Thursday, December 18, 2008


A True Hero
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
While Joseph was in prison, he had already started to pave his path to fame as a "Dream Interpreter". At the end of Parashat Va-Yeshev, the dreams of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker,are brought before him. These dreams were interpreted to free him from prison.

By the time Pharaoh King of Egypt starts dreaming in the beginning of Parashat Miketz there is already a well-known "Dream Interpreter" to assist. The chief cupbearer reminds Pharaoh of the hardships of his imprisonment and also mentions Joseph's name as one who knows how to interpret dreams. When he starts talking about Joseph he says: "And there was with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard" (Genesis, 41, 12).

We see that the fact that Joseph was a Hebrew, and originally from the land of Israel, are very strong features in the eyes of the chief cupbearer. The confinement of a young Hebrew boy in an Egyptian prison is obviously very traumatic, but we can understand from the chief cupbearer's description of Joseph that he never hid nor asked to hide his Jewish identity. Quite the opposite, the chief cupbearer knew exactly who the young boy was.

I often hear people say that it is hard for them to maintain the tradition. The excuses are many: "It is hard for me to get to Synagogue for prayer on Shabat as it is the only day of rest I have" (Israelis works on Sundays). "It's hard to find the time to study Torah as I come home late and tired after work". While listening to these excuses, Joseph comes to mind, if he managed to hold on to his identity and tradition while imprisoned in Egypt, why can't we?

Thousands of years after Joseph, during the Holocaust, at the time when their fate was unknown, many Jews turned to their Rabbis with questions. Many of these questions are recorded in the Responsa "Sridei Esh" ("Residue from Fire") by Rabbi Yechiel Jacob Weinberg Z"L. The Jews wanted to know if Jewish homes in the Ghetto needed a Mezuzah. They were not sure if their homes were considered permanent dwellings. Others wanted to know if cooking was allowed on the Sabbath, if by doing so he was exempted from harsh physical labor out on the fields. They had even asked if a survivor of a German "selection" had to say "Birkat Ha-Gomel" (Thanksgiving Blessing)? And, if there is a correct blessing for the sanctification of the name of G-D? And there are many more...

Any man that turns to his Rabbi at a time of such emotional turmoil, and asks questions regarding the Torah's regard to his fate, is definitely a hero. Nowadays when a person says that it is hard to hold onto the tradition in our "Hectic" times full of errands and pressure I say: "For Joseph and the Jews of the Holocaust it was hard! And they did it, with both "Guts and Glory"".

This may also be our Chanukah message. In the times of the Hashmonaim, it took great bravery to hold on to and practice Judaism. Many Jews became Greek and left our fathers religion. More than just the miracle, the Hanukah candlelight reminds us of darker days, harder days full of fear and worry. And the light always prevails; the holy fire still burns in the heart of the nation.

It burned in Joseph's heart,
As it burned in the hearts of all our brothers in the Holocaust,
And in the hearts of the Hashmonaim.
That is true Heroism.

Friday, October 31, 2008


To think about wine
by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Every year, while reading the first verses of Parashat Noah, I ask myself the same question: Why isn’t Noah the father of the Jewish people? "Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation. Noah walked with G-d" (Genesis 6:9). What more is required?
Commentators on the Torah suggest countless explanations to that same question. Most of them relate to Noah’s indifference to the destructive outcome of the flood. It’s written in the Zohar that when Noah exited the ark and saw that the world was in ruins, he began to weep and said to the Holy One:

“Lord of the Universe! You should have had mercy on your creation!”. The Holy One replied: “Now you say this? And not when I said to bring the flood?! Since you heard that you would be spared in the ark, the evil that would fall upon the world didn’t enter your heart!” (Midrash HaNeelam, Noah)
However, this year I would like to add an additional reason for denying Noah the right to be named the founder of the nation. This reason relates to the beginning of Noah’s path after the flood.
Immediately after exiting the ark, the Torah tells us: "Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard" (Genesis 9:20). The Midrash (Bereshit Raba 36:3) explains the word “Vayachel” not in the sense of “beginning” (lehatchil) but from the root “profane” (chulin). ("Noah profaned himself and he became profane). Noah could have begun by planting a fig tree, or an olive tree or something else that provides reparation to the world.
How would we have reacted had we been in Noah’s place? We see the world in ruins and we have to begin from scratch… How would we begin?
Someone might begin by building a house, another by building a school. What did Noah think of? He thought of wine!
We see that this wasn’t the situation with the forefathers of our nation. Of what did our forefathers think?
They thought of finding wives for their sons, for example. They worried that their sons wouldn’t take wives from among the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 24:3, 28:8). They thought of what would follow, they thought of their families. When Iaacov went down to Egypt, the Torah relates that he sent his son Yehudah "ahead of him to make preparations in Goshen". (Genesis 46:28).
According to RaSHI, Yehudah was sent first in order to establish a house of study in Egypt from which would come teaching”. Iaacov thought of education in order that his sons wouldn’t arrive in Egypt without finding there a spiritual center that would meet their needs. Of what did Noah think? Of wine!
A friend of mine told me many years ago that he once stayed at a hotel in the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. In the state of Nevada, as you know, gambling is legal and Las Vegas became the casino capital of the United States and of the entire world.
My friend, who went there for the purpose of business and without any connection to the casinos, returned late to his room at the hotel in the city after a long day of work and wanted to open his window to breathe some fresh air. He pushed on the window and saw that it wouldn’t open. He immediately called down to the reception desk and asked for the reason behind it. The clerk answered that in the State of Nevada, and in Las Vegas in particular, people might jump out of the window after losing their money gambling, so it was hotel policy to lock all of the windows.
That sounds odd. How is it possible that a person would place his fortune in a higher order of importance than his life? Don’t people realize that there is no comparison? Is it really true that people need to form such a policy in the hotel in order to save their lives? Yet this happens.
Something similar happens, for example, when driving under the influence of alcohol. Everyone knows that it is dangerous. But the state threatens drunk drivers who are caught with fines of hundreds and even thousands of shekels. Everyone knows that the combination of alcohol and driving can be fatal. People know this, yet the State still takes it upon itself the responsibility because it knows that many people at the time of the act will be thinking of the alcohol and not of life… as did Noah.
Choosing the correct order of priorities is one of the toughest battles an individual faces in his lifetime. It is the key to building the future of mankind, societies and countries.
Rationally, the matter seems simple enough. The vast majority of mankind thinks “in present tense” and not in “future tense”. Noah established for himself a faulty order of priorities. He thought of wine and made the insignificant important, and the important insignificant. It is impossible to found a nation with eternal values upon such an order.
Other Drashot

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The Righteous Bird

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A rather short and wonderful commentary tells us that everyone tasted from the Tree of Knowledge except a bird called Chol (Genesis Rabbah 19). According to our Sages, the same lone and righteous bird still lives in the Garden of Eden to this day. He lives alone in the Garden and no one knows him.

As our Sages see it, the Chol bird symbolizes the tension between public opinion and personal opinion. Would we be prepared to pay the price of social exclusion in exchange for choosing a moral and correct course of action? Isn't it really preferable to act according to the opinion of the widest majority, even if it is warped?

And we are not only speaking of corruption here. There are less meaningful social customs which we would prefer not to choose, and which social pressure causes us to choose anyway. Even the smallest and most irrelevant things such as clothing fashions.

And here is another example connected to Israeli reality: I am driving in a massive traffic jam on the road which is moving ten meters per minute, and I see one car, then a second and a third car overtaking me from the right hand side, along the edge of the road, which is forbidden, and nevertheless arriving home one and a half hours before me. And at the same moment I would like to be just like them, but I know that it would be wrong…

This is the tension between personal and public opinion…and this is the point of the midrash about the Chol, the righteous bird.

I read about a very interesting experiment performed by an American university a few years ago. On one board was a drawing of ten equal parallel lines of equal length and ten volunteers stood opposite the board. They were asked to answer only one question: Are the ten lines identical? They all replied in the negative.

How is it possible that ten people would say "no" to something so obvious and openly visible? Wasn't it clear to everyone that those lines were equal?

The answer is simple. Out of the same ten volunteers, nine belonged to the university staff. Only the tenth was an outsider. The experiment was supposed to test the reaction of the tenth person, and his ability to express an opinion which contradicted that of the majority. He thought that it was an experiment of the Exact Sciences Faculty, but it was, in fact, of the Humanities Faculty..

In this same experiment, the Chol, that lone and righteous bird, would have contradicted the majority. And how about the rest of us?

According to the book of Genesis, two cherubim stand at the entrance of the Garden of Eden in order to guard the way to the Tree of Life. But…who knows? Perhaps they are also standing there to prevent that righteous bird from leaving.
Because public opinion is such a persuasive force, and the temptation is always so great…

Monday, September 08, 2008

Ki Tetze

The ploys of the "Yetser"

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Our Torah portion opens with the following verse: "When thou goest forth to war against thy enemies, and the Lord thy G-d delivereth them into thy hands, and thou takest captives of them" (Deuteronomy 21,10)

The verse, understood literally, talks about a war against an external enemy. But is this indeed so? Chazal has already hinted that we are talking here about a war of a different kind, a battle against evil inclinations ("yetzer hara").

Hassidism explains that the war against "yetzer hara" takes place mainly during Yom Kippur. On this day we overcome our evil inclinations as all material desires and needs are set aside and are strictly forbidden and we experience only spirituality.

In any event this is not a one-day battle, but a daily struggle that is difficult and painful because "yetser hara" uses ploys and ruses that are difficult to overcome. "Yetzer hara" entices man to sin and to avoid his responsibilities. These tricks and deceptions are "weapons" used by "yetser hara" to achieve its aims.
What are these ploys?

There are many, but I would like to talk about one of them. I would describe it as "making excuses", a speciality of "yetzer hara".
From time to time we justify our actions by convincing ourselves that, for example, we don't give more "Tzedakah" because we don't have enough money, or that we don't volunteer to help our community because we don't have enough time or that we are too tired when we come home. (This excuse is used by people of all ages. A child will also say that he didn't study enough because he didn't have enough time ….to which his mother would respond "You had enough time to play with your Playstation, didn't you?"!)

One way to fight "yetzer hara" is to ask yourself difficult questions. You didn't give "Tzedakah" because you didn't have enough money...but did you have money to pay for frivolous entertainment? Did you have enough money to upgrade your mobile phone for no particular reason?
Perhaps you really did not have enough money…but you have to continuously ask yourself these difficult questions.

You did not volunteer for your community or for society in general because you didn't have enough time! Ask yourself: Did you have enough time to surf on the internet or to watch T.V even if there was nothing worth watching? To go shopping even though you didn't really need to buy anything?
Perhaps you really did not have enough time …but ask yourself if that is really the case.

The same is true for tiredness. Ask yourself if it's just an excuse and another ploy of the "yetzer hara".

Perhaps we can try to understand the "making excuses" ploy using a very apt example also found in Parashat Ki Tetze. A few verses after our portion we find the very strong and permanent prohibition of "An Ammonite and a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord". The Torah rules that even after the tenth generation, the Ammonite and the Moabite are not fit to be accepted into the nation of Israel.

Two reasons are offered as to to why they are to be rejected by the people: "For the reason, that they met you not with bread and with water on the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because he hired against thee Bilam the son of Beor of Pethor of Aram-naharaim to curse thee." (Deuteronomy 23, 5).

Each of these reasons is serious in its own right. It is a terrible thing to meet starving and thirsty people without bringing them bread and water, and even worse to hire a sorcerer to curse them. Why is it necessary to give two reasons?

In a certain village the people started to build a synagogue but did not manage to complete the building. For a long time the building stood unplastered and unpainted. One day a famous Chazzan happened to pass through the village and they hired him to officiate on the High Holidays.
Rabbi Aizel Charif heard what they had done and said "I have never understood why the Torah gives two reasons for rejecting the Ammonites and the Moabites. Only now have I understood. If the Moabites had not hired Bilam for a large sum of money, they could have apologized and said that they did not meet the people of Israel with food and water because they were poor and that they could barely support themselves. Since they had paid Bilam such a large sum of money they could not use poverty as an excuse." And he finished by saying : "He who has money for a Chazzan, has money for the completion of the synagogue."

If we want to, we can always find an excuse for anything. That is the "yetzer" way. We are champion excuse-makers. No time ,no money, too tired...whatever…

This is the battle that the portion recommends, a struggle that will ultimately make us stronger, more responsible and more mature.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


The Supreme Value of Life

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The Torah portion Shoftim brings us, among other things, the section about the axed heifer (eglah arufah). Today, this portion seems anachronistic, lacking all practical meaning for us.

The portion speaks about an unsolved murder when it is impossible to punish the murderer, simply because no one knows who the murderer is.

The portion presents a situation that is fairly absurd. The Torah demands that a whole complicated ceremony take place in order to atone for the death of an anonymous person about whom nothing is known.

But there is another point that is no less interesting.

Not only does this portion seem anachronistic, but its very place in the Torah is also puzzling.

The section about the slain heifer is found between two sections that deal with war and begin with the words "When thou goest forth to war" (Deuteronomy 20:1, Deuteronomy 21;10)

What is the connection?

I read a brilliant answer to this question by Rabbi Ya'acov Ruderman. He says that there is no place more fitting for this portion than the place where it appears, between two wars.

He thinks that war – any war – where there are hundreds or even thousands dead, both soldiers and civilians, brings in its wake a meaningful decrease to the value of human life.

The place of the portion of the slain heifer proves that human life is a very holy thing, so much so that a whole city and its elders are required to take responsibility for murder that took place near their territory.

Our portion protests against the concept that "human life is cheap". There is no such thing in Jewish tradition; life is always of great value.

There is not in Judaism – almost – a more crucial command than that referred to as "Met Mitzvah".

"Met Mitzvah" refers to a dead person having no one formally obligated to bury him (her). The law is that anyone who encounters this corpse is obligated to perform the burial rite even at great expense to himself or even if it means canceling other important mitzvot.

For example, the High Priest, under normal conditions is forbidden to come into any contact with a corpse, including his family, closest relatives and even his parents. However, the High Priest is obligated to defile himself by carrying out the necessary rites of burial for a "Met Mitzvah" even on Yom Kippur!

In my opinion, this synthesis with respect to human life is found in a story that is told about former Prime Minister, Golda Meir of blessed memory.

In the days of the War of Attrition, Gold Meir said: "I gave an order to my advisors to inform me of the death of every Israeli soldier in battle, even if it happens in the middle of the night. On the day that President Nasser gives the same order to his advisors, there will be peace between us."

Perhaps this is the greatest gap that divides us and our bitter enemies. For us, human life is always a precious value.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Acquired Rights

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Parashat Pinchas mentions five women, daughters of a man called Tzlofchad, of the tribe of Efraim. The man had died, and since he had no sons, the women asked Moses to allot them a property in the Promised Land.

The women knew that according to Jewish Law, the inheritance belongs only to sons – but what would happen to their father's estate? Should the law regard them as "second-class" persons?

Moses was undecided as to how to respond. But after consulting with G-d, he received an answer to the dilemma: These five women would inherit their father's estate and would have a property in Eretz Israel.

The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 21, 10) describes this episode in a very interesting way: "Oto Ha-Dor Hayu Ha-Nashim Godrot Ma She-Ha-Anashim Portzim" (In that generation, the women amended what the men had ruined.) The men danced around the Golden Calf; and the women rushed to the side. The men defamed the Promised Land together with the spies; and the women maintained a respectful silence. The men wanted to choose a leader who would take them back to Egypt; and the women approached Moses and implored him to allocate them land in Eretz Israel!

Very few wanted that Land… they were the exception.

I have often thought about the similarity between the story of the daughters of Tzlofchad and our history as a nation.

For centuries nobody wanted our Land…except for us. Even those other nations that today call our land the "Holy Land", haven't dedicated a single poem, or part of their dreams, to it.

Whereas all of them saw only the desolation of the Land and rejected it, we always knew that the Land was desolate only because it was waiting for us. While others with their laziness and inertia merely accepted the contaminated marshes, we knew that one day we would be able to dry those marshes and Israel would again become a Land of milk and honey.

We were the ones who dreamed of Eretz Israel when all the others saw it as the back yard of the world. We dreamed about Israel for centuries, not because of her wealth, but in spite of her poverty. It is not only G-d's promise which gives us legitimacy as the inhabitants of this Land. We earned that legitimacy when we wished for the Land at a time when everybody despised it; when we cried for it while everybody else profaned it.

Just as it happened with the daughters of Tzlofchad.

Monday, June 30, 2008


The Captive Flock
Rabbi Gustavo Suraski
There is a famous israeli joke about an El Al plane that landed at Ben Gurion during the winter. As the plane landed, the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker as usual saying, "Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Tel Aviv. Please remain in your places with your seat belts fastened until the plane comes to a complete halt at the terminal." And a few seconds later he added: "El Al wishes a Happy Chanukah to those standing in the aisle...and a Merry Christmas to those who are still in their places".

It's well known that we are a people who lack patience. We are far from perfect. We not only want to be first getting off the plane, but we also want to be first to get on the bus, first on line at the supermarket and first to make the left turn when the light turns green. From time of the generation that left Egypt, we are a people lacking patience. A similar thing happened to them. When they were there, they wanted to leave. When they left, they wanted to return.
Perhaps the very night we hurriedly packed our suitcases and left Egypt before the dough had a chance to rise left its mark on our collective memory. It appears that since that night we have the basic feeling that we must hurry, that there isn't enough time...and as we all know, sometimes we pay a heavy price for our impatience.
Tens of explanations have been given about Moshe's sin of hitting the rock in Parashat Chukat. There are those who say that Moshe hit the rock twice instead of once. There are those who say that Moshe lost his balance and hit the rock instead of speaking to it. There are all kinds of explanations accusing Moshe of being unable to control his passions and losing his patience when he should have been setting a personal example for the people.
However, how is it possible to understand the severity of the punishment that Moshe received after this sin? Did G-d really notify Moshe that his mission had ended just because Moshe had lost his patience? Why did G-d decree that Moshe could not bring his people to the Promised Land?
There is a midrash in Midrash Tanhuma that supplies an answer to the question and throws light upon the events of the sin at the "Waters of Contention" (Mei Merivah).
When Moshe begged to enter the Land, the midrash brings G-d's answer. G-d said to Moshe: On what grounds do you want to come into the Land? Like the parable of the shepherd who tended the flocks of the king and the sheep were captured. The shepherd requested entrance to the main hall of the king and the king said, "People will say that you are responsible for the sheep's capture. At this point G-d said to Moshe: "Your greatness is that you have taken the 600,000 out of bondage. But you have buried them in the desert and will bring into the land a different generation! This being so, people will think that the generation of the desert have no share in the World to Come! No, better be beside them, and you shall in the time to come enter with them" (Tanhuma, Chukat).
Professor Y. Leibowitz of blessed memory, analyzes this midrash brilliantly and adds a parable of his own about the fate of a captain whose ship sinks at sea. In the maritime world, says Leibowitz, it is customary that when a ship sinks at sea, even if the catastrophe was caused by external forces over which the captain had no control, he cannot leave the ship until the last of the passengers is saved, and if not he must go down with the ship. Professor Leinbowitz adds, "Moshe Rabennu did not succeed in his mission because of flaws in himself or in his leadership, the flaw lay in that "crooked and perverse generation" (Dueteronomy 32:5). This whole generation was condemned to die in the wilderness, but their leader also lost his right to lead and his verdict was the identical with that of his charges...the fate of a leader cannot be separated from the fate of his charges...and the failures of the generation denies the right of leadership from their leader".
It is really irrelevant to try to clarify who was guilty in the episode of Mei Merivah. The nature of the sin is also unimportant. The important thing here is that the fate of the leader and the fate of the led are identical and it is impossible to separate them, for good or for bad. It is impossible to cut a leader off from his people in the same way that a shepherd cannot be detached from his flock or the captain from his ship. They either go together hand in hand, or else they go nowhere. One has no existence without the other.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The Story of Two Kings and One Crown

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Parashat Korach is one of my favourites. To me it seems to have a message very relevant to our day, which proves that "stinking manoeuvres" in politics are not an invention of the twentieth century.

The dispute of Korach and his gathering which is described in detail in our portion, is actually the ugly manoeuvre of a dangerous man. Korach leads a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and puts forward claims and arguments that are ostensibly "democratic" and "equitable".

However, in effect, Korach's aim is to lead the people of Israel into anarchy so that he can reap the benefit. A sentence like "all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and G-d is among them. Why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?" can only be the product of a populistic approach.

Korach is actually a great demagogue who exploits the momentum of uncertainty among the people in order to rebel against Moses.

Just a week ago, it was decreed that that generation would wander for forty years in the desert. A whole generation would for forty years go nowhere. Korach knew that this was a suitable time to undermine the leadership of Moses.

But the main point of this story is that all Korach's arguments were based on a lie. Korach was convinced that Moses had to share the leadership with him.

Democracy is not only a matter of equality but also recognition of the authority of the ruler.

Let me suggest a comparison:

Anyone who has learned how to drive knows that a vehicle has a double system. The person behind the wheel can accelerate but also stop the car. However, even in such a complex system, one thing remains unique: the steering wheel! Only one person can decide whether to turn right or left. There cannot be two drivers of the same vehicle simultaneously.

There is an important rule in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 27b) which states that two voices are not heard together. For that reason, two people are not allowed to read the Torah together. The person who goes up to read the Torah does not read together with the ba'al kri'a but reads alone at his own pace so that the congregation will not be confused by hearing two voices at the same time.

A leader can allow his people to participate in many matters. He can appoint advisers, judges and ministers, do everything except hand over the wheel.

That was Korach's mistake. Only one person can wear the crown.

Previous Drashot

Korach 5766 – Misguided Dreams

Monday, June 02, 2008


To Be an Adjective

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

According to our Sages, Nachshon Ben Aminadav was the first to leap into the water at the time of the parting of the Red Sea, and according to that same Midrash, we refer to all those who jump first into a dangerous and important mission by the name “Nachshonim”, in memory of Nachshon Ben Aminadav.

Unintentionally, Nachshon Ben Aminadav changed his first name into an adjective… a rare and special accomplishment.

If we listen to a Socratic style philosopher, or to a psychologist with a Freudian approach, or a playwright in the Shakespearean style, this linguistic phenomenon does not speak only of the philosopher, the psychologist or the playwright, but of the individual who contributed his name (to the dictionary) and converted it to an adjective.

This same individual who converted his name to an adjective left behind, not incidentally, his imprint on the world. Nevertheless, it is fitting to note that the influences are not necessarily positive ones (to say that a politician has a Hitlerian world concept is not a great compliment). However, Nachshon ben Aminadav, on the basis of his pioneering action, without a doubt a positive action, converted his name to an adjective.

Parashat Nasso is the longest section in the Torah, with 176 verses. However, if we closely inspect the verses, we discover that many of the verses repeat themselves over and over. The twelve princes of the tribes presented, one after the other over a period of twelve days, their offerings for the Mishkan upon the completion of its construction. Twelve times the Torah repeats the giving of the offerings, word for word – changing only the name of the giver.

Nachshon ben Aminadav , the leader of the tribe of Judah, gave his offering on the first day. However, Nachshon ben Aminadav is not called "Nassi" (prince). He is the only one among all of the twelve princes who is not referred to by title but solely by his full name. (“And he that presented his offering the first day was Nachshon the son Aminadav, of the tribe of Judah” (Bemidbar 7:12).

What happened here? Why is this?

There are those who are always referred to with their titles preceding their names (Dr. So-and-so, Professor …. , etc.) But there are those who do not attach titles. They do not require them.

An interesting example is that of Moses our Rabbi. All of the other Rabbi’s names are preceded by their title: Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Gamliel, our Rabbenu Tam.

With Moses it is different. He is not “our Rabbi Moses” (Rabbenu Moshe) rather Moses, our Rabbi (Moshe Rabbenu).


For the simple reason that his name was greater than his title. He was worthy of admiration and honor because he was Moses, not because of he was a Rabbi.

There is a similarity in what happened with Nachshon ben Aminadav…if you are Nachshon, you do not require a title. Your name says it all. Your name rises above any title. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai speaks in the Mishna of "three crowns" or titles of leadership that the Torah requires us to treat with respect.

The "three crowns" are: the crown of Torah, the crown of Cohanim (Priesthood) and the crown of kingdom. But he emphasizes that there is an additional crown, the crown of a good name, which rises above them all (Avot 4, Mishna 13).

We can recognize a person by his title. He is a King, a Rabbi or a Cohen. He is a doctor, a professor or a judge. Yet there is no crown that rises above the crown of a good name. If you have a good name, not title is necessary.

Previous Drashot

Naso 5766 – Take them also

Monday, March 31, 2008


Man and the Mosquito
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
The Torah Portion Metzora is, at first glance, a portion concerning dermatology and various skin diseases such as leprosy. However, in the opinion of the sages, this is not the main topic. Our skin is a defensive wrapping that separates what is within us from what is outside our body. Therefore, say the sages, skin ailments are not only physiological but also expressions of defects in our inner, spiritual state.

Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nahmani speaks in the name of Rabbi Yochanan of seven evils that cause these skin diseases: gossip (Lashon HaRa), bloodshed (Shefichut Damim), vain oaths (Shevuat Shav), forbidden sexual relations (Giluy Arayot), haughtiness (Gasut HaRuach), robbery (Gezel) and envy (Tzarut Ayin) (Arachin 16a).

Today I would like to speak about one of those seven sins: haughtiness (Gasut HaRuach), which lies at the root of all other vices.

Unfortunately, we all know this vice, as chutzpah is also haughtiness. We all know that this is the most striking negative trait of our Israeli society. We know that the world has English tea, French perfume, Argentinian Dulce de Leche and Israeli chutzpah. The chutzpah is a blue and white product, made in Israel.

What is chutzpah? How can we define this well-known word?

It is the overbearing confidence of someone who thinks that all right and justice are his alone. Such a person feels that he is the centre of the world, that only he counts.

Actually, man is born with this trait. We are all descendants of Adam, who was the centre of the world and bequeathed this trait to all mankind.

In the Tractate Sanhedrin (38a) there is an interesting discussion on the fact of Adam being created on the eve of the Sabbath. If man is the crown of creation, why was he created at the end of the process and not at the beginning?

Among the interesting answers to this question, I like the following one: "So that if man becomes arrogant, I will tell him, 'the mosquito was created before you'". As soon as man becomes conceited and haughtiness enters deep into his soul, it is possible to remind him that even the mosquito preceded him in the order of creation.

Rabbi Raphael of Barshad says: I can try to justify and find excuses for all sins except that of haughtiness.

When I am asked in the heavenly court, "Did you study Torah?" I will answer, "To my sorrow I was ignorant and did not know how to study."

They will ask, "Did you observe the fasts?" and I will answer, "I was weak and did not have the strength."

"And did you give money to charity?" they will ask and I will answer, "To my regret, I could not. I was poor and needy."

In that case, they will say: "You were ignorant, you had no strength, and you had no money. Why were you insolent? Why did you have such conceit and chutzpah?"

To that, says Rabbi Raphael, I will have no answer.

The Torah warns us against this unjustifiable vice, and the destructive power of haughtiness. Let us always remember that even the mosquito preceded us in the order of creation.

Monday, March 17, 2008


G-d humbles the proud

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Parashat Tzav begins with a description of the kohen's workday. His day begins with the removal of the ashes of the previous day's sacrifices from the altar.

Why is this commanded as the first act of the kohen's day? What is its purpose? Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, in his book Hovot ha-Levavot ["Duties of the Hearts"] wrote: "...and the Creator commanded him to remove the ashes every single day to make him humble and to remove haughtiness from his heart."

Just imagine: the kohen arrives at the Temple in the morning and feels very special. He is a member of the elite. He may even feel that he enjoys some genetic superiority over the rest of the nation. Therefore, his first daily task humbles this potential pride. (This is one of the Divine attributes of which we read following the Shema Yisrael in the morning service: "God humbles the proud and raises the lowly").

Arrogance is without a doubt one of the more dangerous human attributes, and it is uniquely human. There is nothing like it in the animal kingdom. Animals may be loyal or timid, we may find courage and even self-sacrifice, but arrogance is exclusively human.

There is a fable that tells of a song competition in the jungle. Each animal was given a ballot to vote for the winning competitor, and a giant ballot box was placed in the middle of the jungle. Then each animal -including the human- ascended to the podium, in alphabetical order, to sing.

The time came to count the votes. The elephant brought the ballot box to the center of the podium, and the owl began to call out the votes. The first vote was cast for the donkey, so was the second, and the third. There was silence in the jungle. The donkey was nice, but lacked charisma. The donkey delivered a poor performance in its hoarse, wobbly voice. Yet the donkey won all the votes, and all understood why. All the animals thought that the donkey could never win the competition, so they all voted for it, all but two. The donkey did not vote for itself, but cast its vote for the nightingale. And the human voted for himself.

The kohen may delude himself into thinking that he is supreme by virtue of his closeness to G-d's Temple. He may conclude that all depends upon him, and that without his help Israel cannot realize G-d's intended purpose. The point of the mitzvah of removing the ashes is to maintain the kohen's sense of proportion, and to check any delusions of grandeur. It internalizes the message that he, too, is one of the people, and his position is the same as theirs.

Monday, January 28, 2008


The most important letter
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Just a week ago we read about the revelation at Mount Sinai. We heard voices, saw lightning and spoke about the relationship between man and his God. A week ago we were almost in the heavens. This week we come back to earth.

The portion Mishpatim deals with the relations between man and his fellow-man. This week we hardly speak about God. This week we speak about theft and other criminal offences, about laws for the protection of the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow; about trespassing and damages.

In fact, whoever says that Judaism is a ritualistic religion evidently never read the portion Mishpatim.

"And these are the laws which you shall set before them" (Exodus 21, verse 1). Thus begins the portion. Why does it begin "And these are" and not "These are" without the word "And" which is the letter vav in Hebrew?

RaSHI refers to the letter vav in the opening verse and says, "As the first are from Sinai, so these are from Sinai". RaSHI connects the Ten Commandments to the laws that appear in this portion. "Do not think", Rashi wants to say, "that at Mount Sinai we were told only "I am the Lord thy God" and "Remember the Sabbath day". "You shall not oppress a stranger" and "You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes" were also said at Sinai. Judaism makes no distinction between ritual and morality. The letter vav meaning "And" serves as a bridge between heaven and earth.

Even so, there are still Jews who insist on looking upwards and not down. A friend told me recently that he had stopped attending his synagogue. He was never a religious man but his three-year-old daughter was killed in a terror attack and he went to the synagogue every week to say kaddish. I asked him why he had stopped going. He answered, "I went to the same synagogue for ten months. A week ago I sat during the service with my legs crossed. Someone came up to me and told me to straighten my legs, that it was not done to sit the way I was sitting. And then I thought to myself: "I've been coming here for ten months. No one ever said Shalom to me. In fact, no one ever asked me why I say kaddish. If the first time someone speaks to me is to tell me that it is forbidden to sit there with my legs crossed, I will not return to that place. I don't wish to pray in a place like that".

Judaism is a blend of heaven and earth. We are asked to look upwards, to rest on the Sabbath, to refrain from eating certain foods, to observe family purity. To the same degree we are asked to visit the sick, comfort mourners, and care for the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. In the Torah there is no difference between heaven and earth. Both sets of commandments come from Sinai.

A few days ago something interesting happened to me. A friend from abroad sent me ten e-mails and I didn't answer even one. The truth is, I didn't answer because I didn't receive even one. A few weeks later, we found that he had omitted one letter of my e-mail address.
He said to me, "E-mail is like the Torah. If one letter is missing, the message does not reach its destination". I thought to myself: that is the value of the letter vav meaning "And" at the beginning of this Torah Portion. If it is missing, the message of the Torah does not reach its destination.

Perhaps it is the most important letter in the whole Torah.

Monday, January 21, 2008


In the Second Person

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

This week we read Parashat Yitro with the Ten Commandments at the center.

There are two distinctive things in the Ten Commandments if compared to the laws of other peoples. The first is that in the Ten Commandments, the commandments are "categorical" with no punishment cited. "Thou shalt not steal"' for example is a categorical commandment, unequivocal and undebatable.

I will now think as a parent.

I can explain to my daughters why it's worthwhile to go to bed early. And although I am fully aware in advance that my explanations won't convince them, I can give my reasons and I can be flexible.

However, there are times when an order is unequivocal and there is no room for "negotiations". If they try to put a needle into an electric socket, I can explain the reasons that this is forbidden but I can never be flexible…

In other codexes of law, for example the laws of Hammurabi in the 8th century B.C.E., there is no such thing, punishment plays a central role in the system and it makes no difference if it is the death penalty or any other physical punishment.

The main point is that it is the punishment that explains the command. While in the "Ten Commandments", the command is absolute.

The second point that differentiates the "Ten Commandments" from other legal systems is the phraseology. The "Ten Commandments" are phrased in the second person and that is a relevant and revolutionary point. In the same way that we relate to G-d in the second person (in saying the blessings we say "Blessed art Thou O Lord our G-d" and not "Blessed is He") thus the Ten Commandments are also phrased in the second person and say "Thou shalt not steal" in the second person. The Ten Commandments have been given such an honored place in Judaism because they are a kind of an intimate conversation, face to face between The Holy One and his people.

We are not speaking here about an impersonal form of address where the responsibility for implementation falls on everyone in general but on a form of address in the second person that is addressed to each and every individual in the Jewish people.

The style shows us that the laws apply to everyone – the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, on our neighbor but primarily on myself…

It is always easier to think that the sinner is the one on the other side of the street.

Previous Drashot

Yitro 5766 – Selective Holiness