Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Land of Paradisiacal Blessings

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat V’Zot Habracha
Wrapped in Blessings
“When the end is good everything is good,” or in Shakespearian English “All’s well that ends well.” The last parasha in the Torah is all about blessing. Just as Ya’acov blessed his children before he passed on, so was Moshe’s last words dedicated to blessing the tribes of Israel. Ever since, it has become the Jewish way is to end with blessings. For example, a Jewish wedding ends with the sheva bracha (the seven wedding blessings). The meaning of the Hebrew word בְּרָכָה/beracha is a little different than the English word, ‘blessing.’ A beracha brings about growth. It is related to the word לְהַבְרִיךְ /l’havrich – a farming process to propagate the grapevine by putting part of the vine underground to sprout roots, thereby beginning a new planting. When we recite a beracha, we take part in revealing G-d’s goodness and abundance concealed and hidden in the upper worlds and bringing it down into our material world. A beracha is a request of G-d to take from His heavenly repository of abundance (his pool or his pond – בְּרֵכָה/breicha) and to send it down to us who live in this lowly dark world of the material. This beracha is the coming down of the needed material assistance from G-d. Nothing in the world can grow without Hashem’s beracha. This is why I told the young guy whom I had hired to turn over my soil, “Please break up all the big clayey lumps, add compost and don’t forget to pray that the earth will welcome new growth!”

Israel Dwells Alone
After Moshe completed blessing each of the individual tribes of Israel, he moves on to a general blessing of the entire people.
ספר דברים פרק לג:כח
וַיִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בֶּטַח בָּדָד עֵין יַעֲקֹב אֶל אֶרֶץ דָּגָן וְתִירוֹשׁ אַף שָׁמָיו יַעַרְפוּ 
“Thus Israel dwells in safety; the wellspring of Ya’acov alone, in a land of grain and wine, under heavens dripping dew” (Devarim 33:28).

History teaches us that Israel always stands alone. We cannot rely on any allies of friends to back us up or support us. It is only due to Hashem’s miracles that we are still alive and kicking here in the Holy Land. Look at the recent news, how many times have Israel been condemned by the UN? No matter how we try to defend ourselves against constant terror, the world condemns Israel. This happens over and over again, most recently after the Jerusalem murder this Rosh Hashana of an Israeli grandfather by four rock throwing Arabs. Israel is blamed for provoking this murder by a few Jews who insisting on their right to visit the Temple Mount. Spokesman John Kirby said the Obama Administration was “deeply concerned by the recent violence and escalating tensions surrounding the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount. He subtly suggested Israel and visiting Jews were at least as much to blame for the situation as the rioting Muslims.” (

Therefore, Israel has to realize that “we dwell alone and we cannot allow world opinion dictate our actions. Whatever we do, will be turned against us. Even if we don’t allow our soldiers to defend our lives, the media still portrays us as the villains. When we internalize this lesson and learn to care about Hashem’s command rather than world opinion, we are on the way to redemption. The expression, “עֵין/ein – the eye or wellspring of Ya’acov can refer to the seed of Israel. The Ohr HaChaim hakadosh learns from our Torah verse that the true security of Israel is only when we dwell alone. He explains that our Torah verse is connected with the previous verse that mentions the destruction of the enemies (Devarim 33:27). Only after all the enemies in the land have been destroyed will Israel dwell alone in security. Moreover, although the eye of Israel will relish in grain and wine – to eat from the fruit and be satiated with the goodness of the land, Israel will not become overindulgent and haughty as long as other nations do not dwell with them in the land (Ohr HaChaim, Devarim 33:28). Ohr HaChaim is referring to the Torah verse from last week’s parasha, “Israel grew fat and kicked…” (Devarim 32:15). This verse describes the possible negative influence of affluence. At times prosperity may cause us to become haughty and feel that we don’t need G-d in our lives. However, when we “dwell alone” on our land protected from the negative influence of the other nations, we will be able to handle abundance and remain connected to Hashem, realizing that it is all His blessings. I believe that Ohr HaChaim had in mind that there is a deep spiritual connection between the people of Israel, the land of Israel and the G-d of Israel. When this connection is blocked, negativity arises. However, when there is nothing blocking this direct connection, which can be accessed in the Holy Land through its holy produce, then Hashem’s blessings can flow down smoothly and be clearly experienced by all the people of Israel.

Security from Enemies and Rain under the Grapevine
This redemptive flow will allow each individual Jew to dwell securely, “each under his wine and under his fig-tree.” After the enemy will be driven out, Israel can dwell securely even when we “dwell alone” on the countryside far away from the protection of the big cities (Rashi). In the time of redemption, we will even be able to dwell comfortably under our grapevine without ever being bothered by the rainfall. Sforno explains that paralleling Mashiach’s teaching which is like the dripping of dew that everyone appreciates and thirsts for, the heaven will also bring forth dew in abundance to the land of grain and wine, so that no rain or additional irrigation will be necessary. This is according to the original plan of creation before the sin of the first human being, when “a mist would rise and water the land” (Bereishit 2:6). In this way, the land on its own will become a land of grain and wine, when the blessed dew will increase to sustain its residents in fruitful abundance. May it be Your will that we will experience soon how the land of Israel will produce muffins as predicted in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 11b); (Sforno, Devarim 33:28).

The Land of Grain and Wine
“Ein Ya’acov” also means the wellspring of Israel. Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch notices that it doesn’t state, “Ya’acov in the wellspring of the land of grain and wine” but rather, “the wellspring of Ya’acov in the land of grain and wine.” This indicates that Ya’acov doesn’t prosper on account of the land, rather it is the land which becomes prosperous on account of Ya’acov. A wellspring emanates from the children of Israel to the land and transforms it to become the “land of grain and wine.” The flourishing of the land is not dependent on natural physical causes, but rather on the ethical conduct expected of the Jewish people. Fulfilling our ethical purpose will be a wellspring of beracha for our land. Therefore, “even the heaven will drip dew.” It’s impossible to say that the word “even” refers to the dew, it wouldn’t make sense to say that the heavens will drip even dew in abundance, since dew is a more natural source of moisture than rain. Even during years of drought when there was no rain, there always remain dew on the land (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 3:a-b). The meaning of the word “even” refers to the heavens, that even the constant natural phenomenon of dew will be produced by a special heavenly blessing. The heaven will bring forth dew as a blessing because it is stretched forth above the land of Israel, corresponding to the ethical conduct of Israel, which warrants this blessing. Thus, the good deeds of the Jewish people will be recognized even through the otherwise natural dew (Hisch Commentary on Devarim 33:28). I look forward to the time, when we will live up to our spiritual and ethical potential. Then not only will we no longer need to spend time and resources in watering the gardens, we will even no longer need to get soaking wet by the downpour of rain.

Won’t it be amazing to experience the redemption when we will merit the increased blessing of the miraculous heavenly dew sustaining the land in abundance just like in the Garden of Eden!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Blessed Droplets of Torah

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Ha’azinu
The Song of Gestation
Shemitta (the sabbatical year of the land) is finally over! I once again embrace my plot and feel how the land delights in returning to its faithful owner. It’s been a whole year. We have come full circle as we plan and prepare our winter gardens. I can now freely clear out the straggled weeds that don’t belong in the flowerbeds. The entangled, long winding, dried, dead sticks of the Bougainvillea that had been an irritating eyesore since the winter-snows, have finally been removed. The love-scratches on our arms testify to the pruning of the high maintenance roses still hanging with their heads, brown spots on their leaves saddened by continuous neglect. No guarantee we will be able to revive them. Nevertheless, it is so exciting to dip our hoes and fingers again in the rested caking earth, gradually transforming its parched drying flakes to becoming moist fertile soil. The time between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot feels like a gestation period between the old and new year. We are still processing what was, while becoming ready for what will be. The remnant of last year’s fruit lingers on while seeds of the new year’s greens are being sown. The leaves of the trees are browning and falling, the last grapes show their wrinkled faces between their drying leaves. The figs are worming but the pomegranates are still shining bright red under the cloudy sky. The heat has broken and the dew caresses the yellowing herbage with promise of renewed life. We pray, “Remember us with life, King who desires life…” while we welcome the increasing moisture heralding the scents of fall.

Turning Torah into Prayer
Just as we have come full circle, we read in this week’s parasha about how the Torah is called a song – שִיר/Shir, which in the holy tongue means a complete circle from the word שַׁרְשֶׁרֶת/sharsheret – neck- or bracelet. This song is great it includes the moment, the past and the future. It includes both this and the coming world. Therefore, all the songs in the Torah are written after a completion, when all the details are woven together to form a complete harmony. Moshe’s opening words of the song of Ha’azinu is like a prayer.
ספר דברים פרק לב 
א) הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי פִי
ב) יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי דֶשֶׁא וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי עֵשֶׂב
“Listen heavens and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth. May my teaching drop down as the rain, my speech flow as the dew; like droplets upon the tender grass, and like showers upon the herb” (Devarim 32:1-2).

As I enjoy the fresh breeze, I ponder Rashi’s explanation on our Torah verse, “like droplets (שְׂעִירִם/ seirim) upon the tender grass.” שְׂעִירִם/seirim can also mean stormy wind, like the winds that bring rain. Just as the winds strengthen the herbage and promote their growth, so too the words of the Torah promote the moral growth of those who study them (Rashi). “May it be your will that my words not return empty, but leave beautiful fruits in the hearts of those who hear them; in the same way that dew and rain satiate the dry land, and cause it to bring forth fruits of praise for the benefit of all” (Chizkuni). Rebbi Nachman teaches that we perpetuate the Torah by transforming it into prayer. When we learn Torah in a song-filled, prayerful way, then the words of Torah enter our heart like dew and rain and we merit being able to keep the Torah. The song of Ha’azinu is written to ensure that we keep the Torah at the End of the Days. It is a witness that the Torah will never be forgotten from the children of Israel, as it states, “Then this song shall answer them as a witness that [the Torah] will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring” (Devarim 31:21). Moshe included in Ha’azinu all of the Torah in the aspect of song which is prayer, because this is what we need to perpetuate the Torah for the End of Days (Histapchut HaNefest 14). The heaven and earth are actually active witnesses. When the Jews perform the will of G-d, the heavens send dew and the earth brings forth harvests. G-d forbid, if the Jews deviate from the Torah, these witnesses are the first to react by withholding their blessings (Rashi). The existence of heaven and earth proves that the Jews accepted the Torah upon themselves. Heaven and earth testify that the world’s continual existence is dependent upon the Jews receiving Torah at Sinai. If the Israelites had refused the Torah at Sinai, the heavens and earth would have returned to a state of nothingness (Kli Yakar).

Why are the Words of Torah Compared to Rain and Dew?
I love the sound of the dripping dew from the gutter as the morning sun rises, and the drops reflect its rays in the colors of the rainbow like diamonds. The Torah is compared to dew because everyone rejoices in it, whereas rain involves annoyance to some people, as for instance to those on a journey. Yet the Torah, which Hashem gave to Israel, is life to the world like the rain that enable life to grow on earth (Rashi). The Torah is called לִקְחִי /likchi, which literally means something taken. Hashem took the Torah from heaven and dropped it down to earth for Israel like the rain and the dew (Ramban). Just as the rain and the dew that fall on the ground do not fall for their own benefit, but for the sake of the world, likewise the words of Torah are not for the sake of Moshe’s personal benefit, but for the sake of heaven and for the benefit of all Israel (Noam Elimelech). The holy words of Torah are like raindrops that fall on the earth. Just as the rain does not reveal its influence on the plants immediately, but only later do we recognize the blessings of the rain through the fruits; likewise is the effect of the words of Torah on those who hear them. Their positive influence is not always recognizable at the first. Yet, ultimately, they will have their blessed effect on those who keep learn Torah (Simcha Bunim). The reason the Torah is compared to both dew and rain is to teach us that our words should be few in quantity yet great in quality. The לֶקָח/lekach – moral lesson that may be gleaned from our words should be full and rich like heavy rain pouring down, yet, our אמרות/imarot – words, should be few in quantify like dew (Abarbanel). I will try to learn from this teaching and condense myself this time.

The Soul of Heaven and Body of Earth
Why is הַאֲזִינוּ/Ha’azinu – “give ear” (active), associated with the heaven, while וְתִשְׁמַע/tisma – “will hear” (passive), connected to the earth? Why does it state, אֲדַבֵּרָה/Adabera – “I will speak,” to the heaven, while the earth will hear אִמְרֵי פִי /imrei fi – “the words of my mouth?” The heaven above is the neshama (soul), while the earth below is the body. The song of Ha’azinu represents the whole Torah, as we learn from the verse, “You shall write for yourselves this entire song...” (Devarim 31:19) referring to the song of Ha’azinu as well as to the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah. In this song, all the souls of Israel are included. It states, “Ha’azinu” connected with the Hebrew word אוֹזֶן/ozen, which means ear because we need to tilt our ears to the words of the written Torah, which conceal so many layers of truth. The written Torah includes the essence of the Oral Torah and if we really give ear, we can extrapolate its teachings. Therefore, “Had Israel not sinned we would have received only the five books of Moses...” (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 22b). The land represents the Oral Torah, which Moshe handed down to Yehoshua together with the land of Israel. Therefore, it states, “the land will hear,” for the land, which is the body will automatically hear “the words of my mouth,” referring to the oral Torah, literally called Torah Sh’ba’al Pe (The Torah of the Mouth).

The Dew of the Oral Torah
The written Torah is compared to the rain, which we all notice to drop down from heaven. Yet, “my speech shall flow as the dew,” refers to the Oral Torah, for it’s dripping down from heaven is not recognized except when we feel the moisture of the earth. Only then do we notice the dew that also came from above. Similarly, we don’t easily recognize the divinity of the Oral Torah, which seems to be invented by the Rabbis. However, in reality they are the words of the living G-d – the words that Hashem put in the mouth of the Rabbis (P’ri Tzaddik, Parashat Ha’azinu 1). The words of Torah are like rain and dew, which may seem as if they are just simply water and moisture, however, in truth they include amazing awesome powers. Just as the rain and dew enable the growth of all kinds of plants and endless amounts of herbs, likewise are the words of Torah. Although they may seem simple, they are so deep and filled with secrets, which have the power to strengthen and help each of us to grow and come close to Hashem (Likutei Halachot Chol Hamoed, Hilchot Chazakat Karkaot 5).

Through Hard Work We Merit “to Flow as the Dew”
Like a field, only after it has been ploughed and the soil turned, then the rains come to actualize the potential of the seeds. Similarly, we need to first rectify our body to become a pure vessel ready to receive the illumination of the Torah. The gates of Torah open for us in proportion to the capacity of our vessels to receive. This in turn depends on how much we have purified our body. This explains the sequence of King David’s prayer, “Create a pure heart for me Hashem, renew within me a steadfast spirit” (Tehillim 51:12). First we need to ask for a pure heart (vessel) and only afterwards for a renewed spirit (light of Torah). Following the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our souls have become purified and therefore we are judged for water on Sukkot (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:2). Water represents the Divine influence we receive from heaven, for “there is no water except Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 82a). Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is the time to yearn for the illumination of the Torah as we purify ourselves for the sake of becoming suitable vessels for Divine words. Since our souls have become purified on Yom Kippur, we pray to receive a “renewed spirit” on sukkot. First we need to invest hard work and effort in order to become a vessel for Torah. This is alluded to in, “May the teaching drop down as the rain.” Only afterward do we merit “to flow as the dew.” With everything in life, if we work hard, we will eventually enjoy the fruits of our labor. “The beginning is bitter, yet the end is sweet.” Every Jewish bala busta can testify to the sweetness of the Shabbat rest following its vigorous preparations. Our Creator has concealed within our soul a latent potential, but we need to work hard to reveal this potential. Afterwards the help from above will flow as a Divine gift (Sefat Emet, Parashat Ha’azinu, year 5648).

May we merit the caress of the gentle Divine dew of Torah as we dwell under the Clouds of Divine Glory this Sukkot!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Why is this Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Vayelech
Land of Transformative Powers
I’m forever thankful to my parents for sending me to the only Jewish school in Denmark. Even if the school was rather secular, I still learned about “the Land flowing with milk and honey.” One of the first Hebrew songs I learned was “Eretz zavat chalav, bum bum, chalav u’dvash!” Such teachings and songs was a great part of eventually bringing me back to the land flowing with milk and honey. Baruch Hashem we receive a weekly delivery of delicious lebana made from fresh goat’s milk by a friend who lives here in Bat Ayin, and raw honey from bee-farms nearby which we savor slowly. Milk and honey are two foods that the Torah permitted although they derive from something forbidden. Honey is produced by non-kosher bees, and milk derives from the blood of an animal, which also is prohibited. About this, the Torah teaches, “Who can produce a pure thing out of an impure? No one” (Iyuv 14:4). In other words, who is able to transform the impure into pure, the forbidden into permitted? There is only One who is capable of this: G-d Himself. This transformative power – the power of teshuva and tikun (rectification) illuminates especially in the land of Israel. For this reason, this land is explicitly praised with milk and honey alluding to the purifying power that resides within the Holy Land.

“The extraordinary qualities of the land of Israel and the extraordinary qualities of the Jewish people are two halves of a whole” (Rav Kook, Orot 1:1). On this extraordinary land, I have experienced my own transformation from confused hippie girl, sparingly dressed, searching for truth to become devoted woman, clad in modesty, raising a family, welcoming guests, spreading Hashem’s Torah and healing to women from near and far. This transformation would not have happened in any other place on earth. The same goes for the countless students from all over the world who each experience their own personal transformation specifically in this transformative land!

The Land Flowing with Supernal Divine Lights
 תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף קיא/ב
רמי בר יחזקאל איקלע לבני ברק חזנהו להנהו עיזי דקאכלן תותי תאיני וקנטיף דובשא מתאיני וחלבא טייף מנייהו ומיערב בהדי הדדי אמר היינו זבת חלב ודבש
Rami bar Yechezkiel once paid a visit to B’ne-B’rak where he saw goats grazing under fig-trees while honey was flowing from the figs, milk ran from them, and these mingled with each other. “This is indeed,” he remarked, “[a land] flowing with milk and honey” (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 11b).

The “land flowing with milk and honey” is an expression of the fertility of the Promised Land. The keyword in the verse is “flowing.” Fruit trees grow in many different terrains, but their produce only overflow with nectar when the land is especially fertile, and when the trees are particularly well nourished. Similarly, livestock survives in many habitats, but only overflow with milk when they live in particularly fertile pastures. Milk symbolizes superior quality, richness of taste, and nourishment. Honey represents sweetness. The goodness of the land of Israel is both nourishing and pleasant. Yet, there is an even deeper explanation for “the land flowing with milk and honey” – it is the land flowing with supernal Divine lights. Milk corresponds to the light of Chesed, while honey corresponds to the light of Gevurah (Ramchal, Devarim). In this land, we may learn to balance these opposite energies. The land of Israel is flowing with the holiness of her lights. It is for the sake of these lights that Hashem desired to bring us here to share His holiness with us on His personal chosen plot. The supernal lights spiraled down through many casings until they finally manifested as “the land flowing with milk and honey.” When we eat from the fruits of the land with humility and proper intention before our Creator, breaking our lusts with great awe-consciousness that we are sitting at Hashem’s table, we then merit to illuminate the lights from which these fruits emanated. These lights are encased in many layers of physical garments. Therefore, if we eat in a gluttonous way without holiness, forgetting that the fruits emanate from upper lights, then we partake from the shells that covers these lights. However, when eating in purity and holiness, surely it is possible to be blessed with endless supernal lights through the fruits of the land of Israel (B’er Mayim Chaim, Shemot 3).

Health Benefits of Combining Milk with Honey
Not only does the “land flowing with milk and honey” allude to its spiritual features, the winning combination of milk and honey actually has physical health benefits as well. As research on honey indicates, it acts as a carrier that transports the nutrients from food throughout the body. Honey especially facilitates the body’s assimilation of calcium, of which milk is a rich source. Therefore, consuming milk together with honey not only gives our body the necessary nutrient (calcium) to benefit our bone health, but moreover ensures its maximum absorption into our body. Honey has long been known as a source of prebiotics, (J. Agric. Food Chem., 2005, 53 (8), pp 2914–2921). These are nutrients that stimulate the growth and development of probiotics – beneficial bacteria for our intestines and digestive system. Prebiotics have demonstrated a stimulatory effect on bifido-bacteria, a type of probiotic found in milk. The carbohydrates and oligosaccharides in honey promote the proper function of these beneficial bacteria that are essential for the healthy maintenance and function of the GI tract (Journal of Food Protection®, Number 1, January 2002, pp. 5-237). When the bacterial balance in the digestive tract is good, it eliminates a number of irritating conditions, including constipation, cramps and bloating. It also prevents the development of detrimental bacterial growth! Milk and honey have traditionally been used as remedies for insomnia ( Their effect on sleeplessness is strengthened when taken together. Honey is one of the rare sugary foods that causes a controlled increase in the amount of insulin being secreted, which also promotes the release of tryptophan into the brain that converts into serotonin, inducing a feeling of relaxation.

Furthermore, serotonin is commonly converted to melatonin, a well-researched sleep aid. Both honey and milk possess antimicrobial and cleansing properties, which are enhanced when combined. Numerous cleansers are prepared using milk and honey, because this mixture gives the skin a healthy glow. One can also enjoy a milk and honey bath, by mixing them in equal quantities in the water. This combination is often used in popular spas throughout the world. A glass of milk with honey every morning is known to improve a person’s stamina. While milk contains proteins, honey contains the necessary carbohydrates required for effective stimulus of the metabolism. Milk and honey provide a boost in strength to everyone, including children and the elderly. The combination of milk and honey impacts not only the skin, but also the rest of the body, by making it agile and youthful. People from many ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Indians, drank milk with honey to preserve their youth. The many antioxidant properties produced through the mixture of milk and honey is the source of their anti-aging properties that alleviate skin degradation, wrinkles, blotches, and general failing health of the skin. Since milk and honey can help to ensure long life, the combination was known as “the elixir of life.” The benefits of honey and milk on the human body are so enormous that the phrase “land of milk and honey” commonly refers to ‘a place which has plenty’ the world over (

However, no other place can truly be called, “the land flowing with milk and honey” except the land of Israel. The Torah emphasizes this by repeating this phrase in reference to the Holy Land twenty times. Someone once told Rav Kook, “God willing, we will move to the land of Israel.” Rav Kook replied, “God is certainly willing. What counts is that you be willing” (Shivchei Harayah, p. 208).

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Uprooting the Bitter or Making it Sweet?

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Nitzavim
Standing Together in Judgement
Rosh Hashana is not just about eating apples with honey and munching on honey cakes. Before we can even get to the sweet, we need to eradicate the bitter. Parashat Nitzavim, which always precedes Rosh Hashana prompts us to uproot any bitter root from within us. Bitterness comes in many forms, and we all have our own private bitterness. When we have a bitter taste in the mouth, everything we eat tastes bitter. This is why, for example, nothing tastes right when we are sick. Bitterness can come in the attitude of judgment, looking for the fly in every half-empty cup. Always wanting more, and never being satisfied. Often when we are insecure, we project the bitterness of our insecurity into judgment of others. We make ourselves believe that if we are better than those incompetent, lazy, irresponsible people, then perhaps we are not so bad indeed. Now is the time to develop a good eye and look for the sweet points hiding behind the bitter façade. This is like picking out the sweet red ruby looking pomegranate seeds from their bitter pith and rind. When we feel isolated and disconnected from others, then the taste of bitterness overwhelms us. Being united causes the bitterness to be absorbed and diluted, like the bitter herb included within the eleven herbs of the sweet incense. Sometimes we may enter a bitter situation – a real life challenge. Then it is unfortunate if the circumstances become unnecessarily more embittered by division among close relatives. Now, before Rosh Hashana, we have the opportunity to sweeten the bitter with unity and love between sisters. We can pick up that phone or write that email expressing how sorry we are for having caused pain to our dear ones, and do everything in our power to reconcile and reunite the natural loving bond between us. This week’s parasha directs us to stand in unity prior to coming before Hashem in judgment on the big day.
ספר דברים פרק כט
ט) אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל: (י) טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ:(יא) לְעָבְרְךָ בִּבְרִית הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ
“You stand this day, all of you, before Hashem your G-d – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officials all the people of Israel, your children, your wives, even the converts within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer to enter into the covenant of Hashem your G-d…” (Devarim 29:9-11).

We are not only judged as individuals on Rosh Hashana, but moreover as a family, a community, and a unified people even a universal world. As we celebrate the birthday of Adam the first human being on Rosh Hashana, who included all future people, we are judged for our efforts to become one. At the anniversary of eating from the Tree that caused our current split reality, we have the greatest opportunity to rectify and unify. At this time, we seek forgiveness from one another in order to face Hashem at the onset of the New Year clean of grudges, bitter strife, and family feuds.

Poison-weed and Wormwood
This week’s parasha prompts us to eradicate the bitter within our midst, which causes “utter ruin of moist and dry alike” (Devarim 29:18). This deadly poison is described as poison-weed and wormwood.
ספר דברים פרק כט 
 יז) פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה אוֹ מִשְׁפָּחָה אוֹ שֵׁבֶט אֲשֶׁר לְבָבוֹ פֹנֶה הַיּוֹם מֵעִם הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵינוּ לָלֶכֶת לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם שֹׁרֶשׁ פֹּרֶה רֹאשׁ וְלַעֲנָה
“Perchance there is among you a man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turns away this day from Hashem our G-d, to go to serve the gods of those nations; perchance there is among you a root that bears poison-weed and wormwood” (Devarim 29:17).

I have not been able to identify רֹאשׁ/rosh – poison-weed which is sometimes translated “gall.” Rashi explains that it is “a root that brings forth herbs as bitter as wormwood plants, which are very bitter” (Rashi, Devarim 29:17). Similarly, poison is called רֹאשׁ/rosh – head because it is the head of all bitter herbs, it is bitterer than anything else. It may also possibly be called rosh, because the poison is found in the head of a snake. לַעֲנָה/l’ana, translated wormwood, derives from the words לְעַנֹּת נָפֶשׁ – “to afflict the soul,” as taking this herb causes great affliction (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Devarim 29:17). Ramban explains that these herbs are either bitter or deadly; one is called “rosh” because it is the most bitter of all and head of all bitter herbs. The second is called “l’ana” from the language of being humbled (Shemot 10:3), for he who eats it will suffer and be humbled in his soul.

The Roots of New Beginnings
As we enter Rosh Hashana – the head of the year, we are confronted with cleaning out the rosh – head of the bitter. The word rosh, which doesn’t seem to refer to any particular herb, may allude to the fact that the beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct (Frank Herbert, Dune). The head of the bitter herbs stands in contrast to the head of the, hopefully, sweet year. “Well begun is half done.” Everything turns out according to the beginning. Just a small deficit at the beginning can develop and bring about many more deficiencies afterwards. If the root is bitter, it will affect the forthcoming flowers and fruits. Therefore, we need to put the greatest effort into making our beginnings as perfect as possible. This is why the first fruit offering must be with all our heart, soul and might. There is nothing more important than starting anew on the right foot, with extra effort and devotion. At the beginning, we need to mobilize and connect both body, soul, mind, thought speech and actions (Shem M’Shemuel, Parashat KiTavo, year 5675).

The Bitterness of Division
The bitter fruit of “poison weed and wormwood” is a parable for all bitter things. First and foremost for the division and hatred among us (Introduction to Kabbalah 2:1 on Chanukah).

It is not that Moshe our teacher, G-d forbid, was concerned that there were idol worshippers among us. Rather, he was concerned that there were division of heart among us caused by arrogance. Whoever is arrogant is compared to idol-worship (Sotah 4b). When we have an arrogant attitude, we think we know better than our friend, and are unable to accept his or her outlook. We only care about ourselves, “thinking I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart” (Devarim 29:18). We therefore, lose the ability to feel the pain of our friend (Yismach Moshe, Parashat Vayechi).

With division of heart, we cannot adapt ourselves to become part of the general community of Israel. When we unify with the general community of Israel we partake in its general holiness. It is this holiness that enables the Kohen to enter the Holy of Holy and emerge in peace, because he is the shaliach (emissary) for the community of Israel. Surrendering to the general community warrants humility. Through this humility, we learn to see the greatness of others, transforming our bitter judgmental outlook to become sweet and accepting.

The Shofar Cleanses Bitter Brain
The Targum translates “poison weed and wormwood” as a person’s thoughts of sin and iniquity.
On Rosh Hashana the Shofar cleanses and purifies the brain from these kinds of negative thoughts. This is alluded to in the initials of שֹׁרֶשׁ פֹּרֶה רֹאש/Shoresh Poreh Rosh – “a root that bears poison-weed,” which spells out שׁוֹפָר/shofar. After the Shofar has cleansed the brain from all traces of bitterness, the light of teshuva and purity flows upon us. This is one of the reasons why a shofar is called a shofar from the language of משפרת את הולד/meshaperet et hav’lad – “improves the baby” (Rashi, Shemot 1:15 explaining why Yocheved was called Shifra because she would improve the baby). When the Shofar washes away our bitter thought, we become like a newborn. We then have the ability to receive a new soul, just as Yitzchak received a new neshama during the Akeida (Yismach Moshe, Parashat Ha’azinu).

Medicinal Properties of Wormwood
Whereas the plant for which Wormwood is named, Artemisia absinthium, or Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, is a known Biblical metaphor for things that are unpalatably bitter, it also refers to a common herb growing in my garden. Because of its antiparasitic properties, it is recommended to place wormwood tea in a spray bottle and use it to spray plants for insects and other pest. Wormwood is a common ingredient in many herbal cleansing formulations. As the name implies, wormwood is a powerful worming agent that has been used for hundreds of years to expel tapeworms, threadworms, and especially roundworms from both animals and people. Wormwood moreover, counteracts digestive disorders as well as gall bladder disease and it may lower fever. Some people apply wormwood directly to the skin for healing wounds and insect bites. Wormwood is one of the major ingredients in absinthe, a popular drink in the nineteenth century that became associated with the death of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe and the suicide of the painter Vincent Van Gogh. This drink is now banned in many countries because of the potentially poisonous chemical thujone found in wormwood. The concentration of thujone increases when distilled in alcohol. Whereas wormwood in the Torah is a metaphor for disunity, arrogance, thoughts of sin and even idol-worship, it can be employed to purge ourselves from the bitterness of worms, pests, digestive disorders and more.

In the Torah, we learn that bitter waters can be sweetened by bitter wood. The bitterness of wormwood, as well, has the redeeming quality of alleviating the bitterness of worms, parasites, indigestion and more. There is a Chassidic concept called ‘sweeting the judgment in their root.’ This implies the expanded consciousness of seeing the bigger picture of the bitter judgments and suffering in our lives, and how they are part of the greater good. Perhaps just a drop of absinthe from wormwood may help us reaching the level of sweeting the judgments in their root so we can learn that …“to the hungry soul, every bitter thing is sweet” (Mishlei 27:7).

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How Can We Relate to the Mitzvah of Bikkurim (First Fruits) Today?

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Ki Tavo
Connecting With Hashem through the Fruits of the Land
This morning I went down into my garden to pray and to pick some breakfast of figs and grapes. I admired the reddening glistering pomegranates patiently awaiting Rosh Hashana and the beautifully clusters of purpling grapes dangling from our pergola. As I sat on my swing bench with my siddur (prayer book) and a basket of fruit on my lap overlooking the Judean hills, I felt so thankfully blessed. With each bite of delicious holy sweetness, I felt like I was ingesting Hashem’s love. This experience really helped me to focus on my prayer, including the words of praising Hashem, which is what most of the prayers are all about. Usually, it is much easier to focus on my own personal requests and mumble the rest, but the fruits inspired me to feel genuine praise. The ability to connect to Hashem through the fruits of the land will be greatly multiplied with the First Fruit Offering at the Temple.

The Torah emphasizes the importance of this mitzvah of bikkurim because it is both the first – רֵאשִׁית/reishit and the purpose – תַּכְלִית/tachlit of all the mitzvot dependent on the Land. The Order of Mishnah Zeraim (Seeds) starts with the laws of prayers, keriat shema and birkat hamazon, and culminates in the mitzvah of bikkurim which also includes prayer and praise. In this way, bikkurim completes the circle of prayer for rain, planting, and bringing our choicest fruit while expressing thanks and praises to Hashem. The mitzvot depending on the land are wrapped in prayer and thanks for the good land; the prayer before the growing, and the thanking for the good produce. The Midrash teaches that the entire world was created for the sake of the mitzvah of bikkurim, as it states, “בְּרֵאשִׁית/bereishit – in the beginning Hashem created…” (Bereishit 1:1), and it states, “Bring רֵאשִׁית/reishit the beginning of the first fruits of your earth to the house of Hashem your G-d” (Shemot 23:19, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 1:4). “What is so important about the mitzvah of bikkurim – bringing our First Fruits to the Temple as a gift offering – that the whole world is created for its sake?”

Bikurim and the Attitude of Gratitude
Alshich explains that the mitzvah of bikkurim imparts the most fundamental outlook for any human being – the attitude of gratitude and hakarat hatov. This is so fundamental and primary that the whole world’s creation was actualized specifically for this mitzvah. “There is nothing harder for the Hashem to live with than an ungrateful person. It was due to his ingratitude that Adam was exiled from the Garden of Eden. G-d presented him Chava as a gift, but Adam complained, “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it” (Bereishit 3:12). It was this ungrateful response that caused the downfall of humanity (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 7). Today the attitude of ingratitude is running rampant. Many take everything coming to them for granted and expect others to jump upside down and do somersaults to please them. When something doesn’t work out according to their expectations they get very upset. In contrast, developing gratitude helps us to experience true happiness, as we relate to every blessing as an undeserving gift. Because the Mitzvah of bikkurim instill the important character trait of gratitude within us, it makes sense that it is repeated in the Torah more than any other mitzvah dependent on the land. This mitzvah is mentioned both in Shemot 23:16, 23:19, 34:26, and Bamidbar 18:13. Furthermore, the first eleven verses of our parashaDevarim 26:1-11 are dedicated to the mitzvah of bikkurim. We are to bring the first and the best of our Seven Species crop in a beautifully decorated basket as part of a remarkable splendorous musical parade with animals adorned with gold and olive branches and flutes playing. When arriving at the Temple Mount the king will join the parade with his basket on his shoulder. Once we reach the courtyard, the Levites will sing, “I will praise You, O G-d, for you have raised me up…” (Tehillim 30:2, Based on Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3-4). The First Fruits offering is accompanied by a declaration expressing our gratitude to the Almighty in the context of a brief history of the Jewish people. Working on gratitude in general will help speed up the time when we once again may bring our gratitude fruit gifts to the Temple. The more we work on being grateful toward our spouse, parents, friends and neighbors the closer we come to developing true gratitude toward Hashem. This prepares us for the eternal world of total bliss when we will thankfully enjoy the splendor of Hashem’s Divine Presence (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a).

Continued Thanksgiving for Ongoing Giving
The mitzvah of bikkurim as detailed in this week’s parasha emphasizes how the land of Israel is a gift of G-d to the Jewish people and how we are never to take this gift for granted.

ספר דברים פרק כו (א) וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ: ב) וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם: (ה) וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ … (ח) וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ הָשֵׁם מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים: (ט) וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ: (י) וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי הָשֵׁם וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ לִפְנֵי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לִפְנֵי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ

“When you enter the land that Hashem your G-d gives you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, take of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your Land that your G-d gives you. Put it in a basket and go to the place that your G-d will choose to establish His name… You shall then recite…Hashem freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by and outstretched arm and an awesome power, and by signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and brought us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I now bring the first fruits of the earth which You Hashem has given me” (Devarim 26 1-10). This short section mentions how Hashem is the one who gives us the land of Israel three times in order to offset the possible attitude of, “It is my own power and the strength of my hands”(Devarim 8:17) – the bravery of our soldiers and the sophistication of our war equipment etc. that enabled us conquer this land. Why do we need to give thanks for the land of Israel repeatedly, year after year during the annual bikkurim ceremony? Why is it not enough to give thanks upon our initial entry into the Land? Note that our section repeats, “The land that Hashem your G-d gives you” in the present tense. Just as we experience a continued giving relationship in marriage, our relationship with the Land of Israel is also an ongoing process. Therefore, we need to recognize that G-d is giving us this Holy Land anew every moment. This feeling is especially amplified as the Shemita year is coming to an end, and we renew our relationship with the land through planting and pruning.

The Roots of the Mitzvah of Bikurim
The mitzvah of bikkurim teaches us that it is not enough to remember that all our blessings are from Hashem, no matter how much of our own effort is invested. We must actually verbalize this realization in order to truly ingrain within our psyche the attitude of gratitude. Sefer HaChinuch explains that the root of the mitzvah of bikkurim is to arouse our thoughts and true feeling through the power of speech. There­fore, when G-d blesses us and our field to yield fruits and we merit to bring them to the Temple, it is proper for us to arouse our hearts through the power of speech expressing our awareness that everything we receive comes from the Master of the Universe. We must tell of G-d’s kindness to us and to all the Jewish people. Therefore, we begin with by mentioning Ya’acov our father whom G-d liberated from the hand of Lavan, and continue to mention how we were slaves to the Egyptians, and G-d's saving us from their hands. After the praise, we request of G-d that He continue to bless us. We merit to become blessed both through the arousal of our soul in praising G-d and because of G-d’s intrinsic goodness. We can extend this concept gleaned from the mitzvah of bikkurim to include verbalizing our gratitude for all blessings in our life, thus amplifying them and entering into a self-enforcing cycle of blessing. This principle is the main reason why we recite brachot (benedictions) for food. There are several parallels between the mitzvah of reciting brachot over food and the mitzvah of bikkurim. Both are expressions of gratitude for the land with its crop. Until we recognize Hashem as King and owner of the land through the bikkurim and bracha recital, the land and its produce still belong to Hashem. It is only through the recognition that the land belongs to Hashem that He transfers its ownership to us. Note how in our Torah section the description of the land changes. First it is called הָאָרֶץ/ha’aretz – the land, (verse 1), whereupon it becomes אַרְצְךָ/artzecha – your land in verse 2.

Only after we express recognition that the Land belongs to Hashem through bikkurim does the Land of Israel become our land. Similarly, when we recite brachot over food we recognize that the food belongs to Hashem – “King of the universe, Creator the fruits of the tree.” It is precisely this recognition that changes the status of the food from being Hashem’s to becoming ours. Thus, the more we give thanks the more blessed we become.

Health Benefits of Gratitude
Today, scientific research confirms that gratitude brings about blessings. Novel research as actually discovered that an attitude of gratitude makes us happier and healthier. When we find authentic reasons for thanksgiving, we will attract good things to happen to us. Recent studies have concluded that the expression of gratitude can have profound and positive effects on our health, our moods and even the survival of our marriages. The old saying “If you've forgotten the language of gratitude, you'll never be on speaking terms with happiness” is more than a flimsy notion.

Several studies have shown depression to be inversely correlated to gratitude. It seems that the more grateful a person is the less depressed. Philip Watkins, a clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls. "A growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psycho-social benefits" (Report by Drs. Blaire and Rita Justice for the University of Texas Health Science Center,

In one study on gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them whether positive or negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more ( Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude group reported more hours of sleep each night, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control group. (

Acknowledging Our Debt to Farmers
According to Rav Kook in his commentary of Mishna Bikkurim 3:3, the gratitude expressed through the mitzvah of bikkurim includes gratitude toward the farmers. The colorful bikkurim ceremony, involving Jews from all walks of life, offers an opportunity to rectify the disrespect and alienation between academics and farmers. In the Torah, farmers are greatly respected. This recognition is demonstrated by the townspeople “standing up” before the farmers during the bikkurim ceremony. Today, most of us live the state of alienation from nature and farming. We may not even realize that many of the items we use in our daily lives–including food, medicine, and even plastic derive from nature. Today, the Jewish people are, on the whole, alienated not only from nature, but also from G-d, the Land of Israel, and each other. Until the time when we once again can bring bikkurim in our rebuilt Temple, we can still implement several of its features that will help reconnect us to living in harmony with the land, with each other and Hashem. We can grow and eat the seven species, taking the extra time to learn about their spiritual symbolism. We can be more conscious of how our moral and practical actions impact the abundance or lack of blessings from rain and dew. We can support farmers who keep the laws of the land including Shemita (the sabbatical year), and tithing. We can furthermore build healthy, diverse, moral communities in Israel (Based on Leiba Chaya David,

The Connection between Bikurim and Rosh Hashana
…We don’t bring Bikkurim after Chanukah, for the bikurim after Chanukah are considered of the following year… (Rambam, Bikurim, section 2, Halacha 6)

Rambam alluded to a great principle in the order of creation. The world was created on the 25th of Elul. This is the culmination of the nine preceding months of gestation beginning with the conception on the 25th of Kislev. Therefore, in the bikkurim cycle, Chanukah is considered the following year as the lights born the 25th of Elul in proximity to Rosh Hashana are conceived then. The first possible birth of bikkurim is on Shavuot following only six months gestation, whereas Rosh Hashana follows a full nine month gestation. Bikkurim is both the first of the mitzvot of the land and their purpose. It is an expression of the cyclic reality in which the beginning – רֵאשִׁית/reishit is in-wedged in the end purpose – תַּכְלִית/tachlit. The First Fruits are both the culmination and purpose of the entire year elevating our previous work of the land as well as the beginning and preparation for the New Year with its forthcoming mitzvot of the land, which infuse the upcoming crop with holiness. This explains why we read about bikkurim in proximity to Rosh Hashana, since both share the concept of being the end/purpose in-wedged in the beginning. They are both the culmination of the work of the previous year while they simultaneously influence on the upcoming year. This clarifies an amazing chidush about Rosh Hashana, by means of doing teshuva properly on Rosh Hashana we both elevate the previous year while completing the building of the new lights for the upcoming year. Even if we did not keep the mitzvot perfectly during the past year, when Rosh Hashana arrives, we can elevate the entire past year because it served as the preparation for this building of lights of the upcoming year on Rosh Hashana. How powerful is the attitude of gratitude. By expressing our gratitude and recognition of Hashem as our King and benefactor both through the Rosh Hashana prayers and in the bikkurim ritual we are empowered to elevate the entire previous year and infuse our upcoming year with new lights!

May we merit to ingrain within us true thankfulness for all of Hashem’s blessings, and may this recognition activate a fountain of everlasting blessings!