At times, we hear very unsettling things about people we know – people who we thought of as good and honest can fall so low. There is a mitzvah to judge people favorably. That, however, is not the topic at hand. Rather, our focus is on understanding people.

It is extremely perplexing to us when we become aware of the fact that someone whom we know sinned: should I try to understand how this happened, or should I just forget about it, saying it doesn’t make any difference. Either way is fine, as long as it is not thought about too much. But at times, when the story involved someone close to us, we cannot find peace within ourselves.

There are parts of the Torah which raise complex questions. Now, just because they are complex, it does not mean that there are no answers. There are answers. And many of them are lessons for life. Here is one of them.

We know that the Jews rose to the level of angels upon receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. They heard G-d. They almost saw G-d.  How could they plunge so deeply and swiftly to the abyss of the Sin of the Calf, a sin of idolatry, just because they thought that Moshe was a couple of hours late?  Even if the Satan tricked them into thinking that Moshe was dead. And, even if it was not the whole nation that was involved… How could anyone fall into idolatry at the foot of Mt. Sinai? And even kill Hur for opposing them?

There are more than a few answers to this question. R’ Yaakov Kametzky, zt”l, answered it with a unique twist. He said that the question does not even exist! As many times in life, it becomes a question only when you do not “put yourself in the shoes” of the sinner. The Jews were, at the time, living a life of miracles. A whole nation of more than 3 million people were in the Sinai desert. They were sustained by the Manna that G-d gave them in Moshe’s merit. If he had left them, and they would not have Manna, many would die in the dessert from starvation. Their life was dependent upon miracles. Without Moshe, they would be no more than a poor nation without food. Our Rabbis tell us that a poor person is considered dead. They were in a state of mind that defied logic, a state of panic. At that time, idolatry was extremely common in the world. It was natural for people to want to serve something tangible.  After our Rabbis removed the Yetzer Hara for idolatry by giving us prayer, it is, altogether, very hard for us to understand the Sin.

I believe that many times, when we do not understand the reason for a person’s downfall, and we are left with a question, it is in actual fact not a question. We are barely able to put ourselves in the shoes of anyone else, especially in the shoes of those who went through or are going through different traumas, tests or nightmares.  We should, however, pray with fervor in our morning prayers- ואל תביאנו לידי ניסיון  and please, do not bring me to a situation where I am tested…and, if we do ever have to face a test, that we should be strong enough to meet the challenge.

Jewish Remedy for Relaxation

“ששת ימים תעשה מלאכה וביום השביעי …שבת שבתון Six days your work shall be done and on the seventh day…rest” (Exodus 35:2).In this passuk, there seem to be two commandments: to rest on the seventh day, and to work the other six days.  But is there really a mitzvah to work six days a week? Also, the words “your work shall be done,” are surprisingly passive.  It would seem the Torah should have commanded to “do your work” instead.

On Shabbat, many have the custom to eat fish. There is an interesting phenomenon about fish. If one were to open the belly of a large fish shortly after it has consumed a smaller fish, he would find the small fish facing the tail of its predator. Judging from its position, one can deduce that the big fish’s “fish-food” was not the one he had chased to near death, but rather another fish, one that swam straight into its mouth. This is the lesson of the Shabbat as we shall soon see.

Rabbeinu Bachye in Chovot   Halevavot mentions a fundamental concept of Jewish belief that may be confusing at times. A person must realize that the effort he puts into something is not the cause of his success. (Bitachon Chap. 4)  Success is delivered by G-d, in His infinite, unfathomable ways. It is incumbent upon each man to do his utmost to make a living; G-d does not want us to rely upon miracles. It is for this reason that the passuk specifically commands each person “six days your work shall be done”. We are commanded to do our part by putting in our effort and working on the other six days of the week. However, we are also expected to realize that, essentially, we are just going through the motions. Ultimately, success rests in the hands of Hashem alone.  This is why our pasuk says “your work shall be done” as opposed to “Do your work”.

Rav Wolbe explains (Alei Shor 2; Bitachon  VeHishtadlut), that this can be a very difficult concept. For example, a farmer is commanded to do all his many, diverse jobs in order to prepare and sow his field, yet he must still believe that his toil was not needed by G-d in order to provide his sustenance. He toils only because that is the manner in which G-d commanded that he behave when He created the world. 

The Torah gives us one day a week to change perspective and internalize this belief. The world on Shabbat is a time when money has no value, and no bearing whatsoever on our lives.  Chazal explain that, on Rosh Hashana, each person is allotted a certain amount of money for the whole year, and any Shabbat expenses are separate from that allotment, not diminishing the original year’s sum in the least. The fact that our livelihood comes from G-d is clearer to us on Shabbat, but, of course, holds true in the same measure during the week, even though we are required to invest our efforts in work. We demonstrate our recognition of this principle by eating fish on Shabbat: just as the large fish had to toil for its meal by chasing a smaller one, its actual sustenance came from a totally different fish!

One can truly rest on Shabbat only if one feels that ‘his efforts are his responsibility- but his successes are not in his control’. By internalizing this concept, one can experience true relaxation on Shabbat. It is for this reason that there is really no point in working to an extreme degree.  A workaholic, by definition, thinks his level of success is determined through his own efforts, as opposed to being granted by G-d. Tension and stress come when one feels the loss of a control that he thought he once had. But when we can internalize the fact that G-d was (and is) really in control all the time, then, we can experience a truly restful state.


Building Trust

“אלה פקודי המשכן משכן העדות אשר פוקד על פי משה”… – These are the calculations of the Mishkan…which were accounted for by the command of Moshe. (Shemot 38:21)

In this week’s parsha, the Torah makes an accounting of where all the gold and silver that Klal Yisrael donated for the building of the Mishkan went. Why did Moshe feel the need to make this calculation and report to Klal Yisrael about how he had used these donations?

The Midrash explains that after the construction of the Mishkan, Moshe overheard a fellow Jew poking fun at his wide neck and knees, suggesting that Moshe was gaining weight – possibly because he’d been dining a bit more lately.

A second “mocker” joined in and said, “What do you expect? I’m sure the man who took charge of building the Mishkan pocketed some of the donations for himself!”

Upon hearing this, Moshe told them, “I promise you, when we finish the Mishkan I will give you a detailed summary of every last penny!” And so he did, in this week’s parsha.

Why was Moshe so concerned with what these “mockers” thought? And if they were interested in finding flaws in their leader, wouldn’t they soon find something else to complain about even if Moshe appeased them now? After Moshe had been Hashem’s messenger to bring the ten plagues, bring the Jews out of Egypt and split the sea, hadn’t he already established himself as a man of integrity who kept his word?

The answer to these questions is simple, yet powerful. We are all familiar with how our bank account works – if you want to take money out, you need to first put money in. In any relationship, we must consider a different type of bank account – our “emotional bank account.” Relationships are built on honesty, kindness and integrity; for a relationship to succeed, one’s “bank account” must be filled with actions which demonstrate these traits. If you make a deposit in the emotional bank account through honesty, kindness and integrity, you build up your credit, and trust is built.

Conversely, when one shows dishonesty, ignores others or acts selfishly, he is making “withdrawals” from this account, and eventually the emotional account is overdrawn.

Every relationship has its rocky moments – these moments are like applying for a loan. If one invested enough into his account, at these moments he can use the credit from this account to save the relationship. If the account is empty and one is in “debt,” however, his dubious credit history makes fixing the relationship difficult.

The sad reality is that while it might take a lot of time and effort to build this credit, it is very easy to overdraw the account with a few careless mistakes.

Consider parenting, for example. Parents who show their children that they are concerned with the children’s best interests will have “credit” available when their children grow into teenagers. If the parents did not inculcate this feeling into the children, however, when the teenage years arrive the children probably will not consult with their parents even if the parents plead and promise the children that now they are interested in the children’s well-being(see “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey).

Moshe Rabbeinu knew the importance of building trust. Moshe knew that someday, these “mockers” would rear their heads again and question Moshe and the Torah, and he would need credit in the bank. Additionally, Moshe knew that building trust would help ensure that when he said something, Klal Yisrael would know that Moshe was saying it for their best interests, not his own.

Trust between parents and children is especially important in Torah families. One of our strongest resources for emunah – faith in G-d – is the mesora that is passed down from parent to child. Judaism is unique in its claim that over 600,000 witnesses experienced G-d speaking to His nation at Mount Sinai. This testimony has been passed from parent to child ever since then. A child is naturally receptive to this testimony and believes his parents, and is sure that a parent would never lie about such a central life issue.

Unfortunately, sometimes children lose faith in their parents, and the child is ‘at risk’. Throughout childhood, a parent must treat his or her child with the respect due to a person, as opposed to the respect one shows to an e-mail that he can ignore until he is interested at looking at and dealing with it.


Many couples live under the mistaken impression that shalom bayit(tranquility at home) means no fighting. This is very untrue. Shalom bayitmeans knowing how to fight. It means knowing how to make up. No two people are identical, and neither are their life perspectives. True love is existent in the new couple after their first disagreement. Until then, they simply did not know each other. Knowing how to disagree, without being degrading or insulting, means that there is mutual respect. Making up and compromising means that the relationship is more important than the topic at hand. Many times, this requires a sense of reframing, a change in the way things are perceived.

 Although the Jews sinned with the golden calf right after their commitment to G-d at Mt. Sinai, G-d showed us that He still desired to be among us. He told us that He wanted to be among us in a Mishkan. This was the display of love that was greater than the offense.

 Strangely, the Torah writes that it was not so simple. G-d told Moshe וביום פקדי ופקדתי עלהם חטאתם  (32: 34)  “And on the day that I make My account, I shall remember their Sin.”  Rashi comments here that throughout the generations, when the Jews must suffer, G-d adds to their trials a bit of punishment for the Sin of the calf. If He were to have visited the whole punishment upon us  all at once, we would have been annihilated! G-d broke the punishment to a “swallowable bite- size.”

 R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was troubled very much by this. How could the All Merciful G-d write in His Torah that He would never forget our Sin, even after repentance?

 R’ Levi Yitzchak, as he always does, was able to reframe even the greatest of sins. He pointed to the Talmud (Berachot 32) that G-d will actually “forget” the Sin following our repentance. Rather, the idea of the passuk is that G-d will never forget the Sin of the calf in the sense that we had Free Will then. When someone comes from a pious family and grows up to be pious, no eyebrows are raised. On the other hand, when someone pious comes from a house in which the family members and their ancestors were anything but pious- this amazes people. When the Jews accepted the Torah, this did not show anything special about them – for the Jews were the descendants of the Holy Forefathers. What else could we expect from the descendents of such a family? This was who they were naturally.

 When they sinned with the calf, this displayed that they actually were not pious at the core. It showed that the people who accepted the Torah did so, not only because they followed in their parents’ way; rather, it was because they overcame their desires. They rose to the challenge. When the Jews repent for such a sin, it is through a battle against an inner instinct for evil that all humanity must overcome. It shows that we were not naturally pious.

 G-d will remember this Sin of the calf on the days of wrath. He will remember the inner power struggle between good and evil: that we decided of our own free will to listen to the Yetzer tov to accept the Torah. That we decided of our own free will to repent from the Sin. With this in mind and with the positive way in which He will look at it, G-d will count this for our merit.

In marital harmony, we can reframe the fights of the past and turn them into signs of love. This is the way of G-d. We are commanded to follow. 


Detecting Bad Habits

והנשאם הביאו את אבני השוהם– And the princes brought the shoham stones(Exodus 35:27).  Rashi asks the question, why is the letter yud missing from the word vehanisi’im  (והנשיאים)? He explains that while the Jewish nation was donating to the Mishkan (tabernacle), instead of bringing their own offerings at the same time, the Nesi’im offered to bring whatever would be missing at the end of the collection. To their shock, Bnei Yisrael quickly donated all the necessary materials, leaving the Nesi’im with nothing to donate. Disturbed at their plight, they asked how they could still take part in the building of the Mishkan. Hashem responded that they could donate the avnei shoham” stones. However, since they had been complacent during the period of donating, the letter yud was removed from their name. 

Rav Chaim Leib Schmulevitz points out that removing the letter yud from their name in the Torah was no simple matter. In fact, Yehoshua was later given this letter by Moshe as a shemira (protection) against being part of the plot of the spies. R’ Chaim asks – why were they penalized with the loss of a yud, if their intentions were good? Weren’t they ready to donate however much would be missing?

  Rav Chaim explains that it was the trait of laziness that drove the Nesi’im to wait until the end.  The element of laziness here was minute, and the Nesi’im themselves were unaware of the presence of this trait within them! On a similar note, Rav Yisrael Salanter, while expressing the importance of mussar, writes that negative traits hide in the deepest recesses of the heart. Mussar is like a flashlight that helps one discover and reveal his true self. Still, we may ask ourselves, how could the Nesi’im be guilty of laziness, if they offered to make sure all the costs would be covered?

 At the Sin of the Golden Calf, those involved worked with zeal and alacrity. They told Aaron that they couldn’t wait for tomorrow. They killed Hur, who opposed them. They quickly took off their gold rings to ensure that the Calf would be made without delay. Those involved in this sin displayed motivation and ambition in carrying it out. 

When one truly desires to do something, it is understood that he puts in much more effort and shows more determination than when he is not really interested. The Nesi’im’s failure to donate immediately reflected a minute level of indifference stemming from laziness. The Nesi’im should have learned from the behavior displayed at the Golden Calf and translated it to worshipping Hashem with that same zeal when fulfilling His Will.

 In applying this to ourselves, many times we can observe other people’s actions and learn from them the innate strength we have within us. For example, one who has trouble getting up in the morning to go to pray need only look at the millionaire who jumps out of bed with enthusiasm early each morning to earn more money. By seeing his fellow’s ability to get up, regardless of his exhaustion, one understands that it is possible, when there is true will, to do the same.  Tapping in to the power of hidden energy, one can, with wisdom, direct it toward meaningful goals.

The former Mashgiach of Yeshivas Ponivitch, Rav Yechezkel Levenstien, would act with tremendous strength, even though his physical makeup was frail and weak. When asked about this, he commented how he had learned from the Chinese, while staying in Shanghai during WWII, how it is possible to use extreme physical strength. The frail, old Chinese men would harness themselves and pull heavy wagons, the way horses would, using unusual amounts of strength. Rav Levenstien learnt from their ways and applied this to himself.

I myself once used this method to improve myself. I would always have tremendous difficulty staying up learning on the night of Shavuot, until once I stayed up the entire night on the phone, having a delightful conversation. After hanging up, I made note of my inner strength which enabled me to carry on – even with lack of sleep – when properly motivated.




Upon being commanded to build the Mishkan, the Jewish People – who just a short while before had been enslaved in Egypt, accustomed  to doing hard, physical labor – somehow did all the skilled work that would normally have required the most experienced artisans.  Where did this miraculous ability come from? We find, also, that the Torah uses the words “Chacham lev” – “of wise heart” – to describe those who built the Mishkan.  Isn’t intellect in the brain, not in the heart?


In the very last chapter of Orchot Tzaddikim we learn some interesting things about the human body: specifically, the brain and heart. The Hebrew word Melech (king) is a combination of the first letters (ראשי תיבות) of the Hebrew words mo’ach (brain), lev (heart) and kaved (liver). These specific body organs are also referred to in Judaism as the dwelling places for the neshama, ru’ach and nefesh. Kaved is the location of one’s nefesh. The nefesh represents bodily and material desires. The desire to “feel good” comes from the nefesh. The lev is ru’ach, which is one’s ego. This is the desire to “look good” in the eyes of others. Lastly, the mo’ach is the seat of one’s neshama: it’s a person’s innate desire to “do good.” The neshama is supposed to rule over the ru’ach and the nefesh. It is for this reason that the brain, containing the neshama, is in the skull – similar to the fortress of a king. By controlling one’s lev and kaved, a person will become worthy of the title Melech. Thus, it is possible for three people to do the same act, but each with different intentions. One’s intention is to feel good, another is preoccupied with looking good, and the third is simply trying to do good.


Interestingly, when you ask a person to point to himself, he points to his heart, the place of ruach – ego. He doesn’t point to his head or stomach. The German word “ich”, which means “me”, comes from the Latin word “Ego”. The place of one’s esteem is his heart, where one is conscious of himself. The Masters of Mussar (self introspection) write that if you take away all of a person’s honor, he will want to commit suicide. Conversely, positive self esteem, an internal reflection of a person’s confidence in his being capable, is a positive, vital life force. Thomas Edison explained that he invented the light bulb only after having experimented with hundreds of possibilities, failing time and again, until he met with success, at last. He must have needed a great deal of initiative and ambition in order to persist; but, beyond that, he needed to believe in himself.


The chachmei lev believed that if G-d had commanded the intricate building of the Mishkan, then, without a doubt, someone had to be capable of doing it. They knew that perhaps they would have to persist and keep trying again and again to reach their goal, but they had self-esteem and believed in themselves. That’s being smart at heart!


  Self-esteem is very important. A wise rabbi once pointed out that the first step of tikun hamidot –fixing bad habits – is recognizing your good ones. Looking solely at one’s faults will only rob him of his self-esteem. A healthy self esteem is needed to give oneself the energy needed for the long path to perfection.


While I was studying as a bachur in Jerusalem, I remember hearing that one of my colleagues, who was, at the time, 25, had not spoken lashon hora – gossip – from the age of 19. At the age of 19, he simply told his yetzer hara (evil inclination) that he would not speak gossip for the rest of his life! That takes a lot of positive chutzpah (i.e. high self-esteem). His old friends were shocked. “How could the same boy who, in elementary school, was the biggest trouble maker of the class, suddenly became so religious on us?”


I hope he keeps it up!




Shabbat Shalom, Yosef Farhi

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