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.
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Parshas Masei # 1
Staying On Track
“These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt according to their legions, by the hand of Moshe and Aharon. And Moshe recorded their departures according to their journeys in keeping with the word of Hashem. And these were their journeys, according to their departures” (Bamidbar 33:1-2).
At the end of Sefer Bamidbar, the Torah lists the forty-two journeys of the Jewish people during their forty-year stay in the desert. There is no superfluous information in the Torah; why does it provide us with this detailed list of names?
We learn from the commentaries that many of these names were given to the locations because of the events that took place there. What mattered, then, was not the journey, but the experiences of the Jewish people and the lessons they learned along the way.
The Berachah and the Fruit
Rabbi Mordechai Kamentsky relates a story about the Toldos Aharon Rebbe. The Rebbe was sitting with one of his chassidim, and after a long wait, the Rebbe’s attendant brought in a beautiful bowl of fruit. The Rebbe noticed that the chassid seemed hungry, and encouraged him to make a berachah on an apple from the bowl.
The chassid said that such a beautiful fruit deserved an equally beautiful berachah, and he proceeded to give it his all. Gripping the apple in both hands, he stood up and briefly admired Hashem’s splendid handiwork, which he looked forward to soon enjoying. He then carefully recited every word of the berachah aloud, swaying in profound concentration. It was the best berachah he had ever made in his life, and apparently, the best apple he had ever tasted. He was pleased with his spiritual accomplishment, but the Rebbe felt that his chassid had missed the point.
The Rebbe first made sure to compliment him on his beautiful berachah, and then gently explained the difference between the chassid’s berachah, and that of a tzaddik. The chassid had wanted to eat the fruit, and that had prompted the berachah – it is forbidden to partake of any type of food without it. He had made the berachah in order to eat the fruit.
The tzaddik’s starting point is different. He is eager to make a berachah praising Hashem for His magnificent creations – but he can only recite it if he is about to eat. A tzaddik eats the fruit in order to make the berachah, and not the other way around.
In our own lives, are we here for the berachah, or are we distracted by the “fruit?”
Far too often, we let trivial factors dictate our priorities. In fact, many people will schedule their activities based on the order of the emails in their inbox! The email at the top becomes high priority, followed by the one below it, and then the next one after that. The lineup in the inbox says nothing about any one email’s relative importance, yet we allow it to determine our plans and goals for the day.
Question for Discussion:
The journeys of the Jews in the desert were important, not for the locations themselves, but for their deeper spiritual significance. How can we overcome life’s distractions and learn to focus on priorities?
Decades ago, a certain teenager was deeply impressed by a wise saying:“If you live each day as if it were your last, one day you will be right.” Thirty-three years later, he still asked himself every morning, “If this was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” When the answer was “No” for too many days in a row, he understood that change was in order.
Parshas Masei #2
“And the congregation will save the murderer from the hand of the avenger of the blood, and they will return him to his city of refuge to which he had fled. And he will live there until the death of the High Priest who was anointed with the anointing oil” (Bamidbar 35:25).
The Torah prescribes a unique penalty in the case of an unintentional murder: the murderer was obligated to flee to one of the Arei Miklat (“Cities of Refuge”) located throughout Eretz Yisrael. If he failed to go to one of these designated cities, the goel hadam (“avenger of the blood”), usually the victim’s closest relative, could kill him to avenge his relative’s death. Six cities were set aside for this purpose, and in addition, the forty-two cities assigned to the Leviim also servedas Arei Miklat. The unintentional murderer would remain there until the death of the incumbent Kohen Gadol (Bamidbar 35:6-29).
Why was an accidental killer required to seek refuge in an Ir Miklat?
One reason was to save him from death at the hands of the goel hadam. Another was to help him achieve atonement. While he was not an intentional murderer, he had caused the death of another human being. This tragedy had come about specifically through him, indicating that there was some degree of culpability – the victim’s death had been an accident, but the killer was not entirely blameless (see Makkos 10b). The Seforno writes that the length of every individual’s stay in the Ir Miklat was carefully calibrated in Heaven, in keeping with the extent of the killer’s guilt. If he was only minimally at fault, his stay would be relatively short. If his unintentional murder was closer to intentional, he was destined for a far longer stint (ibid. 35:25).
The American legal system recognizes the concept of “contributory negligence.” When a plaintiff seeks damages for harm that he has suffered, the court will consider whether his own negligence contributed in any way to the outcome. For example, a pedestrian may be careless in crossing the street, and be hit by a car – whose driver was also careless. The pedestrian was hurt by the driver, but he too “contributed” to the accident through his negligence in crossing; had he been more careful, the accident might not have happened. As a result, he may not be able to claim full damages. In some states, the damages he is awarded will be in proportion to his role in causing the accident.
Negligence on the part of either party – whether the “driver” or the “pedestrian” – makes him at least partially responsible for the accident. In the Torah’s case of an accidental murderer who caused a death through negligence, he too bears some responsibility, although it is clearly less than that of a murderer who kills intentionally.
Everything about the Arei Miklat was geared to the goal of rehabilitating the killer and helping him gain atonement. If a Torah student had to go to an Ir Miklat, his teacher would accompany him into exile to allow him to continue learning. A Torah teacher’s students would join him in his Ir Miklat, so that he could continue teaching them Torah (Makkos 11a).
The location of the cities was also an important factor. Most of the cities which served as Arei Miklat belonged to the Leviim, who were dedicated servants of Hashem on a high spiritual level. Their cities had a special degree of sanctity, and that alone may have helped those who fled there achieve atonement. In addition, because of their refined character, the Leviim would not antagonize the unintentional murderer or do anything to harm him, even if the victim had been a Levi’s personal friend or relative (Sefer HaChinuch 408).
Is rehabilitation really possible?
Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski, renowned addiction counselor and prolific author, related the story of a criminal who was able to rehabilitate himself against odds far greater than those faced by the exiles in the Arei Miklat.
Rabbi Twerski met Avi at a session for recovering ex-convicts who would be entering a rehab program at a halfway house. Avi had taken up theft at the age of eight, and at thirty-four, had spent half of his life in and out of jail. His family wanted nothing to do with him, and no employer was willing to hire him. He was registered for the program, but he saw absolutely no future for himself.
Rabbi Twerski spoke to him, comparing the rehab program to the work of a diamond cutter. A rough diamond looks like little more than a dirty lump, but an expert in the field can recognize its potential, and knows how to bring it out. When the stone is properly shaped and polished, it is beautiful and brilliant. The latent beauty was always there, but it needed the right care and expertise to bring it to the fore. This, Rabbi Twerksi told Avi, was true of people as well. Every individual is a rough, raw diamond, waiting to be discovered and polished to a shine.
Avi joined the program, and two years later he was doing well, living and working in the community. One day, the manager of the halfway house called and asked him for a favor. An elderly woman who passed away had left her furniture to the halfway house, and her family had asked that they arrange to have it picked up. Avi agreed to take care of it, but when he arrived, he saw that the furniture really was not worth saving. Not wanting to upset the family, he removed the worn out items without comment.
Avi was surprised when an envelope fell out from behind the cushions of a couch, and shocked when he discovered that it contained five thousand shekels, worth about $1,700! He called the manager, who told him that the family should be informed. They were so moved by this gesture that they donated the money to the halfway house. It was used to furnish space for another resident – one more person who would be given a chance for recovery. When Rabbi Twerski visited the facility a year later, he saw a new sign over the door: “Diamonds Polished Here” (“Do Unto Others,” Andrews McMeel Publishing, pp. 3-4).Given the right setting, any diamond can shine.
Question for Discussion:
Which “rough” aspect of your personality would you like to polish?