A short comprehensive view of the weekly Parsha.
One may not use anything that is directly connected to a tree. For example, one may not use a ladder that is leaning on a tree on Shabbos. However, if the item is attached through something else, such as a peg, the decree does not exist. Therefore, if one has a tree-swing it should not be connected directly to the tree. Rather, one should attach a peg to the tree and the rope to the peg.
Due to the prohibition of harvesting one may not even move a tree or branch in any way. One may touch a tree if one knows it will not move when they do so.
It is forbidden to take a fruit off of a tree on Shabbos. Additionally, to ensure that one does not do so, is forbidden to smell a fruit that is attached to a tree. The decree is limited to food items and does not include a flower which one may smell on Shabbos.
One of the 39 prohibited activities on Shabbos is kotzer, which means to harvest. Included in this prohibition is uprooting or breaking any part of something that is growing from the ground.
There is a well-known debate in the Talmud between the schools of Hillel and Shammai about how to light the Chanukah candles. Shammai suggests that on the first night we should light eight candles, on the second night we should light seven, on the third night six, etc. etc. Hillel argues. He takes the view that we are familiar with and suggests that on the first night we light one, on the second night we light two, and on and on. In Hebrew, Beis Shammai says, poches v’holech, which means we progressively decrease the light, and Beis Hillel says, mosef v’holech, we progressively increase the light.
The first chief Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Palestine Mandate, Rabbi Avraham Yitchak Kook, was a profound thinker. Not only are his writings overflowing with brilliant insights, his letters to friends and students are a source of some of the most novel additions to Jewish thought. In one such letter, he expounds on this Talmudic debate, explaining the rationale behind these two views, that of a progressive increase of lights as opposed to a progressive decease.
He begins by citing a well-known concept discussed in Jewish literature of yeridas hadoros, how in each generation, the spiritual level decreases. “If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like mere men; if they were like men, we are like donkeys,” is one such Talmudic statement. This view is what Beis Shammai is promoting in his way of lighting the Menorah; the light, the light of the Torah, the light of spirituality, is poches v’holech, it is constantly decreasing.
Beis Hillel does not disagree, suggests Rav Kook. He agrees that as time marches on there is a decrease of spiritual light in the world. However, the decreasing light is the light of the leadership. When it comes to leaders, we could certainly say, “If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like mere men; if they were like men, we are like donkeys.” However, argues Beis Hillel, when it comes to the masses, when it comes to am Yisrael, when it comes to the people, the opposite is true. Mosef v’holech, the light of spirituality gets progressively brighter and brighter and brighter. As time marches on, there is a greater dissemination of knowledge, an increase in moral sensitivity, and a deepening of spiritual connection among the masses that earlier generations were not exposed to. While it is true that our leaders’ light has decreased, the people’s light has only grown stronger. To symbolize this idea, the growing light of the people, we light one candle on the first night and progressively increase the light of the Menorah.
This past week, TIME magazine announced their person of the year award – only that it wasn’t a person. The person of the year award went to the Whistle Blowers, the growing number of people, from the famous, to the anonymous, who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. The TIME person of the year award goes to a person or people who have influenced the world the most in the past year. In case you think this group is not deserving, realize that collectively, in the past few months, these whistleblowers have brought down the CEO of Uber due to allegations of misconduct, Harvey Weinstein, one of the most influential and powerful men in Hollywood, Louis C.K., probably the biggest name in comedy today, two-time award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, who had his popular Netflix show, House of Cards cancelled because of allegations which he admitted to, and the list goes on and on.
This past week, former senator Roy Moore, despite an endorsement from President Trump, lost the special-election in the very red-state of Alabama. On paper, he lost the election to Democrat, Doug Jones. But in truth, he lost the election to the people, to the masses. Many of those voting did not vote for Doug Jones, they voted against the current leader of the State.
That is, in my opinion, a reflection, of Rav Kook’s analysis of Shammai and Hillel. It is a world of decreasing light in our established leadership, and a world of increasing power, influence, and moral strength among the people. While the leadership is poches v’holech, the people’s light is mosif v’holech. We have moved on, in many ways, from looking up and instead we have realized our own power and influence and have begun to look within. The light of the people is mosif v’holech, growing ever steadily.
In Israel, this past week, hundreds of thousands of Jews lined the streets of Jerusalem to pay respects to Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shteinman. He was not a household name outside of the Chareidi camp, but within it, he was the most influential Halachic decisor, he wielded unparalleled political power, and was publicly acknowledged to be the gadol hador, the great one of the generation. He was a fabulous teacher, he wrote numerous books and pamphlets that were widely disseminated, he was an ascetic, he slept on the same thin mattress given to him by the Jewish Agency in 1948 until just a few years ago, and he was a pragmatic leader. He was a driving force in the establishment of Nachal Chareidi, the unit of the IDF created for Chareidi Jews to ensure that their religious standards would be respected, and he silently influenced many Charedim to join the IDF. He encouraged many Chareidi men to take up professions ensuring that they would be able to support their families. While those view caused him to be denounced by some vocal opposition leaders in the Chareidi world, he held his own, and was universally seen as THE leader of the Torah world. This past week, at the age of 104, his soul returned to its Creator.
Following his passing, many of the headlines in Charedi new outlets were variations of, ‘Who will Lead the Jewish World?’ Or, ‘Who will be the Next Chareidi Leader?’
Now you have to appreciate that in their world their leaders do not only teach them Torah, they endorse their prospective brides and grooms, they tell them what do for a living, they tell them who to vote for. And so they feel truly orphaned without an individual who could guide them in that way.
Rav Kook, if he were here, and if they would listen, I imagine he would tell them, “It’s true, from the perspective of leadership, the light is progressively getting dimmer. But don’t underestimate your own light! The light, the spirituality of you and I, of the nameless citizens, of the masses, of Am Yisrael, that light is getting brighter and brighter by the day. We know more, we understand more, and we yield far more influence than ever. Let that growing light guide you!
I know, the Chareid world is not a world we relate to that easily. We do not turn to a spiritual leader to tell us who to marry, what to do, and we certainly not who to vote for. So on the one hand, Rav Kook’s advice may not be relevant to us, we know it already as we have a far more egalitarian view of leadership. But at the same time, I think his words do need to be repeated. Because all too often I hear people cry, where are the spiritual leaders on this or that issue? Where are the rabbis? Whether it’s the Jewish day school crises, whether it’s a lack of better support for victims of abuse, or whether it’s crime in the community. Why aren’t the leaders doing more?
And it’s a valid question, it really is. Please do not misunderstand me. Leaders are appointed to lead. And if they don’t lead, they should be held accountable. I repeat, leaders are appointed to lead.
But at the same time, do not underestimate the growing light of the citizen, do not underestimate the power, the growing power of the people. At one point we have to roll up our sleeves and take care of things on our own. At one point we have to acknowledge that we live in a world where leaders have less power and the light of the people, the power of the people is growing steadily from a small candle to a brilliant and beautiful fire. That’s not just an observation, it’s a responsibility to roll up our sleeves, to stop waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting, to tap into that growing light and to do something with it.
It’s true when it comes to social action and it’s true when it comes to Torah scholarship as well. Before I was a rabbi, when I had a Halachic question or a general question about Judaism, I would immediately ask someone else, I would ask my rabbi. One of the great perks of being a rabbi is that I am forced to answer so many of those questions on my own. I am forced to learn more, to know more, to understand things on a deeper level.
And while it’s great for me, it’s also a real pity. That’s not the way it should be. The light of Am Yisrael, the light of the nation is increasing, and that means that we, as people, need to access that light. When we have a question, please feel free to ask me, I enjoy it immensely, I really do, and that’s what I’m here for. But wouldn’t it be beautiful if before we ask a question we research it on our own? Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we, all of us, take ownership of our Jewish knowledge? Wouldn’t the Jewish People look entirely different if instead of constantly looking to others for a spiritual boost, we were the sources of our own inspiration?
The light of Am Yisrael is growing; so much of Torah is translated, so much of Torah is available at our fingertips with a click of a button. We are far more educated as a people than we ever were. And we live in a world where we have the time and headspace to grow our spiritual lives. Don’t look up. Look within.
There is a tradition that in the Messianic era this regression of leadership will revert itself. All the more reason to pray for the Messianic Era, we need it today like we’ve never needed it before; in the Jewish world and in the world at large. Although many of our leaders are wonderful, they do their job and so much more, but there are also those who do not, who at best, shirk their responsibilities and at worst, abuse their power. Until that time we rule like Beis Hillel, we focus not on the decreasing light among our leaders, but on the increase of our own light. We are mosef v’holevch, we progressively add to the light of the Menorah. Let’s do so not only symbolically, but let’s add more light into our lives. Let’s speak up more, let’s act more, and let’s learn more. Let’s appreciate the brilliant glow that burns within.
Everywhere I’ve gone over the past three days, shiva houses, hospitals, home visits, conversations with friends and conversations with strangers, I’ve received the same question over and over again: What do you think about the news? What do you make of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem being the eternal capital of the State of Israel? Ill-timed? Helpful? Meaningless or meaningful?
And so I’d like to answer that question today by addressing a broader question and that is, how should a Jew read the news? My rebbi in Yeshiva used to say that he is teaching us how to read a Gemara so we should know how to read a newspaper, the lesson being that we don’t just read the paper. There is a Jewish way how to read the news. So these are my thoughts on how a Jew should read the news.
#1 – A Jew should read the news with self-confidence.
What that means is that when the Middle East expert interviewed on the Daily, the New York Times podcast, begins Thursday’s news by saying, “The story of Jerusalem begins in the early 20th century.” As Jews, we just roll our eyes.
Because you and I know that our parsha begins by stating that Yakov settled down in the land that his forefathers lived in. Vayeishev Yaakov be’eretz megurei aviv. The year this takes place is 1544 Before the Common Era. (This dating and the following dates are taken from historian, Ken Spiro.) That is over three thousand five hundred years ago. Yakov and his children settle in a land that they already described as the land of their forefathers, eretz megurei aviv.
You and I know that in 1272 BCE, approximately three thousand two hundred years ago, Joshua and the Jewish People conquer the land of Israel. What happened to the old inhabitants, the Canaanites? Some of them are killed, some of them run away, but effectively, they are no longer a nation and the land of Israel becomes a Jewish State.
You and I know that a few hundred years later, about two thousand eight hundred years ago, King David, ruler of the Jewish nation of Israel, purchases a plot of land on which his son would ultimately build the first of two holy temples.
You and I know that almost a thousand years later, in the year 70 of the Common Era, the Romans destroy the second Temple and exile many of the Jewish People. However, we also know that a significant portion of the Jews remain behind, unwilling to depart from the sacred soil of Israel. And up until the 4th century, Jews constituted a clear majority of the population in Israel.
Afterwards, with the conversion of Constantine, Christians become the majority, but never entirely displacing a significant minority of Jews; Jews who traced their connection all the way back to Avraham.
You and I know that in 638 of the Common Era, the Arab Islamic Empire conquers Jerusalem, upends centuries of ill-treatment by the Christians and recognizes the historic right of the Jewish People to the city; the Muslims allow Jews to practice freely in Yerushalayim. Umar, the leading Muslim of his time, encourages Jews to live in Jerusalem, which they did, and their communities flourished.
You and I know that years later, many of the Jews who settled in Israel were massacred by the Crusaders, but small pockets remained until the 13th century when Jews started trickling back in, led by some of the great leaders of their time; Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, otherwise known as Nachmanides, and many others, ensuring an ongoing and ever-growing Jewish population in the land of Israel.
By the 16th century, there were 30,000 Jews living in the northern region of Israel alone, many who had fled the reaches of the Inquisition (Wikipedia). And in the centuries that followed, more and more Jews emigrated from Europe for a host of reasons; safety, economic, or Messianic.
And so regardless of how any very bright or very knowledgeable speaker or author frames the question of Jerusalem, as Jews we should confidently say, “I’m sorry, but here are the facts – the Jewish connection to the land dates back four thousand years, longer than the entire history of Christianity and Islam combined!”
Yehuda Avner in his book the Prime Ministers relates how in May of 1979, Prime Minister Menachem Begin was invited to London where he was hosted for lunch at 10 Downing St. by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On his way into their meeting, a reporter asked him, “Are you going to ask Mrs. Thatcher for her support of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?”
Frigidly, the prime minister answered. “No, sir – under no circumstances.”
“Why not?” asked the reporter.
Begin answered, “Because, sir, Jerusalem was a Jewish capital long before London was a British capital. When King David moved the capital of his kingdom from Hebron, where he had reigned for seven years, to Jerusalem, where he reigned for 33 years, the civilized world had never heard of London. In fact, they had never heard of Great Britain,” and he turned on his heels towards the door, where Mrs. Thatcher was waiting to greet him.
To be clear, for the President of the United States to acknowledge Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel is a big deal. But while we are sincerely grateful to the United States for its true partnership and deep friendship to the State of Israel, while we are appreciative of President Trump’s decision to move the embassy to its rightful location, we see the United States’ recognition not as news, certainly not as a 20th century conflict, but as an affirmation of ancient history.
As Jews, we should always read the news with self-confidence.
#2, as Jews we should read the news with faith. We’ve been around too long and we know our own history too well to not do so. Moshe Dayan allegedly said after the Six Day War, “Yesterday I was not a religious man, and tomorrow I will not be, but today I cannot but say that we have witnessed miracles.” That’s Jewish history for you. It doesn’t run the course that man expects of it.
Today we read the most shameful moment in Yehuda’s life. He publicly acknowledges that he cohabited with a prostitute, who turned out to be his former daughter-in-law. And yet, as tragic a moment as it seems, we know that through their union, the Davidic line is born! Peretz is the great-grand-father of King David and ultimately that of Mashiach.
The Dreyfuss Affair, the most traumatic moment in Jewish-French history becomes a turning point in the life of a young Theodore Herzl who writes a book that changes the world. Or, the relentless persecution of European Jewry contributes directly to the population growth of the State of Israel as well as the sympathy of the nations who vote in favor of its existence in 1947.
As Jews we read the news with faith; faith in a G-d who runs the world in mysterious ways. And so when people ask, will moving the embassy be good for the Jews? Or is it a step backward?
As Jews, with a strong sense of Jewish history, we know that we do not know. We know that what the Psalmist writes is true, Rabot machshavot b’lev ish, va’atzat Hashem hi takum, there are many plans of man, but the plans of G-d prevail. Or in Yiddish, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht, Man plans and G-d laughs.”
A Jew reads the news with confidence, and a Jew reads the news with faith. Both are born out of the Jewish experience, out of the four thousand years of Jewish history.
But it would seem to me, that our deep knowledge and love of history could sometimes be a curse. Sometimes, I think we get a little bit too carried away with our history. Many Jews like to quote the book of Koheles, “Ein chadash tachas hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun.” The classical commentators do not see this as referring to Jewish history whatsoever. However, these people like to interpret this to mean that history, especially Jewish history, repeats itself.
And so you have these cynical statements like, ‘Every Jewish holiday is about the non-Jews trying to kill us, we won, let’s eat.’ When in truth, the Egyptians wanted to kill us for reasons rather different than the Greeks, who didn’t even want to kill us and certainly had a different agenda than the Persians of the Purim story, who have no relationship to the Christian Crusaders, who are entirely different than modern terrorists, and who are still not as evil as the Nazis, and who are galaxies apart from ignorant white supremacists. So no, history does not repeat itself unless you are painting with extremely, extremely broad strokes. I know, I know, we have statements such as ma’aseh avos siman l’banim, what happened to our forefathers happens to us, or b’chol dor vodor omdim aleinu l’chaloseinu– Yes, we have had enemies throughout history and we have overcome them, but to lump them all in one generic category is a rather lazy way of looking at history.
Then you have those who take this even more literally. You know the people who tell you that Ivanka Trump is Esther, the President is Achashveirosh, and Haman, well depending on your politics, is either the former president or Ben Shapiro.
We can and should learn from the past, but we should also appreciate that things change. Buddhists see history as a cycle; life repeats itself over and over again. Judaism sees history as evolving; there is a starting point and an end point, while there may be the faintest contours of repetition along the way, we are travelling from one place to a vastly different and vastly better place.
And so while there is certainly a danger in ignoring history, there is also a danger in not being open to it possibly changing. It is true that the Palestinians have been unreasonable, inciteful, and murderous in the past, but to therefore write them off in the future? To assume that peace will never be achieved?
I’m not suggesting we throw land away or make concessions that are unwise. I’m suggesting that because peace hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Call me naïve. I’d like to think of it as being hopeful.
Because if there is one lesson to be learned from this week’s Parsha it is that you could be your father’s darling son today, you could be a slave tomorrow, and you could rule the land of Egypt the next day. People change, nations change, the world changes.
Yesh chadash tachas hashemesh, at least when it comes to history. I applaud our proud knowledge of our connection to Israel and our history, but as Jews, far more important than confidence and perhaps even more important than reading the news with faith, we need to read the news with optimism; with a belief in a different and better tomorrow.
Self-confidence, faith, and hope. This is how, I believe, a Jew should read the news.
As we say every year on our holiest days, L’shana habah birushalyim. Yerushalayim has been at the heart of our people for thousands of years. May this year be the year not only of the building of an American embassy in Jerusalem, but it should be the year of Yerushalayim Habenuyah, a rebuilt and unified Jerusalem. We believe – no, we know! that G-d can make the impossible happen. He has done so before and He could do so again. And so may it be G-d’s will that we witness a rebuilding of Jerusalem, not through blood and war, but through hope and peace.