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.