Torah itself is referred to as “the tree of life.”  The atzei Shittim box in the center represents the ardent, almost libidinous, yearnings for Torah-chamidu d’Oraysa that are the necessary prerequisite for the acquisition of the Torah’s wisdom (cp Rambam Isurei Biah 22:21).  While the sincere awe of heaven, represented by the interior and exterior golden boxes, contains, defines and sublimates the unbridled, wild infatuation represented by the wood.

Elsewhere the Lubliner Kohen notes that during the creation of Heaven and earth, the darkness preceded the light.  He postulates that every personal or national advancement towards greater spirituality and “the light” must be preceded by, and grow out of, a darkness.  It was not simply that the Shittim wood of the Aron atoned for the sin of the calf it was that the dark sin of the calf was an indispensable precondition that engendered the light of the Aron and, as the epicenter of its sanctity, the entire Mishkan!

The sin of the calf was motivated by Klal Yisrael’s desire for a palpable sensory-perceivable Elohim that would lead them.  While directed towards the calf this desire was something dark and sinister.  But the radiance and illumination of the Mishkan — a place where HaShem’s Indwelling was palpable, and the only site where all “seekers of HaShem” went to find what they sought (Shemos 33:7), followed and grew out of the darkness of the calf. Through the atzei Shittim, the shadowy “shtus” of the calf became part and parcel of the Aron’s and Mishkan’s radiance.

 ~adapted from: Mei HashiloachII Terumah D”H Kol Middos
Neos Deshe Terumah D”H  v’Ahsu (the first)
Pri Tzadik Terumah inyan 8 page 152
Resisei Laylah inyan 24 pp3031

REVISED 5:30 PM EST 1.30.14

Growth and Change are Hard – So What are We Waiting For?

R’ Micha Berger has written a fine essay pointing out that mitzvah observance is a means, and we need to do more if we want to achieve the goal of Torah and mitzvos. I’m assuming he doesn’t disagree with the Ramchal in the chapter on Human Responsibility in Derech Hashem where he says:

We therefore see that the true purpose of the commandments is to turn us toward G-d, bring ourselves near to Him, and thus be enlightened by His Presence, to avoid sin and other phenomena that lead us away from G-d. This is the true purpose of all the commandments.

In a post titled Getting Better Mileage from our Mitzvah Observance, I pointed out that according to the Ramchal in Mesillas Yesharim:

Observing mitzvos are indeed the means, but the goal is to continually growing in our connection to Hashem. If we don’t notice progress in that goal of closer connection, then we’re not getting the appropriate value from our mitzvah observance.

The Mesillas Yesharim also tells us what we’re doing wrong, we’re not focused on improving our performance of the mitzvos. We need to be more careful in their observance, and more mindful when we perform them. If we follow the Torah’s prescription in mitzvah performance, we will achieve the goal of continuous growth in our connection to Hashem.

In the previous mentioned post and a post around Chanukah time, I suggested we work on our Kavanna in the following four things:
1) Say one Birchos HaMitzvot each day with Kavanna
2) Say one Shema each with Kavanna
3) Start one Shomoneh Esrai each day with Kavanna
4) Say one Birchos Hanehenin each day with Kavanna

When Rebbetzin Heller was in the U.S. in November, I had the pleasure of having dinner with her and I mentioned the above project and asked her opinion. She said that if a person could do these four things daily, it would be transformational. She also pointed out that because we do these things every day, it is difficult to say them with Kavanna.

When a friend from Baltimore stayed by us for Chanukah, I mentioned this project. He also agreed that it would be amazing, but that it’s hard.

So that’s situation we find ourselves. If we can do some of the mitzvos that we’re already doing, with a little more Kavanna, we can take ourselves to a higher spiritual level and perhaps in the process we can motivate those around us to reach for higher levels. It’s hard, because of the regularity with which we perform these mitvos, but it’s definitely within our grasp. I’m still working on it and encouraging others who are interested to join me.

Yes, growth and change are hard – so what are we waiting for?

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s Spiritual Growth Prescription

In a previous post titled, “Getting Better Mileage From Our Mitzvah Observance”, I suggested that those interested in continued spiritual growth, which I assume is most readers of this site, should try to say their Brachos with more mindfulness. I’ve been following my own advice and it is indeed a powerful, accessible way to connect to Hashem.

But don’t take my word for it, here’s a story adapted from the Introduction to Meah Brachot Ki’hilchata, by Ner Lelef Resources in the The Concept and Practice of Berachot class of their amazing Morasha Syllabus:

One of our greatest leaders in the last century, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, was visited daily for advice, blessing, and encouragement by people from all walks of life. One day a man who was suffering a deadly illness approached Rabbi Auerbach to ask his advice on how to invoke Divine mercy to spare his life.

“I am unworthy of advising definitively on such a serious issue,” he replied. “However, I will tell you what I would do in such a situation. I would strengthen myself in the reciting of Brachot, making sure to enunciate each word carefully and clearly and with the proper concentration. If I were to succeed in that,” concluded the sage, “that would be for me a great accomplishment.”

Now, it is well known that Rabbi Auerbach was always particularly careful with his Brachot and said them with much concentration and mindfulness. So much so, people would come just to observe him utter a Bracha and would be duly uplifted as they watched this holy man connect with his Creator in a deep, meaningful way. Nevertheless, he would still strengthen himself constantly in this area. Even in the last year of his long life (which is when this incident happened) he felt that there was room for improvement and growth.

It seems there is no limit to the levels of perfection and growth in the purity of heart and mind that can be attained in the recitation of a simple Bracha.

Addition by Subtraction

Vayishlach 5774-An installment in the series From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School For series introduction CLICK By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood   Yaakov remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until just before daybreak.

-Bereshis 32:25

He had forgotten small flasks and [unwilling to squander them] returned [unaccompanied] for them. 

-Rashi Ibid

But Esav said, “I have plenty, my brother; let what is yours remain yours.”, “Please no!” Yaakov said “If indeed I have gained favor with you, then please accept my gift.  After all, seeing your face is like seeing the face of the Divine, you have received me so favorably. Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you.  Elokim has favored me [with it], and I have all [I need].” Yaakov thus prevailed upon him, and [at last] Esav took [it].

-Bereshis 33:9-11

Yaakov was among those Tzadikim who “value their property more than their bodies”(Chulin 91A).   So much so that he found it unconscionable to let a few small flasks go to waste.  Rav Leibeleh Eiger points out that his imploring Esav to accept his substantial gifts seems totally incompatible with his earlier behavior and attitude.  Even had he been less frugal, the fact that the recipient was the wicked Esav should have curbed his generosity and apparent urgency to part with his own property.

“But of the Tree of the Knowledge Joining Together of Good and Evil, do not eat of it; for on the day that you eat of it you will definitely die.’

– Bereshis 2: 17

The word Da’as means joining together and becoming as one. We’ve learned that the Original Sin, ingesting of the fruit of the Tree of the Joining Together of Good and Evil resulted in the Yetzer HaRa became internalized and integrated into mans very being. When Adam and Chava became what they ate this had a universal cataclysmic effect as the mish-mash of good and evil spread throughout the macrocosm as well. The catastrophic result of the Original Sin is that on both a human and a cosmic level there is no longer any unadulterated good or any unmitigated evil.

To resolve Yaakov’s inconsistencies Rav Leibeleh applies and expands this concept. He maintains that the physical manifestation of mans intrinsic evil is the foreskin. The bris milah-covenant of circumcision is intended to separate this congenital admixture of evil.  No one considers circumcision an act of maiming nor circumcised people to be amputees. On the contrary; the preamble to this covenant is “Walk before me and become perfect!” (Bereshis 17:1). One achieves perfection through excision of the superfluous. Circumcision is addition through subtraction.

Milah serves as the template for free-will endowed human beings to continue exercising their will in making birurim-refinements that sift the evil away from the good and expunge it. When HaShem bestows munificence and kedushah-holiness on deserving individuals that kedushah contains traces of evil as well.  It is the recipients’ mission and challenge to sift away and remove these smatterings of evil.  The Divine Wisdom determines the quality and quantity of evil that is in the mix, customizing the “compound” that requires refining so that it is appropriate to the soul tasked with the refining.

In our patriarch’s case, the vast stream of benevolence and kedushah overflowing from HaShem to Yaakov was adulterated by the pollutants of Esav’s evil. But until Yaakov isolated and detached the portions belonging to Esav that he’d received, he himself was as imperfect and spiritually maimed as one who is uncircumcised.  While Yaakov was, indeed, very parsimonious and possessive of that which belonged to him, he was eager to divest himself of all that belonged to Esav. This explains why he literally begged Esav to accept his gift. Yaakov was not giving away, he was giving back.

This helps explain the odd grammatical construct of pasuk 11; “Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you” is in the past tense. The pasuk would have been less stilted had it read: “Please accept my welcoming gift that I bring to you/ that I am giving you”. Subtextually Yaakov is telling Esav “Don’t imagine for a moment that I’m giving up anything (good/holy) that is actually mine. I’m merely transferring something that belonged to you from long ago. It had been brought to you in the past as an extraneous, superfluous add-on of evil at the time that HaShem’s shefa-overflow of benevolence came to me (כי חנני אלוקים). The welcoming gift that I present to you now was always meant to be yours.   On the contrary, you must take back what was always your portion from me so that what remains with me will be refined, unadulterated holiness. I must add to myself, perfect myself through this subtraction. Giving you this gift is another iteration of cutting away my foreskin.”

The very act of urging, pleading, nagging, almost harassing, Esav to accept the gift, was out of character for Yaakov.  While non-violent, it resonated of the type of compulsion and intimidation we normally associate with Esav, he to whom “the arms” belong, who lives by his sword and who engages in tyrannical imperialism. The technique of this gift-giving, actually divestiture, was itself, a part of the birur. “Prevailing-upon” his brother, Yaakov used his persistence as body language to tell Esav “Take your own haftzarah-your compelling, prevailing-upon away from me. ויפצר בו…ויקח

On that day Esav returned on his way to Seir. Yaakov journeyed to Sukkoth.  There, he built himself a house, and made shelters for his livestock. He therefore named the place Sukkoth. [Shelters]

– Bereshis 33: 16-17

The Torah’s narrative progresses from the episode of the “gift” to Esav to the final separation of the two brothers from one another. Rav Leibeleh concludes that this segue is as seamless and reasonable as the irreversible separation of the foreskin from the perfected body.

Adapted from Imrei Emes Vayishlach D”H Kach page 37  

Of Angels and Men

VaYera 5774-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 And he [Avraham] lifted his eyes and saw, three strange men standing near him

-Bereshis 18:2

The three “men” were angels

-Rashi ibid

When a man’s ways please HaShem, He causes even mans enemies to be at peace with him.

– Mishlei 16: 7

Two ministering angels , one good the other bad , escort a person home from the synagogue Friday evening.  When he comes home to find the lamps lit, the table set and his bed made the good angel says ‘May it be HaShems will that next Shabbos we find things the same way ’ and the bad angel is compelled to respond ‘Amen’ against his will

-Tractate Shabbos 119B

And Elokim said “Let Me Us make man”. Alternatively: “Man has [already] been made.”

-Bereshis 1:26

Chaza”l teach us that Malochim-Angels are fundamentally opposed to the creation and ongoing existence of human beings:  Rebee Seemon said: When HaShem, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed groups and parties, some saying, ‘Let him be created,’ while others urged, ‘let him not be created.’ As it is written, “Loving-kindness and truth met up, justice and peace kissed.” (Tehillim 85:11): The Angel Loving-kindness said, ‘Create man, because he will dispense loving-kindness’; the Angel Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, because he full of lies’; the Angel Charity said, ‘Create man , because he will perform acts of altruism’; the Angel Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.”’ What did God do? God took Truth and cast it to the earth, as it is written, “and truth will be sent to the earth.” (Doniel 8:12)The Malochim said before the Holy One, “Master of the Universe! Why do you despise Your seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!” Hence it is written, “Let truth sprout from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12) …Me’od –‘Very ’) is [in reference to] Adam; [the letters מאד–very are a word jumble for אדם–man i.e. Adam=man is good] as it is written, “And God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31), i.e. and behold Adam was good. Rav Huna the Elder of Tziporen, said: While the Malochim were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, HaShem created the first human. God said to them, “Why are you arguing. Man has already been made!” (Bereshis Rabbah 8:5).

This  Midrash implies that the creation of Man took place “under protest”. Even when temporarily suppressed many protests are ultimately successful. So it is not out of the question that the Angelic naysayers were complicit in the undoing of humanity through the first sin and the subsequent degradation of humanity by the generations of the Flood and the Dispersion.

The human predilection for lies and strife are a product of mans constrained G-d consciousness. An angel has but to lift its eyes to attain a limitless, incomparable awareness of HaShem and how His glory fills the universe. In marked contrast, even after years of intense exertion, mans G-d consciousness is meager. The light that man beholds is relatively dim and is known as “the Diminutive Face”.  Angels are illuminati bathed in HaShems infinite light. The angelic sense of superiority in terms of their G-d consciousness underlies the various “no-votes” protesting the very creation of man. Regarding uncircumcised man there was no adequate argument to refute the angel’s dismissiveness. There was no debating with them.  HaShem Kivayachol-so to speak had to ignore their protests and present His creation of Man as a fait accompli.

Many Mechabrim-Torah authors, in particular the Ramcha”l , explain that the very Raison d’être of Klal Yisrael- the Jewish People is to rectify the sin of the first man and to bring humanity back to the pre-sin state. As such it would stand to reason that our founding patriarch, Avraham, would earn the angelic seal of approval.

The second Izhbitzer, The Bais Ya’akov takes this approach in explaining the Angels post-circumcision visit with Avraham.

The new edition of Man, Avraham Avinu after the covenant of circumcision, could do something that angels could not.  As dim and meager as his light may have been he was capable of transforming darkness into light and able to draw new light into the gloom of our murky, materialistic world.  In marked contrast angels see things as they are without recognizing any potential for qualitative change. To an angel what’s light is light and what’s dark is dark. For the angels heaven is heavenly and the earth is, well, hopelessly earthy.

As long as the foreskin adheres to man all of mans internal light and potential for illumination are trapped and imprisoned within his being. But when man, Avraham, removes the foreskin his internal and external transformative powers are unleashed. Avraham spread G-d consciousness to the four corners of the earth and, in so doing, made something heavenly out of the earth.

The Tikunei Zohar reveals two remarkable, complementary acronyms in the phrase   מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָהWho (mee) will ascend (ya’aleh) for us (lahnu) to heaven (HaShamaymah) [Devarim30 :12].  The first letters of each word form an acronym for Milah-circumcision. The last letters of each word form an acronym for the tetragrammaton-HaShems proper four letter Name. The encoded allusion being that the circumcised one, Avraham, can in fact ascend to Heaven for us and bring HaShem to the earth.

An angel can take light and multiply the light, take the tiniest blade of grass and exhort it to grow tall, thick and lush (Bereshis Rabbah 10:6). But these are, after all, quantitative expansions not qualitative transformations. Angels are incapable of making the inert-mineral botanic or metamorphosing the botanic into animal or the animal into the human. Omnivorous man ingests the mineral, the botanic and the animal and, through digestion, integrates them into his speech-endowed being.  When man uses this nutrition to serve HaShem through speech AKA prayer he has not merely grown the grass tall…he has altered the grass into something human, speaking and prayerful.  The angels were forced to recognize their relative inferiority and could no longer argue the uselessness of man in HaShems creation.  Impressed and even awestruck they too wanted to partake of the circumcised mans meal.

 Adapted from Bais Ya’akov-Vayera Inyan 16 (page 72A ) 

More on More Mitzvah Mileage

In yesterday’s post, we pointed out that for mitzvos to have their intended effect of getting closer to Hashem, we need to perform them with mindfulness, which can include attention, focus and kavannah. Fellow spiritual growth traveler, Neil Harris, emailed us and pointed out that mindfulness is currently a very popular concept in the secular world.

In a recent post on Brevedy, titled Pay Attention to this Post, David Linn highlights a recent secular book named Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher. Gallagher states what we have known in the Torah world for a while, specifically, that we have the ability to control what we pay attention to and focusing on the good will expand our world and make us healthier and happier. I want to note that Brevedy, which is focused on growth in the physical, emotional and intellectual dimensions has gone to a daily posting schedule.

Getting back to spiritual growth and more mitzvah mileage, we suggested a simple starting point of saying one brocha a day with more focus and mindfulness and we gave a simple translation of the Shehakol blessing which we say over many foods including water and coffee.

R’ Micha Berger, mentioned in the comments to that post, that he has been focusing on his Shehakol over his first cup of coffee for a while and provided us with the translation he uses when he says the brocha. Micha has a great explanation of the meaning of a beracha in his post on his site called “What is a Berakhah”.

Getting Better Mileage From Our Mitzvah Observance

Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l used to tell a story of an observant Jew who was not motivated to grow further. He told Rabbi Kirzner that he was in the top 10% in terms of observance, and when the other 90% of Jewry caught up, he would go further.

The Mesillas Yesharim in the chapter on Acquiring Watchfulness says that the majority of observant Jews have this attitude. He says that the average person says regarding the world to come that “if we do not have a larger portion, we will have a small one”.

From one perspective this attitude seems justified. After all observant Jews keep Shabbos, do mitzvos, learn Torah, daven, etc.. Aren’t we doing what G-d wants from us?

The Mesillas Yesharim in the chapter on Man’s Duty in this World points the way to our mistake. We are confusing the ends with the means. Observing mitzvos are indeed the means, but the goal is to continually growing in our connection to Hashem. If we don’t notice progress in that goal of closer connection, then we’re not getting the appropriate value from our mitzvah observance.

The Mesillas Yesharim also tells us what we’re doing wrong, we’re not focused on improving our performance of the mitzvos. We need to be more careful in their observance, and more mindful when we perform them. If we follow the Torah’s prescription in mitzvah performance, we will achieve the goal of continuous growth in our connection to Hashem.

Let’s try a simple experiment for one week. Once a day let’s make a brocha on coffee or water with more focus and mindfulness. At the end of each day mark down whether you made the brocha with more focus.
Here’s a standard understanding of the brocha you can use to increase your focus:

Baruch Atah – You are the source of all blessing
Adonai – Master of all (who always was, is, and will be)
Eloheinu – The source of all powers
Melech HaOlam – King of the World
Shehakol Nihyah- everything was created
Bidvaro – through His words

In a brocha over water we can focus on
1) The reality of Hashem’s existence
2) His creation of everything in existence
3) His continual supervision of everything
4) His absolute authority over everything
5) His transformation of the spiritual into the physical

Let’s hope this a week where we can start to get more mileage from our mitzvos.

Spiritual Growth Through the Reading of the Weekly Parsha

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal explains that G-d created man for the purpose of connecting and cleaving to Him through mans own efforts. In the the whole universe, only man was placed between perfection and deficiency with the power to earn perfection. The process of earning that perfection is what spiritual growth is.

In order that G-d’s goal of man earning his perfection be best achieved, G-d decreed that man should consist of two opposites, a pure soul inclined towards the spiritual and an unenlightened physical body inclined toward the material and away from the spiritual. Even though man is immersed in the physical, he is able to rise to perfection through his physical activities. The activities which enable man to rise to perfection are the mitzvos.

The Ramchal describes the categories of mitzvos and describes in greater detail the learning of Torah. In addition to learning Torah to know how to perform the commandments, Torah study in and of itself plays a very large role in bringing man to perfection. The Ramchal describes two means of fulfilling Torah study, through the reciting of the words of the Chumash, and through understanding of Torah.

Chazal (the sages) instituted a weekly spiritual growth mechanism which takes advantage of the power of Torah learning called Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targem, which is reading the weekly Torah portion twice in Hebrew and its translation once.

The Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berurah describe different levels of performing Shanyim Mikra, but let me recommend the easiest way, which will enable you to perform it and achieve its spiritual growth benefits:

1) Read out load the Parsha in Hebrew during the week to fulfill the first Hebrew reading.
2) Read out loud the Art Scroll translation in English during the week. This fulfills the translation component.
3) On Shabbos, during the public leining read along out loud quietly to fulfill the second Hebrew reading.

Each week counts as a separate mitzvah so don’t fret if you didn’t start this year with Bereishis and Noach. You can start this week with Lech Lecha.