Blog - Torah Insights

A Grammatical Error? - ראה


A Grammatical Error? 

The opening statement of the Parsha, the declaration of free choice, seems to have a grammatical error. Moses states: 

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. (Deuteronomy 11:26)

In the original Hebrew, “see (behold)” (“Re’eh”) is in the singular form, whereas the continuation of the verse “before you” (“Lifneichem”) is in the plural. 

Moses commands the people that when they enter the land of Israel, they should create a ceremony of collectively accepting blessings and curses: 

And it will be, when the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land to which you come, to possess it, that you shall place those blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Ebal. (11:29)

When the Jewish people stood at Sinai and accepted the covenant with G-d, they did so as individuals; each individual Jew stood before G-d and heard the ten commandments, which were stated in the singular. Once they entered the land of Israel, however, the covenant was expanded, whereby each individual was responsible not only for himself but also for the entire community and nation. This explains the grammar of the verse: the covenant begins with the singular and shifts to the plural to highlight that every individual is responsible for the collective. 

When people form a nation, the danger is that the individual loses the sense of the power of his own actions. One may feel that he is only one person whose actions are inconsequential in comparison to the many. Judaism reminds the person of the incredible power of each and every action. Every effort can make a difference within himself and within the broader world. Sometimes the effect is spiritual, but often one action can have a tangible impact on the person's environment, whereby a positive act can ripple and begin a revolution of blessing and positivity.

As the Talmud states, and as codified by Maimonides and repeated countless times by the Rebbe:  

A person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and guilt, and the world as equally balanced between merit and guilt… if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. (Maimonides, Teshuvah 3:4)

(Adapted from the Kli Yakar)

The Virtue of the Shema’s Second Paragraph - עקב


The Virtue of the Shema’s Second Paragraph


The commandments to study Torah, don Tefillin, and place a Mezuzah on the doorpost are stated in the first paragraph of the Shema prayer (which appears in last week's portion, Vaetchanan) and are reiterated in the second paragraph of the Shema (which is in this week's portion, Eikev). Rashi explains that the commandments are re-stated in the second paragraph in order to teach that even after the Jewish people are exiled from the land of Israel (a possibility mentioned in the second paragraph of the Shema), they should nevertheless continue to fulfill the commandments. 


Each of the Shema paragraphs expresses their respective portion's general theme. While the emphasis of last week's portion, Vaetchanan, was Moses' description of the Divine revelation of Sinai, when the people were in a state of holiness and righteousness, in this week's portion, Eikev, Moses describes the sin of the golden calf, the shattering of the tablets and how Moses carved out the stones for the second tablets. In other words, Vaetchanan represents the Divine revelation that inspires the person. In contrast, Eikev describes the people's return to G-d due to their own effort, in the aftermath of a spiritual downfall. 


This explains the difference between the first and second paragraphs of the Shema prayer. The second paragraph differs from the first in that, (1) it reiterates only the commandment to "love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and will all your soul", but omits "with all your might", (2) it introduces the idea of reward and punishment ("if you hearken to My commandments… I will give the rain of your land at its time… Beware, lest your heart be misled… "and you will perish quickly from upon the good land") (3) it mentions the commandment to put on Tefillin before the commandment to study Torah ("bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your sons to speak with them…"). 


This is because in the first paragraph of the Shema, the person's inspiration is far more intense as it comes as a gift from above; it is a product of the Divine revelation that awakens his soul. By contrast, when in a state of physical as well as spiritual exile, (1) the love for G-d is not felt as intensely as the love in the first portion (2) the person needs to be inspired by reward and punishment (3) one must take action (Tefillin) even before he is inspired by study. 


Conventional wisdom says that the first paragraph of the Shema represents the greater level of holiness, for it describes the intense service of G-d resulting from the soul shining within the human consciousness. Yet, counter-intuitively, Chasidisim explains that there is an advantage in the second paragraph of the Shema. For when the Jew serves G-d while in spiritual exile, the less intense but self-generated inspiration is a testament that his connection to G-d has been internalized to the degree that it is not dependent on external factors. No matter where the Jew may be, in a physical or spiritual exile, the Jew can express his connection to G-d. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 9 Eikev 2 



Hand Tefillin vs. Head Tefillin - ואתחנן

Hand Tefillin vs. Head Tefillin 

There is a subtle but significant difference between how the Torah describes the commandment to don the hand tefillin and the head tefillin. In this week's Torah portion. The Torah states: 

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. (Deuteronomy 6:8)

The commandment to wear the hand tefillin is introduced by a verb "you shall bind", whereas the head tefillin are described as "they shall be", without a commandment to take a specific action. This led the gaon of Rogotchov to conclude that there is a distinction between the definition of the commandments. The definition of the Mitzvah of the hand tefillin is the act of tying. Therefore, the commandment applies only to the first moment one binds the hand tefillin. By contrast, the definition of the commandment to wear the head Tefillin is ongoing. "They shall be", implies that the Mitzvah applies not to the action of placing them on the head but rather to every moment that they are on the head. 

Although the Mitzvah to don the hand Tefillin applies only to the first moment, we nevertheless wear the hand Tefillin for as long as we wear the head Tefillin. But that is not because of the hand Tefillin per se, but rather as a result of wearing the head Tefillin. As the Talmud explains; 

The verse states: "And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes," and it is derived from here: As long as the Tefillin of the head are between your eyes, the number of Tefillin you are wearing shall be two. (Talmud, Menachot 36a)

The varying definitions are a result of the spiritual significance of the commandments. The hand Tefillin, which is placed on the arm near the heart, represents emotions. Since a person can't control what he will feel, there can be no ongoing commandment regarding emotions. The commandment is only to "bind them". Binding is not an act of transformation; we are not commanded to transform our hearts, for that is impossible for most people, but rather, binding indicates that we keep our heart under control, not to allow negative emotions to take over our behavior. The head Tefillin, by contrast, represents thought and awareness, which are areas where a person does have absolute control at any moment to direct his thoughts toward holiness and positivity, thus the Mitzvah is constant and ongoing. 

Ultimately, we are, however, able to affect our emotions indirectly. While one cannot change how one feels at any given moment, over time, the awareness of the mind does trickle down and affect the heart. Therefore, we wear the hand tefillin, as a result of and for as long as, we wear the head tefillin, in order to help facilitate the effect of the mind on the heart, ultimately instilling the love of G-d within our emotive experience. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 39 Vaeschanan 2


Protesting the Blessing of Moses - דברים


Protesting the Blessing of Moses

Moses blessed the Jewish people, but they protested.  

At the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses retells the history of the Jewish people's journey through the desert, Moses blesses the Jewish people. He said to them: 

May the Lord God of your forefathers add to you a thousandfold as many as you are, and may He bless you, as He spoke concerning you! (Deuteronomy 1:11)

Rashi explains that when Moses blessed the people that they should increase one thousand fold, the Jewish people protested by telling Moses that he was limiting their blessing, as G-d had promised Abraham that his descendants would be too many too count:   

They {the Israelites} said to him, "Moses, you are limiting our blessings {i.e., our numbers being multiplied only a thousandfold}. The Holy One, blessed is He, already promised to Abraham, 'so that if a man will be able to count {the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted}!'" [Moses] replied to them: "This [blessing of a thousandfold] is mine, but He will bless you as He spoke concerning you!" 

G-d offered the Jewish people a limitless blessing; why would Moses then add a limited one? What does Moses' limited blessing contribute above and beyond G-d's limitless one? 

Many spiritual seekers seek to grasp the infinite. Their soul feels confined by everyday reality; they desire to transcend reality and to be enveloped by the infinite light. Judaism, however, offers a radically different approach. Our relationship with G-d is a marriage between the finite and the infinite. In a healthy marriage, each partner contributes of their own unique identity to create something more significant than the sum of their parts. In our union with the infinite G-d, we must offer our unique and finite contribution, which is spelled out in meticulous detail in the laws of the Torah. 

Moses tells the Jewish people that while the Divine blessing is limitless, we must offer a limited blessing which is our limited input. Only then do we create a meaningful relationship with the Divine; only then do we reach true infinity, which is not confined to the realm of infinite but can express itself in the finite reality. 

This conversation between the Jewish people and Moses is recorded in the beginning of the fifth book as the Jewish people were listening to Moses' final words, preparing to cross the Jordan River and settle the land of Israel. Perhaps this conversation captures the challenge that lay ahead. For they were now being called upon to express the abstract, undefined, infinite sense of holiness and spirituality they experienced in the desert, within the confines of order and structure within the society they would create in the holy land. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Devarim 19:4

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