Ki Teitzei – A Mitzvah that you can only fulfill by forgetting!

Ki Teitzei (Deut 21:10-25:19)

A Mitzvah that you can only fulfill by forgetting!

by Dr. Jacques Abourbih

This prasha is unlike any others.   First of all its title Ki Teitzei bears a strange resemblance to another earlier one in Shemot – Ki Tisa. The resemblance is not just coincidental. They share the same ethical themes and practical rules to live in a society. But that is not all.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks reports this event: “One story in particular made a deep impression on me. Someone once asked Moses Montefior, “Sir Moses, what are you worth?” He thought for a while and named a figure. “But surely,” said his questioner, “your wealth must be much more than that.” With a smile, Sir Moses replied, “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity thus far this year.”

Lofty as the Mitzvah of Tzedakah is, of all 613 Mitzvot incumbent upon us there is a strange one that you can fulfill only by being negligent, and when you become aware of your negligence you do nothing to rectify that shortcoming. It is the mitzvah of Shichechah, the mitzvah of “forgetting”.

“When you reap your harvest… and forget a sheaf in the field, do not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan and for the widow ( 24:19)”

The Mitzvah of Shichechah (“forgetting”) opens a floodgate for similar mitzvoth with the common theme of sharing with those who have nothing.

“When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time … or when you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for (the most vulnerable and poorest among you,) the stranger, the orphan and the widowed.”

Notice that the Torah does not mention first the widow or the orphan. It seems “the stranger amongst you” is the weakest and most vulnerable. “Remember that once upon a time you were that weak and vulnerable stranger in Egypt.”

Let’s go back to Shemot Ki Tisa. Hashem requires that when taking a census every Jew must contribute a half-shekel as atonement for participating in the census.  By contrast in Canada, until recently at least you were fined for NOT participating in the census.

So what happens if you don’t cave in to Hashem demands and don’t pay that ransom of a half-shekel for participating in the census? That story is told in the second book of Samuel chapter 24.

The possible reason why Hashem demands atonement and there are several, is in this week’s Parsha. The assumption beneath every census is: there is strength in numbers.

Not so, says this week’s parsha Ki Teitzei: “Your real worth is only what you are willing to share with others, not how many you are.”

If you believe there is strength in numbers you will be disappointed. We are a tiny people; one fifth of one percent of the world population, an insignificant in number. This small fraction would be acceptable random counting error in the Chinese census. Yet we Jews have contributed to humanity throughout history in ways disproportionate to our numbers.

Perhaps for this reason the Torah says:

“The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” Deuteronomy 7:7

May we continue to merit Hashem’s love for the children of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom

Jacques Abourbih

Matot-Masei: To cry Mum or to say mum

To cry Mum or to say mum

by Dr. Jacques Abourbih

Understanding how Halachah is decided seems to be shrouded in mystery even for learned Jews. People mistake Talmudic halachic analysis for a mathematical theorem proof. This is not the case. A halachic interpretation does not apply hard logic to a set of unassailable rules. The fundamental guiding principle is applying reasonableness and practicality that will allow a point of Law to remain valid and relevant in the daily life of a Jew. In fact the interpreters will err towards a more lenient interpretation to allow more people to follow the Halachic ruling.

There are several instances when the Talmud records divergent opinions between the more stringent Shammai and the more lenient Hillel, yet it concludes with the term: “but the Halachah is according to Hillel.” Although often the ruling chooses the more lenient interpretation of the Law, it does not mean a free for all when anybody interprets the Law to suit his or her purpose of the moment.

I would like to digress for a moment to correct a historical perspective that is wrong. To do this I must first explain that rabbinical Judaism, which comprises about 95% of all Jews today, is the spiritual successor of the pharisaic Judaism in existence before the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE. Contrary to the historical perspective of the Pharisees commonly accepted, the Pharisees were the liberal Jews of their time. Sadducees and Essenes of the Dead Sea scrolls never allowed any possible interpretation of the laws in the Torah. The Pharisees on the contrary looked at interpretative opportunities to keep the relevance of the Torah laws in the life of Jews wanting to remain faithful to them. This process continues today at the hand of rabbinical poschim who have a solid grounding in rendering halachic decisions. Otherwise one can float so far off as to develop the most ridiculous ideas, all in the name of halacha. And we certainly have all seen examples of this.

I would like to illustrate the psak Halacha process from an example from the perasha of this week. The Torah prescribes the divorce procedure such that the husband must participate voluntarily. If the man refuses to grant a get the wife remains in the difficult position of an aguna, or in limbo. This situation, though unfair and tragic for the wife, is essentially the creation of the husband who has shown himself to be an evil criminal, and is abusing his wife in this contemptible way. Over the many years of our history the rabbis have done whatever they could for any woman so trapped in this lamentable predicament. Unfortunately, no categorical or general solution to the problem emerged.

One solution proposed recently was to apply the process of harat nedarim or annulment of vows which is presented in Matot, this week’s perasha.

The reasoning with regards to circumventing the issue of the get goes like this. A woman must obtain a get to be divorced, but only if she is married to that man. Hence if we find a deception by one or the other party there never was a marriage and therefore a get is not required.

This is similar to harat Nedarim where our rabbis explained that a man pronouncing a vow he cannot keep presents himself to the beit Din. The individual points out that his
lack of adapt or knowledge (or, more commonly, lack of foresight) of some aspect of the neder he had not considered would render the neder to be invalid.. The beit din declares the neder as lacking da’at (or awareness) at the time it was formulated, and therefore the neder is not binding. This is ruling is an example of a rabbinical adaptation to the laws in the Torah portion and is not in the Torah, as pointed out in tractate Chagigah.

An astute person may come up and say that he wants to annul a certain business transaction on the basis that he was not aware of the all consequences when he negotiated the deal. “Not so fast” says the bet Din.  The Beit Din’s annulments have jurisdiction only on contracts between Man and G-d, as we emphasize every year when we read Kol Nidre. But for contracts between Man and Man the two parties must work it out between themselves. As far as a neder or vow between Man and G-d, a person may have uttered it without full appreciation of all the consequences. But it is expected that an individual entering a business contract has exercised due diligence in foreseeing the consequences of the transaction.

Well what about divorces? Does the bet Din have jurisdiction to annul the marriage therefore obviating the need of a get? Marriage is referred to as Kiddushin, a holy act. It is a sacred vow of Man and Wife before G-d. Therefore the beit din should have jurisdiction to annul the marriage if one or the other party claim a lack of Da’at when either one entered in marriage.

The Ran explains that Kiddushin or the vows of marriage require a higher level of diligence or higher level of Da’at than would be exercised even in the case of a business transaction. Therefore the Beit din is powerless in the case of granting an annulment, even if theoretically it falls under the same category as nedarim.

The second argument against the beit din authority over annulment of marriages is raised by the rambam. He states that an individual who continues to use an object after he became aware the object to be defective after he bought it cannot claim mekach ta’ut an erroneous sale. Continued use of the item indicates that the level of the ta’ut is insufficient to warrant voiding the transaction.

Therefore a woman who remains in marriage with her husband and did not walk away from the marriage upon discovering a mum gadol or serious defect cannot claim the case of mekach ta’ut an erroneous sale, according to Rabbi Moshe Feisntein.

The counter-argument to this explanation is that marriage is not an object that you can discard if you find fault with it. A woman may not be able to walk away from the relationship even upon discovering a mum gadol, a serious defect.

And the debate goes on, with the sole intent to render halachah adaptable in fulfillment of the Torah when it says: “I have given you these laws to live by them” and our rabbis add:  “Not to die for them.”

Moses: The Leader [FNTP – Pinchas]

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1

Moses: The Leader

‘Moshe Rabeinu’ – Moses our teacher/leader/rabbi. We all remember the story of Moses and the little kid that he carried to the river to drink. That was the moment we confirmed that Moses was the right guy to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. The question now is – what makes him a great leader? This weeks parsha can be viewed as a manual that details the actions of a true leader.

The first thing that stands out in our parsha is the exchange between G-d and Moses when Moses receives the news that he will not be able to enter the land of Israel. Moses immediately responds with concern and makes sure that G-d will place someone before the children of Israel to lead them, “not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” Moses was not concerned about his status or any personal issue he may have with the news he received. His main concern is the welfare of the children of Israel. This selfless concern is what makes a great leader.

Another quality that Moses displays in his leadership that separates him from everyone else is humility. We all can learn from the humility of Moses – not just our leaders. Moses is approached by the five daughters of Tzlafchad, challenging his ruling on how the future land of Israel will be divided. Moses admits to the error in his ruling and grants the five sisters their wish to own the land mean for their dead father. The humility displayed by Moses in admitting his error and correcting it speaks volumes to his credibility as a leader. A leader that is only concerned about being right all the time will lose credibility with his followers. A leader must be humble and have the concern of his people come first – making sure that all is right – not always having to be right.

George Burns said “How come all the people who know how to run the country are cutting hair and driving cabs?” We learn form this parsha that the leader of the children of Israel does not just need to possess the wisdom to lead them – Pinchas showed great leadership skills! What G-d needed from the new leader of the children of Israel was that the core value of the leader needs to be complete and selfless care for the children of Israel. Joshua, and no one else, had such a core value to guide them in the leadership of the nation.

Shabbat Shalom!
Scott Goldstein

Korach – Free will

Our rabbis tell us that there are four classical methods to study and understand the Torah.

Peshat literally means “the simple” straight forward understanding of the passage.

Remez refers to the “hints” or the deep allegoric hidden or symbolic meaning beyond just the literal sense.

Derash is the “seeking” in the sense of inquiry or exploration of the meaning given trough similarities

Sod is the mystical secret explanation given through inspiration or revelation.

There is a mnemonic to remember those four methods of interpretation found in the word PaRDeS.

There is a baraita about four rabbis of the Mishanic period, which spans the first century period, who visited Pardes. According to the Bavli Hagigah 14b, and Yerushalmi Talmud Hagigah 2:1:

“Four men entered the pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher that is, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace”

It is understood here that these four sages studied Torah according to the four methods. Something happened and befell each each however, except for rabbi Akiva as they delved into the mystical and esoteric realm of Torah study.

As an introduction to our discussion about our Perashat Korach, I would like to emphasize the fate of Elisha ben Abuyah, referred to as Acher, the other one, in the Baraita. According to our understanding, Elisha ben Abuyah chose to become a rasha’, that is he committed apostasy.

How did that happen? The Baraita tells us that Elisha ben Abuyah destroyed the plant. What does that mean?

According to the Talmud Elsiha Ben Abuyah entered Heaven and saw Metatron sitting down (an action that in heaven is permitted only to G-d himself). Elishah ben Abuyah therefore looked to Metatron as a deity and said heretically, “There are indeed two powers in heaven!” The Talmud tells us that Metatron is the highest of the angels and serves as the celestial scribe writing down the actions of the Children of Israel. The Gematria equivalent of the name Metatron is equivalent to Shaddai, one of Hashem’s names. Could this have led to the apostasy of Ben Abuyah?

The Talmud states, it was proved to Elisha that Metatron could not be a second deity by the fact that Metatron received 60 ‘strokes with fiery rods’ to demonstrate that Metatron was not a god, but an angel, and could be punished. Despite this Ben Abuyah chose to persist in his error. It was a free choice.

Let us turn now to Korach. There was a terrible plague devastating the camp as a result of Korach’s rebellion.

The day after the earth swallowed Korach, Datan and Abiram the leaders of the rebellion against Moshe Rabbenu and Aharon Ha-kohen G-d sent a plague against those who railed against Moshe and his brother for causing the death of korach and the other rebels. Moshe Rabbenu tells Aaron to take the fire pan, put fire from the altar and incense on it, and take it to the community to make expiation for them and to stop a plague that had begun, and Aaron did so.  Aaron stood between the dead and the living and halted the plague, but not before 14,700 had died.

There is a remez to that pasuk to which Rashi provides insight.

Rashi explains that Aharon grabs the Angel of Death that Hashem had sent and stops him saying: “Moshe ordered me to stop you.” To which the Angel replies: “I was sent by Hashem, you were sent by Moshe!”

The Chazal tells us that Angels do not have a free will. The Angel of Death must complete the mission he was sent for, not interrupt his duty to have a chat. Yet it seems that in this instance the Angel stops his mission to debate Aharon. Eventually Aharon prevails even against the Angel of Destruction.

How did all this happen? Clearly Moshe and Aharon by interfering with the mission of the Angel of Destruction went against the will f G-d!

Both Moshe and Aharon made a choice according to their free will. They chose to change an act of revenge and destruction even though it was G-d’s will. How is that possible? We are different from Angels who have no free-will.  Through the power of free choice we have the ability to change ourselves and change nature around us for the better or the worse. The choice is ours. Hopefully the choices we make, like Moshe and Aharon will turn Chol to Kadosh.

Shabbat Shalom

Jacques Abourbih

Korach in 30 seconds or less

Numbers 16:1-18:32

Korach and 250 followers oppose the appointment of Aaron as kohen. The mutineers offer an unlawful ketoret (incense). G-d punishes them by opening up the earth and swallows them.

Aaron offers a ketoret to stop a plague and his staff blossoms and grows almonds to show that hashem supports his appointment as high priest.

The parsha concludes with the description of the terumah and other gifts to to the kohanim.

Behaalotecha in 30 seconds or less

Numbers 8:1-12:16

Aaron lights the Menorah in the sanctuary. The Levites begin their work in the sanctuary. ‘Pesach Sheni’ (second passover) is set in place for those who were unale to bring the sacrifice due to impurity.

Hashem details the process for the journey and encampments through the desert and then the children of Israel leave Mount Sinai. The children of Israel demand for meat – Manna was no longer enough for them. Moses asks for 70 elders to help him govern. Miriam is punished with leprosy for speaking negatively to Moses and wait seven days for her recovery.


Parsha Naso

This week’s torah parsha is Naso. One of the interesting aspects that I found was the issue dealing with the sotah – a woman who was suspected of adultery. The test that was done to confirm her guilt was that a section of the torah was soaked in water until the ink dissolved. The sotah was to consume and if her belly swelled then she was guilty and would die. If not, than she was interesting. This appears similar to some of our own more archaic methods of dealing with criminals. There were several “trials” or manners in which people’s innocence was tested. There was trial by water, where a supposed guilty person was shackled and dropped in water. If they sank, they were guilty, if they floated, they were innocent.

The notion of testing people’s innocence through trial is an interesting notion as it purports that we need more than an omission of innocence, but a physical act that is so grand in scale that it can be interpreted in a guilty or innocent conviction (whereas words can be loose). Many of these trials are founded on the belief that G-d is the ultimate decider and knows the innocence of the person. Ghandi once said “there is no G-d higher than truth.” In saying this, there appears to be a bit of an interesting contradiction in the use of trials as proof and having     G-d be the decider of the outcome.

There is a nice Yiddish proverb that states “a half truth is a whole lie.” Our modern society is rich in the stereotype the politicians are master wordsmiths who are adept at making lies appear to be the truth. While often we take what they have to say at face value, they eventually end up being found out. If the sotah was put through a trial where as she was essentially swearing her innocence on the literal words of the torah, would there not be another more modern way of making people eat the words the speak?

Finally, there is also much to be said on one’s reputation in the world based off of how they comport themselves. When a person says that they are going to take action on an issue and don’t, or allow a large amount of time to pass, they are just as guilty of their inaction as is the crime itself. A person’s word is their bond, when they have sworn to do something, are they not also affirming themselves before G-d too? Would we not be judged in a similar matter? On Yom Kippur, we are to break any promises that we have not kept in order to start the year anew. However, as the Russian proverb says, “With lies you may get ahead in the world – but you can never go back”.

Shabbat Shalom!

Daniel Benzimra

Bamidbar – The Quest for Tranquility

The Quest for Tranquility

In the closing passages of tractate Berachot, the sages offer a surprising and rather disheartening declaration: “Scholars of Torah have no rest (menuha), not in this world nor in the world to come” (B. Brachot 64a). What are our sages trying to tell us? Nowhere in the Talmud do we have a satisfactory explanation for this statement.

For many this is a gloomy prognosis; will we never merit a sense of achievement? After toiling over the pages of the first tractate of Talmud, after plowing through dense tomes, investing significant time and energy – perhaps with the hope of becoming a Torah scholar – we are greeted with this discouraging pronouncement: “Scholars of Torah have no rest, not in this world nor in the world to come.”

One hassidic masters have a beautiful explanation. They say that Torah scholars have no rest because they need no rest. Those who dedicate their time to Torah study are so inspired by their encounter with tradition that they never tire (Rav Yeive, 18th century, Poland). Indeed when we embark on a journey that speaks to the root of our soul, we draw on hidden reserves of energy; we transcend our earthly existence, never tiring always invigorated.

Another hassidic master offered an explanation that reinterpreted the meaning of “rest.” He understood “rest” to mean stagnation. Torah scholars do not rest because they never vegetate. Each day spent poring over the texts of our tradition reveals heretofore hidden pearls. Thus the statement that they will not rest is actually a blessing: Torah scholars will continually produce, continually innovate, forecasting creativity and originality in their work, they will not languish.

Unfortunately the word Menuha does not contain the sense of stagnation, or vegetating. The 16th century rabbi Moses Isserles quotes in his opening comment to the Shulhan Aruch: “I have set God before me constantly (Psalms 16:8). He makes a distinction between Menuha and Shalva, translated as tranquility.

Accordingly, Rabbi Isserles says that  Indeed we strive not for rest; rest is idle festering that can be beset by decline and rot. We do aspire, however, to tranquility, that inner sense of peace and purpose; a pervasive feeling of making the unique contribution that is our lot; a life dedicated to the pursuit of goodness. Shalva can only be attained when there is no menuha. Menuha is good for Shabbat as a respite from the vicissitudes of the workweek; shalva is a goal for life.

The shalva of the righteous student of Torah is in truth the absence of menuha, for the righteous student of torah does not rest in the face of much, much that must be fixed… and how can a person experience tranquility when he sees faults and does not attempt to fix them?” Lack of rest is a religious ideal. It is a value to which a person who seeks to grow intellectually and spiritually should aspire. The epitome of tranquility is not respite; it is movement and progress.

It is on that very note that Brachot, the first tractate of Talmud, signs off: The goal is not to conclude; the ideal is to continue without rest.

Shabbat Shalom
Jacques Abourbih

Bamidbar in 30 seconds or less

The parsha begins with the census of the children of israel. We learn that the Levites are to serve in the sanctuary. The dismantling, erection and transportation of the sanctuary is divided between the Levite clans. The encampment and traveling formation of the tribes is listed with their numbers from the census, describing each tribe’s leader and flag.


This week we learn the laws of Shmita – the sabbatical year. No work is to be done to the land [in Israel] and all produce is to be free for all. We also learn the laws of the Yovel – jubilee year. Servents are to be set free and all land reverts back to the original owners. G-d tells us of the good that comes when the torah is followed and the evils, such as exile and persecution, that will befall the children of Israel if they do not follow the torah.