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Welcome to our Shabbos Table!

We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.

Please share them at your own Shabbos table, and send us your most interesting responses. A selection of the best will be posted on the website, and eventually, included in a book. To respond, click on "Click here to respond" or email us at
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Parshas Chukas #1

Simple Earthenware

“And every earthenware vessel with no cover on it, is impure” (Bamidbar 19:15).

Among the many halachos in Parshas Chukas are the laws of ritual purity and impurity, affecting people, clothing, foods, liquids, and utensils. Unlike vessels made from other materials, an earthenware vessel that is in an ohel (literally, “a tent,” or roofed area) with a person who has died, will only become defiled if the vessel is uncovered. If the vessel is covered tightly by a lid, it does not become defiled (Rashi).

Inside

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859), the legendary Kotzker Rebbe, explains the difference between earthenware vessels and those of other materials. Earthenware, made of simple clay, has very little intrinsic value. It is important primarily as a container – what counts are its contents. This is why it is not defiled by contact with impurity from the outside, only from the inside (Emes V’Emunah 87).

The Kotzker Rebbe compares a pious Jew to an earthenware vessel; his value is based not on his outward appearance, but rather on his inner content. On the outside, he may look like a simple “clay jar,” but on the inside, he has tremendous worth.

What do we consider to be our most important component – the externals that are visible to others, or what we are on the inside? And how do we view others? Do we define them by their looks and wardrobe, or do we realize that this is not what really counts?

Question for Discussion:

Which traits do you consider a good indication of what a person is really like on the inside?

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Responses:

Aharon (“Roni”) Shapira, a high-tech and health care entrepreneur in Jerusalem, quoted a well-known Gemara:“A person can be assessed by three things:his cup; his pocket; and his anger” (Eiruvin 65b). Rashi explains that one’s “cup” means his behavior when he drinks alcoholic beverages. His “pocket” refers to the honesty of his financial dealings with others. His “anger” means whether or not he is overly irritable or impatient.

Roni suggested that observing someone’s habits in these three areas can tell us even more about him; when people drink, spend money, or get angry, we can see their true colors.

Unfortunately, many people do drink. How does the alcohol affect them – does it bring out their good side, or their bad? Everyone spends money, but how do they choose to spend it – on necessities and charity, or on ostentatious extras? So too, everyone gets angry at some point, but what is it that makes them lose their temper – truly serious issues, or any triviality?

Ms. Chana Studley, originally from England and Los Angeles, now in Jerusalem, finds that the way people engage in conversation is very telling: When you meet someone, does he appear to be genuinely interested in you, and involved in the conversation? While you are speaking, is he looking at you, or at his watch, phone, or email? In addition, is he talking “with you,” or “at you”? Is he listening and responding to you, or is he interested only in expressing his own opinion, and putting his own point across?

Parshas Chukas #2

Producing Water

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give of its waters, and you will produce water for them from the rock, and you will give [water] to drink to the congregation and to their cattle. And Moshe took the staff from before Hashem, as [Hashem] commanded him. And Moshe and Aharon gathered the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them, listen, rebellious ones, shall we produce water for you from this rock? And Moshe lifted his arm, and he hit the rock with his staff twice, and a large quantity of water emerged, and the congregation and their cattle drank. And Hashem said to Moshe and to Aharon, because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I gave to them. These are the waters of contention [Mei Merivah], [over] which the children of Israel quarreled with Hashem, and He was sanctified through them” (Bamidbar 20:7-13).

For forty years, the Jews in the desert drank water from “Miriam’s Well.” After Miriam’s death, it stopped producing and they were suddenly without water, an enormous hardship for a nation living in a desert. They angrily voiced their complaints to Moshe and Aharon, and Hashem told Moshe to “speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give of its waters.” Moshe miraculously brought forth a flow of water from the rock, but Hashem rebuked him for his actions and punished him severely. This incident became known as Mei Merivah, literally “waters of contention.”

What exactly had Moshe done wrong? The commentators, among them the Abarbanel, who lists and then refutes some ten possibilities, suggest a number of answers to this question.

· Moshe sinned by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, as Hashem had instructed (Rashi, Bamidbar 20:12).

· Moshe became angry at the Jewish people (Shemoneh Perakim, Chapter 4, cited in Ramban, ibid. 20:8).

· Moshe said that he and Aharon would produce water from the stone, rather than attributing the miracle entirely to Hashem (Rabbeinu Chananel, cited in Ramban 20:8).

· Moshe hit the rock twice, instead of only once (see Ibn Ezra 20:8).

A Closer Look

Rav Mordechai Gifter (1915-2001), rosh yeshivah of Telshe in Cleveland,noted that at first glance, it does not appear that Moshe committed any great transgression here. And yet, by examining every word and nuance of the pessukim, the commentators find not only one sin, but several. Apparently, said Rav Gifter, even when it comes to Moshe Rabbeinu, careful analysis of any action can reveal numerous imperfections.

Many times in life we experience hardships which we find difficult to accept. “I am a good person, and I keep Torah and mitzvos,” we think. “Why is this happening to me? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

We are not Moshe Rabbeinu, and we are certainly not perfect. If even his actions could fall short under careful scrutiny, what can we say? A little honest introspection may well show us that in our lives as well, there is still much for us to improve (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “A Lesson in Scrutiny”).

Question for Discussion:

What is one area in your life where you would like to improve?

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Response:

Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel, Director of JET YP (Jewish Education Team Young Professionals) in Chicago:I am working very hard on gaining control of the technology that has taken over our lives – cell phones, email, computers, iPads, and the like. In addition to installing filters to make sure all content is appropriate for myself and my family, I am making a special effort to limit my use of technology. For my job, I need to be accessible to the students and young professionals whom I work with. However, I found that keeping the phone on, with emails arriving all night, was simply too much. I decided that using my smartphone as an alarm clock, and then checking my emails in the morning, even before saying Modeh Ani to thank Hashem for restoring my soul, was over the line. Instead, I bought an item from the Middle Ages known as an alarm clock.

I still continue to grapple with the problem of proper, healthy usage of technology, and hope to progress in the right direction. The next frontier is shutting down the technological circus at a reasonable time at night!