Our Rightful Place: Parashat Ki Teitze

road_hazard“During these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to help God restore our soul to its rightful place.” My Torah commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Ki Teitze appears in this week’s Jewish Journal:

“If you should see your friend’s ox or sheep straying, don’t ignore them. Instead return them to your friend. But if your friend is not close by, or you don’t know the owner, bring it to your home and hold onto it until the owner finds you, and then return it to them” (Deuteronomy 22:1-2).

Often the Torah will teach us a law whose idea we may have come up with ourselves. In other words, a law that just makes sense. These mitzvot are referred to as Mishpatim. God is reminding us of something. It makes sense that if we want to live in a society where people respect one another, we should be careful with each other’s property and actually look out for their property as if it were our own.

It is certainly important for Torah to provide us with a guide to decency. Yet, if the Torah is merely reminding us of something that makes sense, and something that we could have figured out ourselves, perhaps the Torah is also trying to convey to us something else. When the Torah exhorts us to respect one another’s property, creating a system of integrity of ownership and trust, it is offering us something so much deeper. Read More

Torah in Translation

Just before he passes away, Moses gathers the Jewish people together to offer an explanation of the entire Torah. Rashi, the medieval French commentator notes that Moses taught the Torah in 70 languages.

In other words, he taught the Torah in different ways, and in different languages to ensure that people received the message in the way that would be most clearly communicated to them specifically.

On the banks of the Jordan River, just a few short weeks before he was to leave this world, Moses spoke to a new generation of the Children of Israel who had not experienced the awesomeness of Sinai, the joy and dancing after the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea, and who had not spent years in backbreaking servitude to cruel Egyptian taskmasters. This new generation had not participated in the largest march to freedom in human experience.

In order to make sure that the lessons learned in the desert were transmitted from generation to generation, Moses spent the last weeks of his life teaching Torah at their level, in their language, in a way that they could understand it vest. Moses made sure that he didn’t just transmit his enthusiasm about their future legacy, but was careful to also teach the more complex details of the fabric of Jewish life and values in a way that they could best integrate into their lives.

I learn from our teacher Moses that to be an effective teacher, I need to teach with great sensitivity to others experiences, tradition, and background. I can’t make assumptions, be condescending, or judgmental, for if I have not walked in my students shoes, I can’t possibly know who they truly are. Everyone has a unique set of experiences, and knowledge that is special, and helps them understand our Torah in a way that is meaningful to them.

When I bean working in the Polish Jewish community in 1991, I didn’t speak any Polish. I learned a few words and patched them together haphazardly. I learned to count and important words like bread, beer, and “I’m a vegetarian.” But really, in those first summers that I worked in Poland with Jewish youth, every time I taught, I taught in English, and sometimes with an eager teenager as my translator.

I would speak a line or two in English, and then someone would translate what I said into Polish. If I attempted a joke or something humorous, there would inevitably be a delay in people’s responses. If someone asked me a question and didn’t feel confident about their English, which was often the case, I would wait for the translator to get the question into English. Often the translator would have to ask a few questions to the petitioner to make sure they understood the question in Polish before attempting to translate it into English for me. Read more


Why is the Torah finished on Simchat Torah?

From Rabbi Eliezer Kwass, the master teacher from Yeshivat Darchei Noam in Yerusahalayim (aka Shapells).

The Shem Mishmuel on Vezot Habrakha

Hagaon Rav Shmuel Bornstein on Parshat Vezot Habrakha
(from Shem Mishmuel Vezot Habrakha 5672 “B’Rashi)

Why Do We Finish the Torah on Simchat Torah?

Why was the yearly Torah reading schedule set up to finish on Simchat Torah? Surely right before Rosh Hashana would have been a more appropriate finishing time. The Shem Mishmuel offers an explanation through his comments on a Rashi at the beginning of Vezot Habrakha.

When the Torah says that Moshe blessed the Children of Israel before his death, Rashi comments, “If not now, when?” This implies that if Moshe could have delayed giving the blessings any more, he would have. Why?

For a blessing to take effect, teaches the Shem Mishmuel, it is essential that the recipient of the blessing be properly prepared, that he be a “kli kibul,” a vessel ready to receive blessing. [The last Mishna in Shas ends, “G-d found no better blessing holding vessel for Israel than peace, as it says, ‘Hashem gives power to His nation, Hashem blesses His nation with peace.'” This might be why at the opening of Moshe’s blessings he says, “B’hitasef rashei am,” referring to the gathering together of Klal Yisrael.]

Moshe wanted Israel to receive the greatest possible blessings, so, because he saw that they were in a period of spiritual growth (see Devarim 29:3) he wanted to wait for them to reach their maximum level. He, like an investor waiting for his stocks to reach their highest price before selling, delayed giving the blessing as much as he could. When he knew he would soon die, he had no choice – “If not now, when?”

Moshe’s blessings were not a one-time event, says the Shem Mishmuel, but are an eternal yearly one. Each year as we read Parshat Vezot Haberakha, it is as if Moshe is giving every one of us a berakha. We must all therefore make sure we are proper vessels ready to receive the Divine blessings Moshe is channeling towards us.

Therefore our Sages set up the Torah reading schedule so that when Moshe’s blessings come around we are naturally at our highest point. After having repented during the days of Teshuva, receiving atonement on Yom Kippur, and serving Hashem with joy during Sukkot we are ready to receive them. On Simchat Torah we are a fitting vessel to hold Moshe’s blessings.

May we merit receiving all the Torah’s blessings.

[prepared by Eliezer Kwass]