Tuesday, December 22, 2009


An Eternal Convenant
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Sibling rivalry is a common phenomenon in the Bible, especially in Genesis. Without any doubt this is one of the most complex and problematic relationships within the family framework. There is a certain logic here. Siblings feel they must compete for parental love and attention and so it is logical that there will be friction at one stage or another.

Midrash Tanchuma bears witness to the complexity of this relationship when referring to the verse in "The Song of Songs" (8, 1) "O that thou wert as my brother". Israel exclaims before the Lord, "O that thou wert as my brother" but in the Bible all brothers hate one another, Cain hates Abel...Ishmael hates Yitzhak...Esau hates Ya'acov...and Yosef is hated by his brothers, and so who is the brother that Israel refers to when speaking to the Lord? Israel is referring to Moses and Aaron as in Psalm 133, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity".

There is however a precedent in the Book of Genesis for the desirable relation
between Moses and Aaron, it is the relationship between Yehuda and Benjamin. We can say that in Genesis a circle is closed. The problematic relations between brothers begin with Cain's chance remark after the murder, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4, 9). The circle is closed in last week's Parasha. The same Yehuda that in the beginning of Parashat Va-Yeshev suggests selling his brother Yosef to the Ishmaelites is the one who is the guarantor for Benjamin. Yehuda's words to his father, "I will be a surety for him, and of my hand shalt thou require him" (43, 9), are the exact opposite of Cain's words.

In the beginning of parashat Va-Yigash we see for the first time in the Bible, a man who endangers himself for his brother's sake. Benjamin is held on Yosef's orders and Yehuda is willing to fight, as Rabbi Yehuda noted in a midrash in Bereshit Rabba (63, 6). Yehuda puts himself in danger. He may even end his life in the same pit that Yosef came out of, but he keeps his promise to his father and brings his son back to him. He does not let Benjamin remain in Egypt...

At this time, Yehuda and Benjamin sign an eternal covenant. They are the tribes that composed the kingdom of Judah and the same ones who survived destruction and exile. We are the offspring of this covenant of mutual obligation made by two brothers for the first time since the creation of the world.

And when the Lord searched for a place for His Shekhinah, He decided on the place where these brothers dwelt. The Temple was built on the border between the tribe of Yehuda and the tribe of Benjamin

Monday, December 14, 2009

Miketz - Chanukah

The Unknown Hero

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Although Passover is regarded as the festival of questions, Chanukah has also earned a question of its own - the famous question known as "the Bet Yosef's question" which seems rather simple at first...

Chanukah is an 8-day festival in honor of the miracle of the jug of oil, which was supposed to last for only one day but burned for eight. But according to this, the miracle occurred for only seven days since there was enough oil for the first day. So one of the eight candles in fact lit up normally and therefore doesn't symbolize any miracle whatsoever! If so, why are we supposed to light candles for eight days on Chanukah? Perhaps Chanukah should really be a 7-day festival instead?

Many solutions have been offered to this puzzle and it is impossible to mention all of them. The "Bet Yosef" himself offers three answers in his book:

. The jug of oil was divided into 8 parts, each for one day. The miracle occurred because each eighth part was enough to burn for one day.
. On the first night the menorah was filled with all of the oil in the jug. The miracle occurred on the first night after the menorah which had burned all night long filled up with oil again, and yet again on each subsequent night.
. Each night, immediately after the menorah was filled with oil, the jug filled up again.

(We should note that, according to the last two answers, the question should then apply to the eighth day, when there was enough oil to light the menorah, and therefore no real miracle occurred).

One of the most brilliant answers I have heard on this subject is a new interpretation by the late Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen Z"L. He claimed that this candle was lit in honor of the great priest who did not despair at the time of the desecration of the Temple by the Greeks and hid the jug of oil, fully expecting that the Temple would one day be rebuilt. This "cocktail" of foresight, hope and faith within this one man was a miracle in itself. He deserves an extra candle...

Many people think that the words "dream" and "vision" are interchangeable. But this is not the case at all. To dream and to be a visionary are not necessarily the same thing.

At the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev Joseph has a dream and builds his entire world (or rather, those parts of it under his control) around his vision. Pharoah, in contrast, also has a dream, but he awakens, falls asleep again and continues to dream...with cows.

He also dreams, we all dream, but he doesn't know what to do about his dream. He needs someone to interpret it for him and advise him what to do.

In Joseph's case it is different, The Torah describes him using two different words: he is a man of discernment (Navon) and a man of wisdom (Chacham). These words are also not interchangeable.

A man of discernment is one who can find an answer to any question. Ruling an empire like the Egyptian one during those years of famine requires great intelligence. Even a dreamer can be a clever man.

But wisdom is something entirely different. A wise man is one who does not only make the correct analysis, but also knows how to apply it correctly! It is true that Joseph was a man of discernment, but it was his wisdom and not only his discernment that saved Egypt. .
In the same way it can be said that it is true that a miracle occurred on Chanukah; but this miracle was not created from nothing. Behind this miracle is the unknown hero of the festival of Chanukah: that High Priest who happened to dream that the day would come when the Greeks would be banished from the Temple together with all of their gods. But it also occurred to him to save and hide the jug of oil, so that those who would follow after him could rekindle the menorah when the Temple was rebuilt.

That is the difference between a dreamer and a visionary.

Previous Drashot

Miketz (Chanukah) 5766 - Body and Spirit

Monday, December 07, 2009


Fathers and Sons

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
LeIlui Nishmat Bela bat Moshe VeLeah Z"L
"These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph..." (Bereshit 37:2)

Torah portion Vayeshev already in the second verse suggests the many implications of educating children. The very structure of the sentence creates the feeling of a son following in his father's footsteps.

In the Zohar it is said that the three patriarchs stand for the three pilgrimage festivals.
Pesach (Passover) stands for Avraham (who told his wife, Sarah, to "knead and make cakes" [Genesis 18:6]) Shavuoth (when we hear the shofar) stands for Isaac (as the shofar was made of the horn of the ram sacrificed instead of Isaac in the story of the akedah). Succoth stands for Jacob (who "made booths for his cattle" [Genesis 33:17] ).
The Zohar adds that Shmini Atzeret stands for Joseph, because as Shmini Atzeret is the continuation of Succoth, so Joseph is the natural continuation of Jacob, our patriarch.

Our sages remark on the similarities between Jacob and his son, Joseph. Perhaps we might expect the Torah to say: "These are the generations of Jacob, Reuven", who was the eldest son. But the Torah shows Jacob's imprint on the heart of Joseph, the son Jacob and Rachel.

Joseph is similar to Jacob, not only in things that happened to him, but also in characteristics. Jacob was born circumcised and so was Joseph. Jacob's mother was barren and so was Joseph's. Jacob's mother had difficulty in the sorrow of his conception, and Joseph's mother had difficulty in the hour of giving birth. Jacob's mother gave birth to two, and so did Joseph's. Jacob's brother wished to kill him, and so did Joseph's brothers.

The list is even longer.

Jacob married a woman out of the land of Israel, and so did Joseph. Both became self-important through their dreams. Both went down to Egypt. Both were embalmed and both were later brought for burial in the land of Israel (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:5).

When I read this midrash, I think of myself and my father. I have asked myself many times if my father influenced my way of life as an observant Jew in general and as a Rabbi in particular.

My father is a secular Jew. I have almost no memories of going to the synagogue, nor of kosher food in the house, nor of Sabbath observance. Until a few years ago, I thought that his influence in this respect was non-existent. I learnt from him to be honest, to love books…and I inherited his sense of humor.

But some weeks ago I remembered something that happened when I was in the fourth grade in the Jewish school in Argentina. We were putting on a show for the end of the year and were going to do a Hassidic style dance. We were told to wear black trousers and white shirts and to bring a talit for the costume.
I was the only child in the class that did not bring a talit from home. My father (whom I had never seen wearing a talit) said that a talit is not for dressing up and asked my grandmother to sew something similar for me to wear. I cried and tried to persuade my father that I would be the only child without a real talit, but he did not relent.

Only today, after almost thirty years, do I understand how strongly I was impressed by that tiny distinction between holy and secular, between an improvised make-believe talit and a real talit.

Many people with grown up children turn to me and say, "You know, Rabbi, time has proved that I brought my children up correctly."

There is a wonderful story about an old sailor who stopped smoking when he saw his parrot coughing madly. He at once thought that the coughing was a symptom of pneumonia as a result of the smoke from his pipe.

The sailor took his poor parrot to the vet who examined it thoroughly. At the end he found the parrot in good health. "Don't worry", said the vet to the sailor. "Your parrot's well. He just learned to imitate your coughing".

"These are the generations of Jacob… Joseph".

It is the nature of man. For better or worse, children imitate their parents.

As a famous saying states: "Whoever is concerned with days sows wheat; whoever thinks of years plants trees; whoever thinks of generations raises children".
Previous Drashot

Monday, November 30, 2009


Two countries for two nations
By Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki

At the beginning of this portion, Yaakov Avinu is filled with anxiety over the approaching meeting with his brother Esav after a twenty year separation. He doesn’t know what to expect. He only knows that Esav is coming towards him with four hundred men from his people.

Yaakov's lack of certainty concerning his fate is expressed very well by RaSHI, with his saying that prior to this meeting, "Yaakov prepared himself for three things: for a gift, for prayer and for war" (RaSHI on Bereshit 32, 9). In other words: Yaakov didn’t know what to do – whether to tempt his brother in order to find favor in his eyes and to develop a feeling of “political horizon”, or to prepare for a destructive war, or whether to depend on the grace of The Holy One.

However, from the perspective of this weekly portion’s reader, there isn’t much room for optimism. A person reading the Torah for the first time will immediately feel that there isn’t much room for making peace, rather for revenge and the beginning of waves of violence between the two sides. There is a great probability that in the end, blood will be spilled at the site of the meeting. However, in the end, the two adversaries kiss and embrace in the center of the arena.

Many commentaries have been made on this very same embrace. There are those who say that Esav “nashak” (kissed) his brother with all his heart (RaSHI on Bereshit 33, 4), and there are those who say that Esav “nashach” (bit) him with all his heart. Between “kissed” and “bit” (“nashak”- “nashach”) there are innumerable commentaries. One of them is the commentary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (which was cited in RaSHI’s commentary on Bereshit 33, 4) which states: "It is a rule that it is common knowledge that Esav hates Yaakov, but, his pity was aroused at that moment and he kissed him wholeheartedly”.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai describes this embrace, in my humble opinion, in a rather problematic fashion. He says that Esav’s hate towards his brother was known (it’s a rule, an halacha!!) and only at that moment did his compassion grow for his brother.

This feeling doesn’t change, hints RaSHbI. In RaSHbI’s opinion, Esav was a “serial hater” and that hate was in his DNA code. Only on rare occasions was he able to have compassion for his brother Yaakov. The embrace was genuine, but RaSHbI was convinced that it was almost “a miracle”. It is impossible to rely on a person like that, because it is impossible to rely on a miracle.

At the beginning of our Torah portion, the RaMbaN says “that all what occured to our forefather with his brother Esav will always occure to us with the sons of Esav.” He is basically describing this meeting as a “prototype” of all of the meetings that occurred over the generations between the Jewish people (B’nei Yisrael) and the nations of the world. Meetings in which there were kisses that were also bites, and embraces that were counterfeit; meetings in which the suspicion dominated the setting.

Even if the RaMbaN related to the prototype principally in regard to “the sons of Esav”, I feel that it can also serve as a prototype of the relations between us and the sons of Ishmael.

What do we learn from this meeting between Yaakov and Esav?

The first thing that it teaches us is that even if the kiss was genuine, it didn’t make them friends forever. But the most important point is not in the present story. The important point is that on that occasion, they understood that there was room in the world for both of them. And most importantly: they understood that there is no more important battle than the struggle for co-existence between two entirely different conceptions of the world.

It’s reasonable to assume that Yaakov and Esav continued to live very differently from each other as they did at the time of their births. Even if Esav invited his brother to continue the journey together in saying “... "Travel on and let us go" (Bereshit 33, 12), Yaakov quickly realized that there was no point to it. Yaakov continued along his path to the Land of Canaan, and Esav made his way to Seir. That was perhaps one of the first opportunities in history in which the slogan has made: "Two countries for two nations".
Previous Drashot

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Between Edom and Lavan

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, Ya'akov flees from his brother after the painful episode of the sale of the birthright and the blessing of his father Yitzhak.

It would seem that Ya'akov had a problem with colors. He fled from Edom (Heb. Red) and fell into the hands of Lavan (Heb. White). He had no other place to go. He felt like the People of Israel on the shore of the Red Sea in the desert with the Egyptians behind them and the sea in front of them.

What should he do?

One wants to kill him and the other exploits him and makes him realize that he has much to learn about cheating and exploitation. The former threatens his body and the latter threatens his spirit.

Ya'akov did not have an easy life. He lost his beloved wife prematurely. His daughter Dina was kidnapped and raped by Shechem the son of Hamor. He saw his son Reuven lie with his mistress Bilha. He suffered the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef, and thought that he had died. Ya'akov himself speaks of his difficult experiences in Parashat Vayigash when he says to Pharoah: "Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been" (Genesis 47:9)

However, this upheaval that occurs in our father Ya'akov's life in our Parasha, does him good. In retrospect, we can say that between our Parasha and Parashat Vayishlach, Ya'akov undergoes the process of changing from the "Ya'akov" to the "Yisrael".

The struggle with the angel that will take place next week is only the end of the process. This process and the name change that takes place in Parashat Vayishlach, bears witness to the victory of our father Ya'akov. The name "Ya'akov" reminds us of the word "akov" (Heb. crooked) and the name "Israel" reminds us of the word "yashar" (Heb. straight, upright).

Ya'akov escapes from Cana'an "akov" (a Crooked) and a liar, after twenty years he returns to Cana'an "yashar" (straight, upright) after having tasted integrity and fairness. He has become another person and returns to Cana'an a mature man. Between the flight from Edom and the flight from Lavan, he has found himself.

There is a story that once there was a farmer who asked G-d for control of the natural forces so that his crops would succeed and G-d granted his wish. Thus, every time that the farmer wanted a light rain, there was a light rain and every time he wanted sunshine, the sun shone.

However, at harvest time it became apparent that all his work had been in vain, and his year's work a total failure.

The man approached G-d, hurt and angry and asked him about the unexpected results. Why, if he had the power to control the natural forces, did everything come out the opposite of what was expected?

G-d said to him: "You asked for the things that you wanted, but what you wanted was not necessarily what the earth needed. You wanted sun and light rain, but you never wanted a storm and it is on the contrary the storms and heavy rains that are beneficial to the earth, frightening the birds and insects and cleansing the crops from pests."

Sometimes there is nothing more beneficial in life than a storm, even if it hurts a great deal (even the purest oil undergoes a painful process of crushing) Who knows what would have happened to Ya'akov had he not experienced this upheaval. What would his life have been without the pursuit of Edom and the exploitation of Lavan?

It is possible that Ya'akov would have remained the same spoiled child in Rivka's house, while she decided everything for him. Perhaps he would have remained the same "innocent man sitting in his tent" living in the shadow of his dominant Yiddishe Mame who would protect him from every possible upset.

Who would have guessed that between Edom (red) and Lavan (white) Ya'akov would find "a rosy life" (perhaps for the only period in his life)? Precisely in this difficult period he found happiness.

And the literary expression is: he labored for seven years in order to win Rachel for his wife and the seven years were in his eyes "like a few days" (Genesis 29:20). Only a happy man can feel that seven years of hard labor are like a few days...

Sometimes the nature of a storm is such that it can also be beneficial.
Previous Drashot

Monday, November 16, 2009


The sad story of a compulsive consumer

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

One of the most famous stories in the Torah is that of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for lentil stew, and Isaac mistakenly blessing Jacob towards the end of this portion.

Many plead in poor Esau's defence for being tricked out of his birthright by his own brother. There are even those who tend to see Jacob as the one who cynically took advantage of Esau's condition.

But even at the simplest literal level, we can see that this is only half true. In the same way that Jacob took advantage of Esau's exhaustion, Esau did not value his own birthright. Esau knew only how to listen to his gut instinct and act on his impulses without weighing up the implications...

At the moment of selling, Esau was totally impulsive...and made a wrong decision. But man is the sum total of all his decisions. It is true that there are things in life which are beyond our control. Forces of nature, and (G-d forbid) diseases and death itself. But an incorrect decision about those things which are in our control can harm us and come back like a boomerang even after many years. For a wrong decision resembles an arrow. While the arrow is under man's control he can do with it as he pleases. But the moment he has shot the arrow, he can no longer call it back...

This is what happened to Esau. He let his instinct decide and did not understand exactly how this act would affect him in the future.

I heard a story about Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Grodno. Every year he broke his fast on Yom Kippur by eating a very bony fish. Why? Because this way he was forced to eat slowly and not devour his food. He decided that even at the moment of the greatest possible hunger, the soul should be in control of the body, and not otherwise.

And thus Esau could be considered the first typical compulsive consumer in the history of mankind. What is a compulsive consumer? Firstly, it is a person who cannot control himself and buys goods simply to satisfy his obsessions. This applies not only to someone who rushes to a store to buy the latest state-of-the art cellular phone on the market even if he doesn't really need one, or the person who upgrades his internet capabilities simply because the company called and encouraged him to do so. A compulsive consumer is mostly a person who is prepared to pay a very high price for something which is basically worthless. How much would a lentil stew be worth? Of course it would have some value, especially if one were hungry. But to give up one's birthright for a lentil stew sounds rather exaggerated.

A compulsive consumer is a person who makes secondary issues his primary concern, and considers essential matters to be subordinate to these.

A most interesting and graphic example of this is the law of the "Ikar and Tafel" as regards the world of blessings. A person eating a banana recites the blessing "Borei pri haadama", while one eating whipped cream recites the blessing "Shehakol nihiya bedvaro". But what happens when someone eats a banana with whipped cream? Which should one bless? The answer is "Borei pri haadama" because in this meal the banana is the main portion (Ikar) and the cream the smaller part (Tafel).

I would say that a person who knows in a similar way how to give essential matters primary importance in his life, is a person who is moving towards a life of blessings, just like the one which Jacob received from his father Isaac.

We can move towards or away from blessings, based on the decisions we make in our lives. That blessing was not, in fact, stolen from Esau. Esau simply lost it along the path he chose.

Previous Drashot
Toldot 5766 - The Brawn and the Brain

Monday, November 02, 2009


Abraham's Virtue

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

In this week's Portion, Vayerah, the Torah speaks explicitly and extendedly about Abraham's special attitude towards the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim (Hospitality). It is known that Abraham was still recuperating from the painful circumcision, but only three days after the brit, he was already sitting at the opening of is tent...

Rashi questions: Why did he sit at the opening? And answer: "To see those who pass and invite them in".

We know how much Abraham went out of his way to show good hospitality to the angels. Ran to the livestock, slaughtered a cow, baked cakes, brought a bowl to wash their feet.

While physically still "grieving" the Mitzvah of circumcision (Brit Milah), he found the strength to serve G-D by fulfilling the Mitzvah of hospitality (Hachnasat Orchim).

But in our portion we have yet another story of hospitality given by Lot, the son of Abraham's brother...

He too knew how to fulfill this Mitzvah!

When the angels came to announce the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot too sat at the city gates of Sodom, got up, walked towards them and invited them to his home. Why if this is so is only Abraham our father written in the texts of the Sages as an outstanding provider of hospitality, and no one speaks about the quality of Lot?
There is a story told of the famous Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who, in his travels, came to the city of L'vov.
Seeking a lodging place, he approached one of the wealthy townsmen, and, without identifying himself, asked for a place to stay. The wealthy man yelled at him angrily, "We don't need wayfarers here. Go to a hotel!".
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak then approached a poor Melamed (teacher), who welcomed him graciously, offering him food to eat and a place to sleep.
On the way to the poor man's house, someone recognized Rabbi Levi Yitzchak as the famed Rabbi of Berditchev. Soon all the townsfolk came out to greet and see the face of the venerable Rabbi. Among them of course was the wealthy man, who proceeded to ask for forgiveness, and beseeched the Rabbi to stay with him at his home.
In response, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned to the gathered people and said, "Do you know the difference between Abraham, our Father of blessed memory, and Lot? Why does scripture go into such detail about the full meal Abraham served the angels? After all, Lot also baked matzos and prepared a feast for his guests? Why is Abraham's hospitality considered special and not Lot's?".
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev answered his own question by pointing out that when the guests came to Lot, scripture states (Genesis 19:1) "The two angels (malachim) came to Sodom". Whereas with Abraham the Torah says (Genesis 18:2) "And behold he saw three people (anashim) standing upon him". Lot saw angels! Who wouldn't accept angels into his home? Whereas, Abraham saw poor wanderers, ragged, fatigued and covered with dust, in need of a placed to rest and a little food.
Lot too knew how to act; he too knew the meaning of hospitality. But he had a flaw in his heart. He only knew how to provide hospitality, for appearance's sake. May it be God's will that the verse "Purify our heart to serve You sincerely" be fulfilled in our lives.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lech Lecha

A True Visionary
by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

At the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, we once again hear the famous call to Abraham Avinu: "G-d said to Abram, 'Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing". (Genesis 12:1-2).

RaSHI was sensitive to the fact that several blessings were made to Abraham during this one particular calling. It is written: "I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great". Perhaps it would have been sufficient to promise "You shall become a blessing"...Why was it necessary to give the blessings in such detail?
RaSHI brings a wonderful and penetrating response to this same question.

Why were three promises needed?

Since traveling causes three things: It inhibits the birth of children, and decreases one's wealth and lessens one's fame, therefore, these three blessings were necessary. He [G-d], promised him children, wealth and fame.

RaSHI states that a man who chooses to go on any new path might have to pay a heavy price for his decision. His family might have to pay a heavy price. His fortune might suffer. The person’s good name could be affected by the change.

According to RaSHI, a man of vision takes risks and it appears to me that this comment is also relevant in a week during which we commemorate the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l.

An interesting example to help understand the power of a vision is to look at the area of road paving. Today, we travel on orderly roads that have been paved with careful consideration by engineers and professionals. But who chose the path of the road upon which we travel?

In the present day, road builders can be assisted by modern technology such as satellite pictures during the planning of the project, but there are cases in which we travel upon a road that was paved hundreds and even thousands of years ago by some unknown pioneer who was searching for his way between the mountains. Others followed in his footsteps until these same footsteps became a dirt path. After many generations, those first footsteps became a stone road and then later paved with asphalt.

Today, travel is a simple matter. We know how to reach our desired destination, and sometimes we even know how long it will take to reach it. But the first person to go took risks. He did not know what awaited him on the other side of the mountain. He also did not know when he would arrive. He did not know if his donkey or ox would survive the hardships of the journey.

This is precisely what happened to Abraham Avinu. And so Abraham needed those three blessings, because it would be difficult for him as it is for any individual who wants to begin something new.

A few days ago, I read that Thomas Edison conducted two thousands of experiments before he succeeded in inventing the electric light bulb.

Journalists asked him at the time how he felt failing those thousands of times until he saw the fruit of his labor. He replied: “I didn’t fail, not even once. It was simply a successful process with two thousands steps.”

A famous saying goes: "All beginnings are difficult". I would like to add to this today: "If it isn’t difficult, it’s a sign that you have not yet begun". We have a tendency to think that Abraham’s journey to the Land of Canaan is the beginning of our Parashah. However, if we look at the end of the previous section, we see that at the end of Parashat Noah there was the point in time when Abraham left Ur Kasdim (see Genesis 11:31-32).

The Torah says something most interesting. Terah (Abraham's father) also wanted to reach the Land of Canaan, but he arrived in Haran and remained there. For Terah, going to Canaan was not a matter of values. Abraham continued on, even when he knew that he was taking a huge risk. But a person of vision always takes risks.

To be a person of vision, one doesn’t require the particular characteristic attributed to those of singular greatness such as Abraham Avinu, nor those of the other heroes of our nation. We also, in our simple lives, find ourselves standing at crossroads where we have to decide whether to continue in the direction of our vision, or come to a standstill from fear of taking risks.

And from this point in time, only we can decide whether we will fulfill ourselves in the world, despite the dangers, or continue our lives with the continuous feeling of having missed a new opportunity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Stone or Window

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The story of Noah is one of children's favourites as it is a story full of animals, birds, colours and a rainbow.

We tend to picture Noah sunbathing on the deck of the ark with the elephant, the giraffe and the monkeys, but when we read the description of the ark in the Torah, we see that it is not at all the way we draw or imagine it.

There was no place to sunbathe because the ark had no deck. Actually, the ark was more like a submarine than a boat. There was one window in the ark and only through that could those inside see what was happening outside.

However, this too is a controversial point. The word Chalon (window) does not appear in the Torah portion which uses the word Tsohar which has more than one meaning. Some interpret it as an aperture, or skylight, which is a kind of window, while others interpret it as a precious stone (RaSHI).

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger makes an interesting comment: What is the difference between a precious stone and a window? A window lets light in and through it we see what is happening outside. A precious stone has light within but we cannot see through it.

This difference is that between those who say that Noah the righteous man sat in the ark but his heart was with what was happening outside, and those who say that Noah cared only about himself and didn't care about what was happening outside the ark.

The ark, in the story of Noah, symbolizes security, the bubble or the ivory tower.

Everyone in his life sits in his own ivory tower. There are those who are financially secure and forget that there is poverty and hunger in the world, maybe even in their neighbor's house. There are those who have the support of family and friends who forget that there are many people in the world who suffer from unbearable loneliness.

There are many bubbles that may enclose us.

There is a famous dispute in the Gemarah (Megilah 24b) between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages as to whether a blind person is obliged to recite the blessing on the lights. How can a blind person say "forms the light and creates darkness" (Yotser Or Uvore Hoshekh) if he has never seen daylight?

Rabbi Yossi in the Talmud states that he was always puzzled by the verse "You will grope at noontime as a blind person gropes in the darkness" (Deuteronomy 28:29).

What difference does it make to a blind person whether it is day or night? He cannot see in either case! Then Rabbi Yossi himself answers through the following tale:

It happened that he himself was walking in the dark of night and came across a blind man carrying a torch.

He said to the blind man, "My son, why are you carrying a torch?".

The blind man answered: "As long as I carry the torch, people can see me coming and come to my aid so that I do not trip and fall".

The purpose of light is not only to light the way for ourselves but also to enable us to see others and their world.

The controversy regarding the word "Tsohar" is not marginal. It is about the essence of a well-ordered society.

"Go out of the ark", says G-d to Noah when the waters subside, for there is a world outside your bubble.

Only Noah will decide whether he will turn the Tsohar into Zohar (brightness, radiance) and bring light to the world, or whether he will turn the Tsohar into Sohar (a prison) and enclose himself as he was in the ark and keep the light to himself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


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 07, 2009


We were there
by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

On a flight to Buenos Aires I once met a man who embraced me as if I'd always known him. I looked at him, and he understood that he had made a mistake.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know you."
He blushed, but cleverly got himself out of an embarrassing situation by saying: "Perhaps we met at the revelation at Mount Sinai. We were all there!"

The reaction of that Jew finds support in one of our Torah portion, Nitzavim, in which is described the renewal of the covenant that was made 40 years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai.

"Not with you only do I make this covenant and administer this oath, but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our G-d, and also with him that is not here with us this day." (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14). Rashi explains: "And even with future generations."

In effect the Torah tells us that we were all there to the same extent as we all went out of Egypt and received the Torah. Throughout the generations Jews are born and live within a culture that teaches that we were all witnesses to the revelation, even those who became part of the Jewish religion later. This was a unique event, unparalleled in human history, that the entire Jewish people, from children to the aged, were privileged to meet G-d. All other claims to divine revelation in other cultures and other peoples are based on one man or on a limited group that received divine revelation.

This perception is revolutionary and incomprehensible to other peoples. Our neighbors and those that hold anti-Zionist views are sure that the Jewish people has no right to our land because most of us are not descendants of the inhabitants of the ancient land of Israel.

"Your place is in Russia, or Poland, or Rumania" they say to Jews of Ashkenazi origin. Not long ago an enemy of the Jews said that the Middle Eastern conflict will be resolved when we return to those places.

An interesting halachic issue deals with the same point. The Rambam was once asked by Ovadiah the convert, who had been born to a Christian family in Italy, if he was entitled to make the blessing and say "Our God and the God of our fathers" (Eloheinu Ve-Elohei Avotenu) or "That sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us" (Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu) or "who has set us apart" (Asher Hivdilanu) or "who chose us" (Asher Bachar Banu) and so on.

The Rambam's answer was unambiguous. Whoever joins the Jewish people is a Jew in every sense, and he joins the Jewish heritage of generations, even if from a genetic point of view he does not belong. Even he who was not present was there. Whoever chose to join the Jewish people chose to be present at the revelation at Mount Sinai.

We all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. For Mount Sinai is not simply a geographical site. Belonging to the Jewish people does not involve a DNA test.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Ki Tavo

Recognizing the Good
By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A millionaire left his office as usual at the end of a day's work and found a beggar asking him for charity.
"Ten shekels in the name of G-d," said the beggar. "I will soon be going to sleep and have not yet drunk a cup of coffee…"
The millionaire put his hand in his pocket, gave him a one hundred shekel note and said to him: "Take a hundred, so that you can drink not one, but ten cups of coffee".

The next day the same beggar was again waiting for the millionaire after work, and boxed him straight in his left eye.
"Tell me," the millionaire said, immediately recognizing him, "are you crazy?! Only yesterday I gave you a hundred shekels so you could go to sleep with a little food in your stomach…. and now you hit me?"

Then the beggar said to him: "And who do you think can sleep after ten cups of coffee?!".
"Todah Rabah" ("Thank you very much") is one of the first expressions every child (or even every new immigrant) learns to say. How often does a child hear the words "Say thank you"? And every parent knows that it's not enough to simply think it to yourself. We have to say it.

But knowing “how” to say “thank you” and to feel the need to say “thank you” are two completely different things. Feeling and expressing thanks are difficult things to do.

The mitzvah of Bikurim, with which we begin the portion of Ki Tavo, symbolizes the recognition of goodness. A Jew who is able to perform this mitzvah brings the first of his fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where he presents them to the priest while professing his thanks to G-d for all the goodness He has shown him.

The traditionally accepted way in which we express our thanks to the Lord for His goodness and forgiveness is called "Mikra Bikurim", and this is the opening line of the portion. "And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruits of the soil, which Thou, O G-d, hast given me" (Deuteronomy 26, 10).

The expression of thanks is a central value in Jewish tradition, and here are some examples.

Firstly: The first word which every Jew is supposed to say when he wakes up in the morning is the word: modeh ("I give thanks to Thee, O living and eternal King, who hast restored my soul unto me in mercy: great is Thy faithfulness").

Secondly: We must always remember the meaning of the word "Jew". The word "Yehudi" (Jew) comes from the word "Hodaya" (thanksgiving). When Judah was born, his mother Leah said: "Now I shall give thanks to G-d" (Genesis 29, 35). We are expected to know when to express thankfulness.

Thirdly: It is written in the Midrash: In the Time to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving will not be annulled and all prayers will be annulled except for the thanksgiving prayer, which will never be annulled (Lev. Rabbah 9).

Recognizing the good and giving thanks were instituted by our Sages as a central aspect of our daily routine: not only "modeh ani" but also the blessing "modim" in the three daily prayer services, and "nodeh lecha" in grace after meals. Saying “thank you” rids a person of the idea that he deserves everything.

There are those who go about with the feeling that the whole world is always indebted to them. Therefore anything they receive is owed to them and there is absolutely no need to recognize it as good.

Fourth and last example: At the end of every "amidah" prayer we have, as I have already mentioned, the blessing "modim".

On repeating the amidah, when the cantor says "Modim Anachnu Lach" the congregation says in a whisper what is called "Modim De-Rabbanan". “Modim De-Rabbanan” is a blessing which was instituted by our sages, just as all the blessing were instituted by them (actually the "Modim" which the cantor says was also compossed by our Sages).

So why the need for a double thanksgiving? Why don't we whisper a second version for the other amidah blessings?

Rabbi David Abudraham says in his explanation for the siddur that a "Shaliach" (representative) can release us from all amidah blessings, health blessing, blessing of making a living, etc but there is one thing that he cannot do in our name, no one can say it instead of us, and that is saying "thank you".

There, the "Power of Attorney" held by the shaliach is no longer applicable.

Monday, August 03, 2009


The First Jewish Steps
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
The haredi district of Meah She'arim in Jerusalem is a microcosm in which the walls speak for themselves. It is a neighborhood in which each poster reflects the way the residents of that area think and live.

A few years ago, walking through the district, I read a poster that said: "The Council of Torah Sages warns you that connection to the Internet constitutes a flagrant violation of Jewish Law."

I was astonished by the tone of the poster, but I quickly understood it. In the 19th century, leaving the ghetto was to wear modern clothes or to go to the university. But today, if one who fears G-d is connected to the web in the Meah She'arim area, he will be mentally outside the ghetto even though he still lives inside it.

However, Jewish life has another facet which is as a dangerous phenomenon for our people's health as the phenomenon of the Meah She'arim posters.

Today, the greatest pride for many Jews is living outside the ghetto in all aspects of their lives: they don't give their children a Jewish education, they don't perform circumcision as they consider it a primitive practice. For many Jews, even the mention of the word "Torah" can cause a shock of astronomical dimensions.

Parashat Ekev says: You shall teach them (these My words) to your children and discuss them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire (for the night) and when you arise." (Deuteronomy 11, 19).

RaSHI, in reference to this verse, teaches us: "KesheHa-tinok Matchil Ledaver, Aviv Mesiach Imo Be-Lashon Ha-Kodesh U-Melamdo Torah, Ve-Im Lo Asa Chen, Harei Hu Ke-ilu Kovro." ("When the infant begins to talk, his father should speak to him in the Holy Tongue, and should teach him the Torah. If he does not do this, it is as though he buries him (while still alive)".

RaSHI teaches us through these harsh words that the Jewish education of a child must begin at the earliest age. Otherwise, the Jewish identity of our children will run the serious risk of being buried.

There is an old anecdote about a young couple who once visited the renowned Chafetz Chayim seeking his wise advice.

She was in the eighth month of pregnancy and wanted to know how they should act with their future son in order to root him in the Torah.

The Chafetz Chayim looked at them and said warmly: "I hope I will be able to help you, but let me tell you that you came to me eight months late…".

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Auditive balance
Our weekly Torah section contains one of the fundamental pillars of the Jewish faith: the "Shema Israel".

For that reason, I would like to talk about the centrality of the sense of hearing in the Jewish tradition.

Our People are overwhelmed with visual and auditive reminders. We can mention the tefillin, the mezuzah, the tzitzit, and the Chanukah candles among the visual reminders and the Shofar is an outstanding example among the auditive ones. These reminders work in the same way that a compass works in the open sea. They point to us the way to follow and they make us remember who we are and towards where we go.

However, our people always believed more in its ears than in its eyes. When a people hear, he can transmit, and when the ear fails, the Jewish People are in danger.

A very graphical example appears in the book of Be-Midbar. In Parashat Be-Haalotcha it is told about the signals that our people had during its march in the desert. A cloud marked the exact site in which the People of Israel had to encamp and two trumpets of silver helped to congregate to the People at the time of their departure. (see Numbers 9:15 - 10:10).

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut comments this passage:

"The cloud was a visual, the trumpets an auditive reminder of G-d's presence. Somehow, Jewish instinct never quite trusted the witness of the eyes. Moses performed signs, but these could be duplicated – what he said could not. At Sinai the emphasis was not so much on what the people saw but, more importantly, on what they heard. The true key word of Judaism is not "Reeh" (See) but "Shema" (Hear). The cloud is gone, the sound of the Shofar remains".

The Rabbi says that if the Jewish People loses its capacity of hearing not just becomes deaf…but also becomes blind! In that instant the people lose the compass. It is not accidental that the center of the human balance is close to the ears. The Hebrew language, with its well-known wisdom, teaches us that the word "Izun" ("Balance") contains the same linguistic root of the word "Ozen" ("Ear").

The balance and the future of the People of Israel resides in maintaining the millenarian capacity to exercise the "Shema", to hear, to transmit and to teach to those who follow us in the chain of life.

Monday, July 20, 2009


The longest lamentation

Parashat Devarim is always read the Shabbat before Tishá BeAv, the anniversary -among other things- of the destruction of both Temples of Jerusalem.

The weekly portion begins taking about the meraglim, the spies who visited the Promised Land and that frightened to the people of Israel at their returning, sinking Israel in the hopelessness and the lamentation.

That night, according to the Talmud, was Tisha B'Av. G-d, looking at the people crying, condemned them to travel for forty years in the desert, and decreed that the generation won't enter the Promised Land. "You cry without reason!", said G-d. "I will establish a crying for the generations!" (Ta'anit 29a).

According to the Talmudic tradition, the Temples of Jerusalem, not only were destroyed by the invaders, but also the people motivated the destruction with their own conducts. Jerusalem not only was destroyed by the will of others, but also by own errors. The paganism, the bloodshed and the illicit sexual relations caused the destruction of the First Temple, whereas the Second was destroyed by the baseless hatred and the excessive love to the money (Ierushalmi Iomá).

Four thousand years after that critical night in which we cried that vain weeping to the return of the twelve meraglim, we are still alive. Many times we have been knocked down; many others we returned to life.

Perhaps in our days, when we are the page of the history that will be studied in one hundred years, we can learn this lesson of G-d and of our history. We should understand that the destruction of Jerusalem was triggered by a number of sins that are still present in our lives. Even today, there is baseless hatred between brothers and many enemies from outside and from inside can ignite -Jas V'Shalom!- the flames of a new destruction.

We must understand in these crucial times we are living, that we cannot be indifferent with this situation…because the indifference is criminal. Also for that indifference Jerusalem was destroyed. And mainly, we must understand that there is no future for our people if we do not exercise Ahavat Israel (the authentic love to Israel). For that reason we have been wondering for two thousand years in the uttermost parts of the world.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Aaron's Peace

Aaron the priest ascended Mount Hor at the command of G-d and died there (Numbers 33:38)

This week we will read about the death of Aaron.

Aaron is a strange personality within the Torah. Many times, he seems to have an inexplainable passivity. We would have expected for a different attitude in the episode of the golden calf or a greater commitment in circumstances where the leadership of Moses was in doubt.

However, the people of Israel felt Aaron's death much than Moses' death. Aaron was loved by Israel because he was much more than Moses's brother: he was the brother of Israel. As it is suggested in Pirkei Avot (1, 13): "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them close to the Torah.".

Nobody can sympathize with such passivity. Passivity exasperates many people and indifference makes them angry as well. But Aaron was not passive. He was a consensus seeker and was the only one in that generation who could live in peace during forty years in the desert.

When the people fought with the phantoms of the past and with the fears of the future, Aaron not only could live peacefully but also knew how to pursue the peace for others.

There once was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace.
Many artists tried. The king looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them.
One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.
The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell, in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the king looked, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest in perfect peace.
The king chose the second picture. He said: "Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace."

That was the meaning of Aaron's peace.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


The Blessing of an Enemy

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

"How goodly are thy tents o' Ya'acov, thy tabernacles o' Israel" (Numbers 24:5).

This well known verse that appears at the beginning of the prayer book is the verse said by Bilam the wicked, the enemy of Israel.

If this is the case, why have Bilam's words received such a prominent place in the siddur?

There is the famous joke about the Jew who read an anti-Semitic newspaper every morning.

Once his friend Shmulik met him and asked him: "Tell me Yankel…aren't there enough jewish newspapers that you are reading an anti-Semitic one?

He said to Shmulik , "Look…I read in the Jewish newspaper about the number of Israelis living under the poverty line, about how we dare not move a finger without the authorization of the United States and about the fact that soon there will be more Arabs than Jews living in the State of Israel. Then I open an anti-Semitic newspaper and I read that there are tens of millions of Jews in the world, that we dictate the policy in Iraq to the United States and that all Jews are millionaires…you tell me: Which newspaper would you rather read??"

There is a large gap between the image that a person or a people have of himself and the image of a person or a people in the eyes of the world.

I do not know how many Jews would be willing to say "How goodly are thy tents o' Ya'acov, thy tabernacles o' Israel".

If this is so, then why Bilam's words received such a special place in the siddur?

Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: It would have been more worthy to put the reproaches in the mouth of Bilam and the blessings in the mouth of Moshe. But if Bilam had reproached them, then Israel would say, it is our enemy who reproves us, and if Moshe had blessed them, then the world would say one who loves them has blessed them. The Holy One said: Moshe who loves them will reproach them and Bilam who hates them will bless them, thus Israel will demonstrate the validity of the blessings and the reproaches.

There is no value to the reproach of an enemy. Of course that there is a very important value to the blessing of one who loves us (A parent's or a Rabbi's blessing, by example), but the very fact that it is the enemy who gives the blessing, grants the blessing legitimacy.

Everyone knows that in the natural course of events, enemies tend to curse and friends are wont to bless. But when an expression of benevolence is uttered by an enemy, it has a completely different meaning.

The blessing of an enemy is a true blessing.

Previous Drashot
Balak 5766 - Opposite Ends

Monday, June 22, 2009


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.

I don't like these explanations. 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.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Shelach Lecha

Don't let titles mislead you

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

We all know, more or less, the story of the spies. Twelve men were sent to spy out the land of Canaan at their request, and angered G-d by presenting a negative report upon their return.

Parashat Shelach Lecha, which we read this week, starts by listing the names of the twelve spies, but today we really know only two of these well: Caleb ben Jephunneh and Joshua bin Nun.

All of them were famous "princes", but only Caleb and Joshua left their mark on the history of the people of Israel, while the remaining ten mean very little to us today…

Why doesn't the Torah list Caleb and Joshua at the beginning of the list, instead of Shammua ben Zaccur and Shaphat ben Hori? Perhaps because the Torah does not wish to reveal, not even to hint at, the end of the story, in which only Caleb and Joshua expressed optimism as to the chances of the Children of Israel's conquering the Land.

But I personally don't think that this is the main reason.

The RaMbaN brings us a more interesting interpretation of this question. In the first place, I would have expected the Torah to list them in the order of the history of the tribes, in other words, in order of the birth of Jacob's sons (Reuven, Simeon, Judah etc.), but this is not the case. So what criterion was used in the list of spies?

The RaMbaN tells us that the tribes are listed in the order of the personal greatness of the spies.

The RaMbaN is telling us that the criterion in the Torah here is the greatness of the twelve spies before the mission. This means that Shammua ben Zaccur, whom nobody remembers today, was in those days the most respected of all. And Shaphat ben Hori, was more respected than Joshua ben Nun, according to the RaMbaN!

This teaches us that, in the field of leadership, fame is never eternal. A person with a good name must fight hard to keep it (Let's not forget that Esau became Edom in only an instant, the time it took to sell his birthright, whereas Jacob fought hard to become Israel.)

The story of the spies proves once again that in the field of "good names" the hardest test always lies ahead of us.

Previous Drashot

Shelach Lecha 5766 – The Caleb Bridge

Sunday, May 31, 2009


The most important Festival

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

After three months of dealing with technical and ritual aspects of Halacha, the Torah returns in this week's portion to the more legendary style of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. The portion of "Behaalotcha" includes the stories of the manna, Eldad and Medad, and the famous story of the Cushite woman that Moses had married.

My intention, however, is to return to an aspect of worship. Our portion raises the issue of the Pesach Sheni (The Second Passover). A group of Jews went to Moses and Aharon and asked them for a second opportunity to offer the Passover lamb. They knew that it was forbidden to prepare the offering while impure, and asked for permission to do so after they had been purified.

And they said to Moses and Aharon:

“Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites? (Numbers 9, 7).

There are virtually no examples or precedents in Halacha for anything like this. (Perhaps one could compare this to the “Tefillat Tashlumim” as regards the rules of prayer). But this case is completely different. The second opportunity they wanted was not provided for with the Giving of the Law. There was only one Passover! This second chance was later granted simply because a group of Jews came and asked "why must we be debarred?". They demanded another opportunity to offer this festival sacrifice!

Today, nothing very special is done on this date. We know not to say Tachanun on this date. There is also a popular custom among Hasidic communities to eat Matzah on the Pesach Sheni. But that is about all…

We do not have any other positive Mitzvah in the Torah which was initiated by the people and not by G-d. Even though they were absolved from performing the Mitzvah, they demanded a second opportunity, another chance. On this occasion, at least, the children of Israel reached a very high level of piety and devoutness.

Many things can be said about this desert generation. They were ingrates. They had a short memory. But here, on the issue of the second Passover, they proved that they were also virtuous. "Why must we be debarred?" they asked, "Why should we forfeit observing a Mitzvah?".

Perhaps this is why the second Passover, a festival which has virtually disappeared from the Jewish calendar, is actually the most important one of the entire year. It was established by both the initiative and the will of the children of Israel.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


No Ownership

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Almost every year we read the Torah portion Bemidbar ("In the desert") during the week of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The association is immediate: the Torah was given in the desert.

We may ask why G-d chose the desolate desert as the place to give the Torah. Why did He not wait and give the Torah in the land of Israel?

When G-d gives something unique and so sublime, something not presented since the days of the creation, we would expect a more impressive "setting". But the desert? What did G-d see there?

Our Sages answer this question in the Yalkut Shimoni:

Why was the Torah given in the desert?

So that there would be no controversy among the tribes, with one claiming "The Torah was given in my land" and another claiming "The Torah was given in mine."

Thus the Torah was given in the desert in public in no man's land. (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Yitro)

King David had a similar consideration when he chose Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom. He chose a neutral city that was not located on land belonging to any of the tribes so that no tribe would claim that Jerusalem was on his portion. The midrash goes further and says that was the reason for the murder of Abel. It asks what Cain and Abel were arguing about moments before the murder and answers "Each one said the Temple would be built on his land." (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Bereshit)

When the sages say "The Torah has seventy facets" they are not concerned with geometrical definition. They wish to state that no one should ever say "The Torah is mine." God forbid that anyone should turn the Torah and its interpretation into his personal possession.

I usually explain this idea through the famous fable of the elephant and the blind. This old story tells of six blind people from India who, despite their disability, decided to travel around the world and try to learn about it.

One day when they had the opportunity, they decided to "see" the large creature called an elephant. When they reached the elephant, each one had a different vantage point.

The first blind man stood to the side of the elephant, felt its rough and thick skin, and determined without hesitation: "This elephant is like a wall."

When the second blind man approached, he felt the sharp tusk of the elephant. "Round…. Smooth and sharp." The blind man examined it again and said confidently: "The elephant is a creature similar to a sharp spear."

When the third blind man approached the animal, he found the elephant's trunk After feeling it for some time, he declared "The elephant is a kind of pipe."

The fourth blind man felt the elephant's leg from all sides and said: "The elephant is a kind of tree."

When the fifth blind man touched the elephant, he felt its large ear and stated confidently: "The elephant is like a fan."

The sixth blind man walked around the elephant and found its tail. When he had held it and felt it, he declared: "The elephant is like a rope."

Who was right? Who told the truth? No one, and yet – all of them together.

The Torah is "Truth" because the seal of the Almighty is "truth" (Emet), but the same truth is not to be found in the words of a commentator, rabbi or any posek Halachah, but rather in the sum of opinions of the sages of Israel in all generations.

It is not by chance that the midrash compares the Torah to the desert, to fire and to water. Just as those have no owners, so does the Torah have no owners. Also, the truth has no owners.

Previous Drashot

Bemidbar 5766 – Not just Statistics

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Behar - Bechukotai

A true blessing

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Parashat Bechukotai presents the famous admonition (tochacha), which describes the terrible calamities that will hit the children of Israel if they do not follow God's way. The admonition is harsh and suggests exile and the darkest days in the history of the people of Israel.

In the middle of that admonition there is a verse, which may be the syntheses of the spirit of the future curses that will affect the people of Israel. In Leviticus 26, 32 is written: "And I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished at it".

No doubt that this is a hard and bitter prophesy. ChaZaL say that during the Beit Ha-Mikdash era, the land of Israel was a land of milk and honey, contrary to the nature of the land. (Ketuvot 112a). There were no worries and no problems in making a living. A barren land is a real nightmare!

However, if we look at RaSHI's commentary to the Torah we can see that he reads this verse in a different way. RaSHI says that it is a good thing that Israel's enemies won't find pleasure in their land that will be empty of its inhabitants. Also the RaMbaN says that this curse is a blessing ("good news" according in his terms)

How is it possible that someone will understand the bitter news as a "good thing" or as "good news"?

Rabbi Yissachar Frand refers to this question and says that if the land wasn't barren we could never get it back.

I have heard quite a few Jews here in Israel asking cynically "Why was Cnaan promised to our forefathers and not Canada?" or "Why was the Red Sea parted and not the Atlantic Ocean, that way we would have reached America?". Others, more serious ask, "Why are we the only state in the Middle East without oil? We barely have water?"

And I answer those people: Thank G-d we don't have oil. Thank G-d the Red Sea was opened and not the Atlantic. Thank God that the Promised Land was Canaan and not Canada...

If we had oil or if we were in Canada instead of Canaan we would never have returned. No one would have given up the land the way it was given up...

Each nation that ruled Eretz Israel during the exile, referred to it as the back yard of its empire. However, we dreamt about it even during the day as for us (even during the exile) the land of Israel was the centre of the universe. It was barren because each nation that ruled it turned its back on it. We know it was barren because it was expecting us.

The Torah and its interpreters say that from the day the exile starts, the land will not accept any nation. 'The enemies won't find pleasure in the land', says RaSHI.

The RaMbaN is right, RaSHI is right: it is a true blessing.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


The Omer Ladder

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Forty-nine days pass between the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt and the revelation of Sinai and receiving of the Torah. This seven-week journey, entitled “The Counting of the Omer", is mentioned in our portion, Emor.

At this time of year the people of Israel undergo a process of preparation for the giving of the Torah, a process of breaking away from the Egyptian defilement and entering a life of purity. According to our sages, the people of Israel in Egypt had sunken into a process of spiritual degeneration.

With each passing day the nation of Israel frees itself of another layer of impurity, forty-nine in total, and instead of being deep in sin we ascend to the gates of holiness.

But within this bridge between Passover and Shavuot there is something else which is deep and thought-provoking even in the present-day reality. Passover is a festival of freedom and physical redemption. But there is no finality to this redemption, it is rather a step towards the spiritual rejuvenation realized at Mount Sinai. Just as the bridegroom counts the days until he may unite with his bride, the nation of Israel counts the days which separate between physical redemption of the nation and spiritual redemption.

During this past festive week, between barbeques and hot coals, I have given a lot of thought to this same point. For there is, in fact, a parallel situation with our Independence Day (Yom Ha-Atzmaut). Independence is obviously a positive thing. But, as a society, do we have a spiritual agenda? As a state, are we really a "light unto the nations"? Is independence part of a greater process, or do we already see it as the end?

Rabbi Moshe Garelik refers, in his book "Parashah U-Fishra", to that bridge known as "the Counting of the Omer", which connects the freedom of the body with that of the soul:

"The sons of the desert generation, through this counting, reduced the festival of Passover from its independent standing and transformed it into the forerunner of the festival of Shavuot. This is how the bridge and the connection between these two festivals came into being. The counting unified them and taught them not to separate national material redemption from spiritual redemption. The former does not exist without the latter.

The actual existence of the nation's redemption is in danger if it sees itself as the final purpose and as the most important thing of all. Many revolutions have weakened because of the fatigue of their heroes, who believed that they had reached the end of the road and that there was nothing further to which to aspire. The stability of many countries which had finally achieved independence was destroyed because all that remained were relentless power struggles between the liberators.

The counting of the Omer says "NO" to what has been achieved. It sees the exodus from Egypt as a stage, an important and valuable stage, but not to be exchanged for the process itself, the ladder for spiritual ascent and human perfection presented in the Torah of the Festival of Shavuot.

May we, too, be empowered to bridge this gap and ascend the ladder step by step towards the spiritual vision which would complete us as a society.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Windows to the Soul

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The commandment to observe the Sabbath appears in the first verses of the Parasha: "You shall fear every man his mother and his father and keep my Sabbaths." (Leviticus 19:3).

The observance of Shabat is much more than a religious imperative, it is a spiritual need.

A few weeks ago, a member of the congregation who has started coming regularly to Shabat services told me how crucial it is for her to finish the week and enter the atmosphere of Shabat with us, with the congregation (even though she defines herself as "secular").

And she is right.

The concept of Shabat is so crucial to Jewish tradition that we remember it every day even though we may not be aware of it. In the ancient world the days were named after the stars. This appears in several modern languages.

Sunday is named after the sun, Monday after the moon and Saturday after Saturn. (In Spanish Wednesday, Miercoles, is named after Mercury).

But in Hebrew the situation is completely different. We have "Yom Rishon" (the first day after Shabat), "Yom Sheni" (the second day after Shabat), "Yom Shlishi" (the third day after Shabat) etc. In effect, each day we note how many days have passed since the previous Shabat and how many days are left until the next Shabat.

Why is Shabat so essential, even to those who describe themselves as "secular"?

In this day and age, people are more concerned with the health of the body than with the health of the spirit. The truth of the matter is that after all the tensions of the week we reach Shabat in a state of "spiritual pollution".

But how does the soul become polluted? It is easy to understand and discuss pollution in the Kishon River or air pollution, but …the soul? How?

This is my opinion. Our body has seven "windows". It is through these "windows" that the soul breathes, lives and relates to the world. These windows are all located in our heads. There is the window of the mouth. Two windows in the nose, two in the eyes and two in the ears. The "pollution" of the week enters through these windows in the same way that sand enters through the windows of the house during a sandstorm.

When we make "Havdalah" at the end of Shabat, we dedicate a blessing to each of these" windows". First to the mouth when we bless the wine. Secondly, we bless and smell the spices dedicating a blessing to the nose. Then comes the for the candle dedicated to the eyes and finally we hear the blessing of "Havdalah" which is dedicated to our ears. These blessings are in effect a gift and a shield for these very same senses just at the moment when a new week is beginning and pollution again finds its way into the depth of the soul.

In another week Shabat will arrive. I regret to say that I do not think that the coming week will be free of tensions and pressures. I do not think that the news we hear every evening will be particularly good…

But at least Shabat will arrive again, this gift of twenty five hours that erase a large amount of the pollution in our souls and improve our spiritual state. As is written in the Hagaddah of Passover, "If he had given us only the Shabat, it would have been sufficient.".

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Parashat Tzav - Shabat Ha-Gadol

From Generation to Generation

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Biologically speaking, it has been proved that we are different people from what we were seven years ago. All our cells (except for neurons and ova, in the case of women) renew themselves completely every seven years, which proves that our bodies today are not the same as they were when we were born, and not what they were seven years ago.

But not only biologically are we different from what we were in the past. We might work in a different place. Our friends are not necessarily the same friends as we had before (perhaps not even our spouses). The family grows up and widens, or at times contracts. Children are born; others, to our sorrow, die.

So how is it possible that we change so much and yet feel that we are the same persons?

It seems to me that the answer is connected to memory. Memory is the cord linking all the stages in the history of a person.

Even if we are biologically different from what we were seven years ago, memory
links the "I" of seven years ago with the "I" of today and makes them one person.

And what if we talk of a nation?

There is an incident regarding the late Professor Shaul Lieberman, a great researcher of the Talmud and literature of the Oral Law, who was visited in his office by a journalist of the New York Times. Prof. Lieberman was preoccupied with his studies and the journalist wandered around his room. There were books everywhere, even on chairs and on the floor.

Suddenly, the journalist approached Lieberman with a book in his hand.
"What is this?" he asked.
"This is the Torah that Moshe received at Mount Sinai."
"And this?" asked the journalist, holding another book.
"This is the Mishna which is an elaboration of the text of the Torah with the emphasis on halacha," answered Lieberman.
"And what about this book?" asked the journalist about a third book.
"This is the Talmud which is commentaries on the Mishna."
The journalist pointed to a fourth book which was Rashi's commentaries on the Talmud, and a fifh which was an analysis of Rashi's commentaries.

The journalist, who didn't know much about Judaism, turned to Professor Lieberman and said, "From your answers, I get the impression that Judaism is a conversation among the generations."

Professor Lieberman answered him, " I have never heard a more concise and accurate definition."
Judaism is a conversation between generations and the collective memory is the link that connects them.

The Passover Haggadah, for example. Every generation, even if its customs and leaders are different, is connected to a common past. The stories, the customs and the enthusiasm that I heard from my father and will pass on to my children – those are the things that make different generations into one people.

A few days ago I shed a tear when I heard my daughter sing "Ma nishtana" (the four questions) for the first time. But at the same time I felt a heavy weight of responsibility towards her. She is the next generation and will receive my heritage.
Will I succeed in giving it to her the way I received it? Will she succeed in preserving it the way I have done? How much depends on me and how much will it depend on her?

The Chafetz Chayim used to tell of an incident that he experienced.

In the town of Radin, where he was born, they used to heat the water in the mikveh by pouring in a boiler of boiling water. One day he asked the bath attendant if he had heated the water of the mikveh. The man answered that he had. The Chafetz Chayim entered the water of the mikveh and found it ice-cold.

He went to the boiler, put his hand into the water and found it lukewarm. Then he said, "Today I have learned something important. When the boiler is boiling, the mikveh is lukewarm. But when the water in the boiler is lukewarm, the water of the mikveh is freezing."

Rabeinu Tam used to say: "Words that come from the heart will go into the heart. Words that did not come from the heart but only from the mouth will get no further than the ear."

May we be able to pass the flame to the next generation, to our children and grandchildren, so that our story will go straight to the heart.


Sunday, February 08, 2009


Selective Holiness
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Just last week, we stood up for the reading of Shirat HaYam (The Song of the Sea). This week, Shabbat "Yitro", we will stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments.

Every year, I have mixed emotions regarding standing throughout the reading of the Ten Commandments, Shirat HaYam and other portions of the Torah. On one hand I feel it is the right thing to do, because these are the most central chapters of the Torah. But on the other hand I ask myself if it is in our hands to rank the holiness of certain paragraphs and say which ones are holier than others.

A question in regard to standing while reading the Ten Commandments was turned to the RaMbaM, and he forbade that custom in order to indicate that there is no difference in the holiness level of the Ten Commandments versus the rest of the readings.

Following the RaMbaM, other Rabbis also thought it's not a proper custom to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments. If every paragraph originates from the heavens above, and they behold the same holy regard, then there is no reason to stand through parts and sit through others.

A Sefer Torah is considered pasul (flawed) and unusable if it is missing just a single letter. The letter Vav from the word "VaYomer", for example, or the letter Alef from the word "Anochi" at the very beginning of the Ten Commandments.

But also there are Midrashim that hint that not all letters are of the same importance. Even though from a theological point all the letters have the same holiness, beside the theological arguments there are other points of view.

For example, the Midrash says, that for twenty-six generations the letter Alef complained to G-d, saying: "Sovereign of the Universe! You made me the first letter, and yet created the world with a Bet, (i.e., Bet is the first letter used in the Creation narrative) as it says, "Bereishit (in the beginning) God created the heavens and the earth." God answered: "The world and the fullness thereof were created only in the merit of the Torah...Tomorrow I will reveal Myself and give the Torah to Israel; then I will place you at the head (of the Ten Commandments), commencing them with you; as it says, "Anochi (i.e. the word Anochi begins with the letter Alef): I am Hashem, your G-d" (Shemot 20:2). (Bereshit Rabba 1, 10).

According to this midrash the Alef only calmed down after she was told that she would be the opening letter of the Ten Commandments with the word "Anochi".

Therefore we can say that if the Torah in holy in its entirety then there is no need to sit or stand according to our judgment. Based on Theology this may be convincing and correct. But on the other hand, we do not build our customs and religious experiences on Theology (Rabbi Harold Kushner once said that the difference between theology and religion is like the difference between eating in a fancy restaurant and reading its menu...).

And although its true that many Theologians say there is no essential difference between the paragraph "VaYomer A-donai El Moshe Lemor" (And God said to Moshe saying) and "Shema Israel A-donai E-lohenu A-donai Echad" (Hear, O Israel: A-donai is our God, A-donai is the One and Only). But even if this is true, it is also a fact that for thousands of years Jews recited the "Shema Israel" while dying for the sake of "Kiddush HaShem" and nobody said "VaYomer A-donai El Moshe Lemor".

And that's also the difference between Theology and Religion.