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Frontlet Lobotomy

The tefillin worn on the head (henceforth, “shel rosh”) differ in a number of respects from the tefillin worn on the arm (henceforth, “shel yad”). One of the differences is this: Though both must contain the four passages in the Torah which make mention of the mitzvah of tefillin, the shel yad has all four passages written on a single parchment, in the order they appear in the Torah, rolled up and placed in the single compartment of the shel yad. The shel rosh, however, is constructed such that it has four small compartments side by side. Though these compartments appear to be tightly bound to one another, in fact, they are almost actually completely separate from one another. They only join at a common base, like the fingers of one’s hand. Into each compartment is placed one of the four passages, written on four separate parchments.
Here is a list of the passages, in the order they appear in the Torah: 1.Kadesh Li – Shemot 13:1-10 2.V’hayah ki Y’vi’acha – Shemot 12:11-16 3.Sh’ma – Devari…
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Here I Am Not

The brief exchange between Avraham and Yitzchak on the way to the Akeidah, less than two verses long, and sandwiched between the two phrases “and the two of them walked together”, is the only conversation between this primal father-and-son pair recorded in the Torah. It is all the more powerful because of its brevity, because of its singleness, and because of what it doesn’t say explicitly yet, by omission, makes overwhelmingly present. When they set off for Har HaMoriah, Avraham takes only what the moment requires – he leaves behind his servants, the donkey and, presumably, any of the provisions they brought on their three-day journey, he takes the wood for the offering (placing it upon Yitzchak), the fire and the knife. That’s all there is – two men, wood, fire and knife. Thus, the set off together. Here is the conversation. Yitzchak says to Avraham, his father, he says, “my father”, and Avraham says, “Here I am son”, and he (Yitzchak) says, “here are the fire and the wood, and where…

Tense and Swelling Faces

"Mah Tovu Ohaleicha Ya'akov, Mishkenoteicha Yisrael".
 How good are your tents, Ya'akov; your dwellings, Yisrael!

 These words, some of the first we utter each morning as we enter the Beit Knesset for Shacharit, are the opening words of the third and climactic blessing that Bil'am utters in place of the curse he was summoned from afar to place upon Israel. Though Bil'am was intent on cursing Yisrael one way or another, and sought some subterfuge through which to slip in a curse, Hashem placed His word in Bil'am's mouth like a bit in the mouth of a donkey, and compelled him to follow His original, unchanged instructions of blessing Israel. See Ramban, who explains that Hashem's consent to Bil'am's journey was predicated upon the latter's understanding that he may well end up blessing Israel in Balak's presence! So Bil'am knew he was going to be compelled to bless, and yet he went anyway, and uttered some of the most lofty …

Laughing at Foxes - the End (of Massechet Makkot)

The end of Massechet Makkot, the end of larger single Massechet of old, a 14-chapter Sandhedrin which incorporated Makkot. So much focus on punishment, pain,  death and excision, despite the Messianic outburst of Perek Chelek, that Chazal in the final Mishnah feel it necessary to express the other side: mere lashings can remove the punishment of excision for eternity; if Hashem rewards those who merely abide by their natural abhorrence of ingesting blood, how much more will Hashem reward those who stay their natural urges; Hashem wanted to give us manifold opportunities to gain spiritual merit, THAT’S why He gave us so many mitzvot, not in order to make punishment and failure unavoidable, G-d forbid.
And yet.. the Sages walk in the heart of Hashem’s land, His covenanted people broken and scattered, the city of eternity in ruins… do they hear their own encouragements, do they steer clear of anguish and despair?
For a moment, it seems not: they see a fox emerge from the wreckage of the…

Grow with the Flow

Is a blessing a curse? What happens to people who are showered with goodness? Are we hard-wired to take things for granted and act out of a finally realized state of entitlement?
In this last week’s parashah (Vayelech), Hashem has Moshe tell the people to write down this song (Ha’azinu, this next week’s parashah) to serve as a warning and testimony regarding the anticipating turning away from G-d which will follow upon Moshe’s passing.  “For I will bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forebears, flowing with milk and honey, and they will eat and become satiated and grow fat and they will turn to other gods and serve them and scorn Me and abrogate My covenant.”
It is tempting to fit this verse into the time-worn theme, expressed at length in the second paragraph of the Shema, and encapsulated by three words from the upcoming parashah: “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Devarim 32:15). Growing fat, satiated, complacent is inextricably bound up with corruption, indulgence, se…

Death De-feeted

Rav Kook speaks of transcending death in a number of places. Several of his teachings are gathered in Orot Hakodesh (pp. 381-384), vol. 2. One piece in particular, also published in Shmoneh Kevatzim (1:486), is an extended treatment, which focuses on freeing oneself from the fear of death. It's an exhiliarating piece, laying out the course of the transition to a point where the scholarly question, "Did Rav Kook believe that death will be defeated, or was he saying that it won't concern us" is left far behind.

Toward the end of this piece, he discusses how humanity will reach that point. He says the necessary preparation cannot be achieved by an individual, but only by a holy people, chosen long ago for this priestly role, so devoted to the transcendent G-d in the entirety of their beings that they are commanded to leave no trace of death on their lived lives, and to remove its terror and psychic impact entirely, opening the path for the founding of a culture which ra…

The Emergence of Hillel

A thought, may it be a merit for the memory of R. Sholom Brodt, z"l: A pair of parallel famous stories regarding Hillel the Elder are related in Vayikra Rabba (Parashat Behar), the first of which is much better known than the second. “A lovingkind man benefits his life/soul …” (Mishlei 11:17) - this refers to Hillel the Elder, for when he took leave of his students, he would walk along with them. They asked him, “our master, to where are you going?”. “To do a mitzvah”, he responded. “What mitzvah might that be?”, they asked. “To bathe in the bathhouse”, he replied. “Is that a mitzvah?”, they challenged. “If regarding the (idolatrous) statue of the king which they place in theatres and circuses – the one who is appointed to care for them washes them and scrubs them and they pay him a salary and, further, his status is elevated amongst those close to the king, then I, who was created in the image and likeness, as it is written, “for in the image of G-d did He create man” (Bereshit…