Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What Hashem Wants From Us - Devar Torah for Parshat Chukat

Food for Thought for Parshat Chukat
By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Recruiting and Special Projects

For the last couple of weeks, people in Israel have been feeling a little more tense than usual. Many of us are worried about the direction that the US government has been moving – more towards Arab appeasement, more pressure on Israel. Working at a school in the beautiful city of Elkana, looking out over the hills at the city of Tel Aviv below, you wonder how anyone could even think of abandoning not just beautiful land, but strategically critical areas. And yet America's President keeps insisting on "no more building the in settlements." Where I work. On the wrong side of an arbitrary line. So we're a little more nervous than normal.
When I brought up the topic with a relative living in the States, she told me that of a conversation she had with someone who said, "Whatever Hakadosh baruch Hu wants – that's what's going to happen." Clearly, that's true. But it also implies that what we do really doesn't matter in the end and that everything is in Hashem's hands only. I couldn't disagree more.

Chukat relates the strange story of the Nachash Hanechoshet – the copper serpent that Moshe made to save the people from death. At the conclusion of the forty years of wandering in the desert, the reborn nation is now ready to enter the Land of Israel. Yet, as their travels begin to drag on and they travel around Edom (instead of attacking and going right through it), the young nation grows impatient and begins to complain.
לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה, בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל
Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul hates this light bread.
They don't complain about the issue at hand – their desire to enter the Land. Moreover, they don't actually tell the truth: there is water, and they're not dying in the desert. In short, they're simply kvetching. Hashem punishes them swiftly and severely: serpents emerge in the desert and begin fatally biting the people. They immediately repent and beg Moshe to pray for the removal of the snakes and their salvation, which he does. Hashem, instead of immediately eliminating the snakes, instructs Moshe to construct a serpent and hang it on a pole, וְהָיָה, כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ, וָחָי, "Whoever is bitten, when he sees [the serpent] will live".
Yet, Rashi notes that when the Torah tells us what actually happens, the people don't just "see" the serpent. Rather, וְהָיָה, אִם-נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת-אִישׁ--וְהִבִּיט אֶל-נְחַשׁ הַנְּחשֶׁת, וָחָי, "if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of brass he lived." Why, Rashi asks, if Hashem tells Moshe that the people only need to see the serpent do they specifically look at it? Rashi explains,
שלא היה ממהר נשוך הנחש להתרפאות אלא אם כן מביט בו בכוונה
It would not heal a bitten person quickly unless he intentionally looked at it.
Chazal derive an important and well-known principle from this story (in Gemara Rosh Hashanah 29a):
Does the serpent kill or give life? Rather, when Israel looked towards the heavens and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven they would be saved, and if not they would wither.
From Rashi we can derive three levels of activity and salvation among the people: Someone who was bitten but for some reason never saw the serpent tragically died. A snakebite victim who happened to see the copper snake would heal, but slowly. Finally, the person who stared intently at the serpent enjoyed a speedy recovery. All of this makes me wonder: If Hashem had already forgiven them and if the matter truly hinged on an individual's personal level of Teshuvah, why create the copper snake in the first place? Why should the speed of someone's recovery depend on whether he saw the snake peripherally or stared at in intentionally? What difference does that make?
It makes a great deal of difference. While it's true that "everything is in Hashem's hands and whatever He wants will happen in the end," I believe that Hashem wants most for us to take an active role in our own lives. Sure, He could have healed the sick without any input from us whatsoever. But Hashem doesn't want us to lead miraculous lives. He wants us to live in the real world and appreciate that what we do truly makes a difference, both spiritually and physically. He wants us to have faith; but also to believe that our efforts can and must effect change in the real world.

That's precisely what I said in response to the person who said about the "settlements" that, "Whatever Hakadosh baruch Hu wants – that's what's going to happen."

I couldn't agree more. But what He wants is for us to stand up, be counted, and do our utmost to ensure that His Land remains firmly in the hands of His nation.

Students of the Special Education Department Visit the Israeli Therapeutic Horse Riding Center

First year Orot students in the Special Education Department studying in the specializations dealing with the integration of children with special needs into the regular classroom and children with sensory-motor impairments, paid a visit to the Israeli Therapeutic Horse Riding Center in Tel-Mond. The students were very impressed by their visit and enjoyed learning about the treatment aids of the center and its treatment methods for children in need of therapy. The Israeli Therapeutic Horse Riding Center is unique and was established in 1986 in Beth-Yehoshua as a volunteer and non-profit organization. The center has a professional, dedicated and skilled staff that helps populations with special needs through horse riding treatment as well as dog therapy.
Since dawn of history, horses were not only a means of transportation but also a symbol of status and wealth. More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates noted that there is a medical power in the way the horse walks, and that horse riding has positive influences on the body – especially in strengthening and maintaining the functioning of the muscles.
The uniqueness of the dog is his being an animal that gives unconditional love, and becomes a connecting factor between man and his environment. Activities that provide positive reinforcement will help treated children achieve significant improvements in the various areas of their lives.
Students watched the activities of instructors with the horses. Children suffering from communication and concentration problems were treated through activities with dogs. We saw the smile and the sparkle in the eyes of the children and the pleasure they derived from their therapy.
The students highly recommend a visit the center, which is always happy to welcome volunteers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Praise and Prayer: Devar Torah for Beha'alotecha

by Rabbi Reuven Spolter
Director of Recruiting and Special Projects

This past Tuesday, the entire population of Israel participated in a "drill", simulating an attack on Israel. At 11am, sirens sounded throughout the country, and children in schools, people in offices – basically everyone – was supposed to find their protected space and get there. Did they do it? No idea. I was actually already working in our Mamad (I don't remember what the acronym stands for, but that's what you call it). But as the siren sounded and I continued to work I thought, "I don't remember ever having to do this in America." ("Duck and cover" was long before my time.)
The siren also reminded me of a different type of "sounding" mentioned in this week's parshah. (For those of you outside of Israel, this week we read Beha'alotecha, as Shabbat was not a day of Yom Tov. So even though you'll be reading Parshat Naso, in Israel we'll be a week ahead until you catch up in about a month.) I'm sharing a thought that Rav Gutel, Orot's President, mentioned at Orot's Yom Yerushalayim lunch and lecture this week.

One of the more famous "religious Zionist" verses in the Torah appears in this week's Torah reading. We read,
וְכִי-תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם, עַל-הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם--וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם, בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת; וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם, מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם. וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם, וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם--וּתְקַעְתֶּם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת עַל עֹלֹתֵיכֶם, וְעַל זִבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם; וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹקיכֶם, אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם.
And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Hashem your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies. Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt-offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the Hashem your God.' (Bamidbar 10:9-10)
These verses have taken on such significance that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate instituted that we read the first as part of the davening on the evening of Yom Ha'atzmaut.
Looking at the two verses, you get the sense that these are two related but different commandments. The first relates to the blowing of the trumpets during times of distress and war. We blow the trumpets as a kind of prayer; a form of calling out to Hashem to save us in our time of need. The second verse alludes to a very different trumpeting. When we sound the trumpets on holidays and Rosh Chodesh, the soundings serve as a kind of praise for Hashem. Think of it (lehavdil) as a form of "Hail to the Chief" sounded in the Beit Hamikdash. The two verses describe the same activity, but serve decidedly different functions. Or so we think.
Many hundreds of years ago, someone asked the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Aderet) why they didn't blow trumpets on fast days. After all, if the purpose of blowing the trumpets was to call out to Hashem in timed of need, the Middle Ages in France certainly qualified. He explained that the French custom not to blow trumpets was based on the understanding that the trumpets could only be blown in the Beit Hamikdash. The two verses are not separate mitzvot, unconnected and unrelated. Rather, they are inherently connected and constrained by the same set of rules. Rav Moshe Feinstein (see Igrot Moshe Orach Chayyim Volume 1: 169) uses this principle to explain why the Rambam, in his list of commandments, lists the blowing of the trumpets not as two commandments, but as one (positive mitzvot, number 59). Rav Moshe explains that Rambam too considered the trumpets of both travail and celebration to be one and the same mitzvah.
If so, then even when we blow the trumpets crying out to Hashem for salvation, we still do so as a form of praise (like the trumpets of joy). And when we blow the trumpets of Yom Tov in celebration, there's a measure of supplication and prayer as well.
To me, this makes sense on a deeper level as well. Even as we celebrate the holidays with korbanot and joy, don't we need to call out to Hashem for his continued support and guidance? Even when we recite Hallel, a prayer clearly focusing on praise of Hashem, we still cry out, אנא ה' הושיע נא – "please Hashem, help us!" And by the same token, as we turn to face our enemies who attack us from without and blow the trumpets to cry out to Hashem for help, should there not also be an element of thanks and praise as well? After all, we have the benefit of crying out from Yerushalayim, the seat of holiness for the entire world. We enjoy the spiritual solace of worshiping Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash. Even in our worries, we must also give thanks for the blessings that we still enjoy.
Praise and prayer, crying out and giving thanks – so often in life they make up two sides of the same coin.
Which brings me back to the siren in that Mamad. Sure, it's terrible that we have to sound the "trumpet" of attack, preparing the population for an enemy that stands at our borders, always searching for new and more devious ways to destroy us. But in that siren, is there not also a measure of praise as well? Sure, I never heard such a siren while living in America. But this year I have the merit to not simply read about it on or in a Devar Torah. I heard these sirens from my home in Eretz Yisrael.
And for that I will continue to give Hashem my unending thanks.