Read This First

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
responses@ourtable.org.

Parshas Shoftim #1

Pursuing Tzedek

“Justice, justice pursue, in order that you will live and take possession of the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you” (Devarim 16:20).

A halachic court system to uphold justice is a fundamental of Jewish society. In his review of the Torah before his death, Moshe Rabbeinu taught the Jewish people about this basic requirement for a nation living in their homeland, exhorting them to “pursue tzedek.”

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch writes that the pursuit of tzedek above all should be the Jewish people’s highest objective: personally and as a nation, we should strive for tzedek for its own sake, free of any other considerations.

What is tzedek? It can mean justice, honesty, or truth. Rav Hirsch defines the lofty goal of tzedek as the establishment of all human relationships, both individual and communal, on the foundations of the Torah. This ongoing obligation is the basis of Jewish society; it is the primary condition for our continued existence, physical (“and you will live”) and national (“and you will take possession of the land”). All else should be subordinate to tzedek.

Proper or Popular?

The pursuit of tzedek is not always easy or popular, but it is right, and it is our duty as Jews. I learned a lifelong lesson in tzedek from my twelfth-grade Gemara rebbe, Rabbi Zvi Teichman.

It was 1988, and I was a high school senior. To my good fortune, I was one of twelve students selected that year for the school’s beis medrash program. We had top rebbeim and an excellent curriculum, and it was a great year for us. However… there was another privilege traditionally enjoyed by all high school seniors in Los Angeles, which was not exactly in line with the beis medrash program: Disneyland’s “Grad Night.”

At the end of the school year Disneyland would open after hours on a few selected nights, exclusively for graduating seniors. Students would arrive formally dressed, on buses organized by their school and accompanied by chaperones. The evening out included the famous Disneyland rides, dancing, and socializing. The assumption was that the yeshivah kids would know to stay away from inappropriate activities.

Los Angeles tradition or not, Rabbi Teichman would not hear of his talmidim attending such an event. He understood that it would not be enough just to tell us not to go. Instead he decided on an innovative final exam for our class, scheduled to begin at 11 p.m., just as Disneyland opened its gates on Grad Night. Each of us would prepare an amud of Gemara, and spend half an hour teaching it to our classmates. Those six hours in the beis medrash would keep us safely away from the all-night partying at Disneyland. There would be no makeup test – anyone who did not come in for the final would fail the course.

Rabbi Teichman’s decision was not very well received. In particular, a few students and their parents subjected him to a great deal of pressure. They insisted that he give the final on a different night, but Rabbi Teichman stood his ground. Ten of us came in for the final. The other two went to Disneyland and failed the course.

I actually learned not one, but two lessons from this story. The first was tzedek tzedek tirdof as taught by Rav Hirsch: Rabbi Teichman knew what was right for his students and that was all that mattered, even in the face of unpleasant opposition. The second was that in the long run, I have no doubt that the ten boys at the final don’t regret the time they spent learning Gemara that night.

(After graduation, I did not see Rabbi Teichman until he visited Israel in 2015. He was our guest on Shabbos Parshas Shoftim. I related this devar Torah at the Shabbos table, along with the story of “my twelfth-grade rebbe” who had the strength to stand up against Grad Night – and then introduced Rabbi Teichman in person to everyone at the table.)

Question for Discussion:

At times we are faced with the choice of actively standing up and fighting for tzedek, or keeping quiet and following the crowd. When and how did you cope with this dilemma, and do you regret your decision?

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Responses:

Two of our regular Shabbos guests said that this was the most difficult question ever raised at our Shabbos table discussions, and they may well have been right…

Our fifteen-year-old daughter related that she met with some friends from elementary school during summer vacation, and the conversation drifted into lashon hara. She reminded her friends that this was forbidden talk, asked them to change the subject – and they listened.

Mendel from Brooklyn had been in a similar situation. He had not asked his friends to stop, but he personally did not participate in that part of the conversation.

Did either of them regret their decision? Our daughter did not; she was glad that her intervention had curtailed the gossip. Mendel, on the other hand, was sorry that he had not spoken up – had he tried, he too might have been able to prevent the lashon hara.

“Chaim” from Riverdale, New York, recalled a time when he chose to take the initiative and protest: We lived in Manhattan, and what we were seeing in the streets, especially in the summer, was enough to make us want to move. The contrast between going to shul and the immodest garb of the people we encountered on the way could not have been greater. Then a “Victoria’s Secret” outlet opened right on our block. The vulgar displays in the window made even a simple neighborhood shopping expedition distasteful.

I had two options: I could either take a stand and protest against the indecent window displays, or choose the easy way out and do nothing. Our conclusion was that even lacking sufficient support, we should attempt to speak up, and we organized a protest. Unfortunately it was not very effective, but at least a public statement was made. For us personally, this incident was the deciding factor: soon after, we relocated to Riverdale, a much better community for our family.

Rebecca from Mexico City described a very painful dilemma: A dear friend was suffering from a terminal illness. Her family was in denial, unable to acknowledge that she had little time left. I very much wanted to say viduy (confession) with her but I knew that her relatives would not allow it, and there was always someone with her in the room.

One day things looked very bad, and a doctor asked the family to step out of the patient’s room to discuss a medical issue. I had a siddur with me, and as soon as they left I took the opportunity to say viduy with my friend. Only four hours later, she was gone. I never told her family about the viduy, but I know that I did the right thing for her.

Parshas Shoftim #2

Neglect

“If a corpse is found on the ground that Hashem your G-d gives you to possess, fallen in the field, [and it is] not known who struck him” (Devarim 21:1).

“And they will respond and say, our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see” (ibid. 21:7).

The Torah views the murder of a single Jew as a tragedy; if the body of an unknown victim is found in a field outside the city limits, it is not an incident to be taken lightly. Those living near the site of the murder are considered at least partially culpable, because they had failed to accompany him safely when he left their town. When this happens, the Torah requires the unique public ritual known as “Eglah Arufah,” literally, “The Axed Calf.”

Measurements were taken to determine which city was the closest to where the body was found. To atone for the sin of murder, the elders (“Zekeinim”) of the beis din of this city would then break the neck of a calf with an axe in a barren field, and pray for forgiveness. Every detail of the procedure was intended to drive home the message that all Jews are responsible for one another’s welfare (Devarim 21:1-9, Rashi and Baal HaTurim).

Part of the prayer of the Zekeinim was a declaration that their hands had not spilled the dead man’s blood. Why were they required to make this statement? Realistically, would anyone suspect them of having committed the murder? Rashi writes that the Zekeinim were referring to a different type of guilt. They had not noticed the wayfarer, and had let him go without giving him food and without escorting him. This neglect had left him vulnerable to danger, with terrible results (Sotah 46a).

The Chizkuni, citing Rashi, notes that there is a keri u’kesiv in their declaration they had not spilled the victim’s blood. The word שפכו (“spilled”) is pronounced shafchu, with a letter vav at the end of the word. In the Torah it is written שפכה, ending with a heh. This letter heh is significant. The gematriya (numerical equivalent) of heh is five, an allusion to five forms of assistance a host should provide for his guest: food, drink, escort, a place to sleep, and a gift. The Zekeinim and the townspeople they represented had not killed this man outright, but they had neglected him, and now they were faced with the outcome.

Baruch Hashem, in our own daily lives we are not guilty of murder, but we may well be guilty of neglecting others. There are people whom we know and see daily, but somehow, they are left standing at the sidelines. No one thinks to invite them to a simchah, community event, or Shabbos meal. A quiet, reserved man may be routinely overlooked when it comes to distributing aliyos in shul. There has been no great act of insult or offense, but it is often very painful to be forgotten or ignored.

Waiting to Be Found

An incident from the life of the Maggid of Mezeritch, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov, highlights the anguish of being abandoned or left out.

The Maggid’s son was in tears, and his saintly father asked him why he was crying. The little boy told him that he had been playing hide-and-seek with his friends. He had found a hiding place and waited and waited for his friends to seek him out, but they had never even bothered to come looking for him…

When the Maggid heard the child’s tale he wept along with him, for a pain far more profound than his young son’s. Hashem is also in hiding, and He too waits for the Jewish people to seek Him out. He is there, just out of sight, but sadly, we never even look for Him.

The month of Elul is here, with Tishrei around the corner. Now more than ever, Hashem is still in hiding, so to speak, yet especially close at hand. He wants to be “found,” but the search is up to us.

Question for Discussion:

How can we be kinder to someone we know who is neglected or forgotten by others?

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Response:

It was our first Purim in Jerusalem, and we were compiling our mishloach manos list. We wanted to include not only good friends, but those whom we thought might appreciate a bit of extra attention. The first who came to mind was Eliyahu, the non-observant but traditional owner of a small local grocery store. From his spot at the cash register, he would be spending the days before Purim taking care of customers shopping for mishloach manos and the Purim seudah, and Purim itself watching everyone walking or driving past his store, making their rounds. How many people would remember Eliyahu, alone at the register?

We put him first on our list, but were unsure of what to bring him. Would he really enjoy store-bought items that he could just pick off the shelves of his own grocery? In the end, my wife made him a home-baked challah and kugel that he could use at his Purim seudah. When the day came, our entire family made this delivery together. When he realized that we were there for him, just to bring him a personal mishloach manos, his face lit up – and he had tears in his eyes. Ours was the first mishloach manos he had received that Purim.

Every year since, we have all come to bring Eliyahu a special homemade mishloach manos package. It has become a highlight of his Purim, and of ours as well.