Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

A Tale of Two Anti-Semites

There are many hypotheses as to what causes people to voice their anti-Semitic feelings. One well-known theory is that so long as the Jews keep under the radar no one will bother them, but once they start raising their heads and becoming too successful, they have to be put in their place.

We see this to be somewhat true in this week’s Torah portion, Balak.

Balak, the king of Moab, became afraid of the Jews when he saw that they were becoming too successful at war, and he wanted to silence them. He was afraid to fight them by conventual means so he approached Balaam, a prophet, to curse the Jews. Balaam, who knew that G-d would not give him the power to curse the Jews, attempted to do so anyway. 

Why did Balaam want to curse the Jews instead of explaining to Balak why he could not do so?  

Let me ask you a question: Who is the bigger anti-Semite, Balak or Balaam?

On the one hand, Balak’s anti-Semitism could be explained. He was afraid that the Jews would become too strong. He hated them enough to not allow them to pass through his land; after all, “what will all my neighbors say” was a very scary thought for him. He was too scared to fight since he knew he would lose. So he ran to the prophet for spiritual help. 

On the other hand we have Balaam. His anti-Semitism was so strong that it made no sense at all. He hated the people of Israel just because he hated the people of Israel. It made no difference whether G-d would allow him to curse the people or not. All he knew was that there were Jews in this world and that he had to do whatever he could to rid the world of them. If not with might, then with words.

As much as we might not have liked Balak, who actively searched for a way to rid himself of the Jews, his anti-Semitism was somewhat tempered compared to Balaam’s, who did not look to kill the Jews, but once he was approached, did not leave a stone unturned. Interestingly, that is why once he tried to curse the Jews, he was only able to bless them! Not only that, it was from his mouth that prophesies about the coming of Moshiach is hinted at in the Torah!

From this account we learn that we have nothing to fear from even the worst anti-Semites, because it is from their mouths that G-d turns their curses into the greatest blessings for the Jews.  


Diverging Paths


There are times in life when we are not sure which path to take. Do we take the beaten path, the well-worn, well-tested path? Or do we go on our own, trying something new, something bold?

As I’m sure you are aware, there is a “kite war” being waged against Israel now from Gaza. This is a very low-tech war, yet causing devastating results. Over 6,000 acres of land and its trees and wildlife have been destroyed. The method of Hamas is new; they are not using the same old methods of launching missiles and rockets. What is the motivating force that makes them come up with new ideas?

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about Amalek, the sworn enemy of the Jews, who comes to attack the Jews yet again. The verse says that he heard that the Jews were traveling Derech Haetarim, the “way of the spies.” And so the Amalekites attacked.

This begs the question, Why is the fact that the Jews were traveling the “way of the spies” a reason to go to war? Their direction cannot just be a trivial fact, since the language in the verse makes it clear that their direction was the impetus for the attack.

“The way of the spies” was a route that had already been traveled, an easy path. Amalek saw a weakness within the Jews – an unwillingness to work hard, to push the limits – and hence, did not fear the Jews any longer and was not afraid to attack. 

Another translation of the Hebrew words Derech Haetarim is the “way of the Ark,” meaning that the Ark traveled with the Jews and paved the way for them. While Amalek and his warriors knew that G-d was with the Jews, and did not see any weakness in the Jews, nevertheless their hatred toward the Jews was so great that they were willing to put their lives on the line, and attacked with full force.

Here we see that when there is so much hatred, one finds new methods of attack—they were willing to put their lives on the line. They became irrational just to hurt their enemy.

The lesson for us must be to turn this on its head.

When we want to do good, how should we go about it? Do we take the easy route or that radical path?

We can take the path that was traveled before, do things that make sense, and take actions that were tested before, the safe and sound method. Or we can try to go beyond our comfort zones and do something that might make us a little uncomfortable; perhaps it might even demand of us to put our ego aside and be humbled a bit. Do a mitzvah that we might even consider a bit radical, simply because we haven’t done it before. That is what we would call “walking in the path of the Ark.”

Shabbat Shalom,      


Do You Like Confrontation?


No one likes confrontation. We don’t like to be confronted and, if I dare say, even those who confront. Such behavior might not be their “normal” modus operandi, but they may feel that they have been pushed into this type of act.

Not to justify such behavior, but let’s keep this in mind as a backdrop to Korach’s claim to Moses in this week’s Torah portion. Korach approached Moses and demanded to know, “Why is Aaron the High Priest? Are we not all a nation of priests?” What motivated Korach to suddenly confront Moses on this issue? This was not the first day that Aaron was the High Priest, so why then? What changed?

The lesson that the Jewish people learned after the episode of the spies was that “action is what counts.” The doing of the actual Mitzvah supersedes all else. It is not enough to sit and study, to meditate on the meaning of a mitzvah, if we are not going to fulfill the mitzvah itself. We must do it.

This is why Korach confronts Moses. If Judaism is all about “thought,” I can agree that Aaron is a holy man, a prophet, a peacemaker and a leader. However, if Judaism is all about “action,” why is one person’s act different than another’s? Shouldn’t we all be equal?

What Korach was missing was that of course it is the action that counts, but action cannot be void of intention. It must be intentional, and we need leaders to teach us how that should be done.

This idea, the importance of the thought process, is emphasized in a unique way, one that is specific to the Levi (Korach’s) tribe in their gift to the Kohen (Aaron’s family), mentioned later in the Torah portion. The Torah tells us that even if the Levi “thinks” of the gift, it becomes designated as the Kohen’s, without even saying so explicitly. This is very unique. Generally, we need an “action” at a minimum, to verbalize one’s intentions. Yet here we see that just thinking is enough to transform one’s grain from the Levi’s possession to the Kohen’s. 

The lesson for all of us is that we have the power to use our thoughts for good. Yes, it is our action that counts, but we are not limited to only our actions. Our thoughts too not only can, but do, have an impact on the world around us, to the extent that it can transform simple food into a gift to G-d.

This Shabbat is the twenty-fourth Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe had dedicated his life to teaching others how to change the world, how each one of us can make this world a better place. We all possess within ourselves the ability to make a difference in this world. When we “act Jewish” and “think Jewish,” we start to make a difference not only in our own life, but in the lives of those around us as well.

Shabbat Shalom,



Intentions That Matter


In this week’s Torah portion, we have the famous story of Moses sending twelve scouts to check out the Land of Israel and report back on the lay of the land of Israel. In his instructions to them, he asks them to bring back some samples of the “fruit of the land,” so that the Jews can see that it is a “blessed land.”

As the story goes on to tell us; ten of the spies turn out to be bad and try to convince the Jews to stay in the desert. While two of them, Joshua and Calev, try to persuade them to go on to the promised land. Reading in to the details, however we see that the “bad ten” actually “listen” to Moses and bring back the fruit of the land, while the “good guys” Joshua and Calev disobey the order and come back empty handed, without the fruit. Why didn’t they listen to Moses?

In Talmudic parlance we can argue that the command was not on each one of them to do themselves, as much as the job should get done, and since others were carrying the fruits they were exempt. However, after deeper analysis we most conclude that there is a reason why they did not want to participate in carrying the fruit.

In Judaism we often say that it is the action that counts. Yet the thought and speech that go into the action also matters. Actually, it matters a lot. To the point, that if we have the action with no intention, no thought, we are missing the point (though we still get credit for the action.) On the other hand, if we have the deepest concentration, meditate for hours, talk about our intentions but we don’t get to the action then we did nothing. Zero.

The mistake of the ten spies was that they thought that you can serve G-d with good intentions only. You can meditate on G-d’s greatness, you can serve him in a “desert” in a world void of action. Once we can make that mistake, Joshua and Calev were afraid that people can go to the opposite extreme and conclude that action itself is enough and we don’t need to think, “just carry the fruits as Moses commanded” that is why they specifically did not do so to demonstrate that intention is very important, knowing that the other ten spies had bad intentions.

If they carried the fruit, along with the others, than they would be showing that it didn’t matter what you thought as long as you acted according to the law. By not carrying with the others, they demonstrated that it is of outmost importance to have the right intention, yet at the same time it is the action that really counts.


When It Appears to be Monotonous

What drives a person to make a difference in life? Autonomous actions or monotonous actions? Seemingly, when we feel that we are not really making a difference in what we are doing, where there is no real feeling being invested, we have no drive to accomplish much.

That is why going back some years, about 3,330 years, to the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert, Aaron, the High Priest, was feeling down when the all the Tribe leaders brought their offerings and there was nothing monumental left for him to do. After all, Aaron was going to be the High Priest and what was his contribution to dedicate the Tabernacle?

G-d called out to him and said, “Don’t feel down; you will kindle the Menorah!” On the surface, this statement is of little comfort. The Tribe leaders brought the animals, but they didn’t actually slaughter them. That was Aaron’s job. So why didn’t G-d just say, “Yes, they brought the animals, but you will ‘slaughter’ them!” Why is kindling the Menorah of more significance than slaughtering the animals? In addition, the slaughtering of the animals is an objective action on Aaron’s part. He can do it right or do it wrong. When it comes to the kindling the Menorah, he can do nothing wrong, it was considered a “miraculous” act!

The Menorah itself was built by a miracle: Moses took a piece of gold, placed it in a fire, and out came a molded Menorah out of the one piece of gold. The flames themselves always miraculously faced in the same direction, regardless from where the priest lit the flames. Aaron knew this, and looked at this act as a monotonous, meaningless action.

Yet, this is specifically where G-d tells him he will find solace.

The moment Aaron was willing to do his part solely because G-d asked him to do so is the moment when he truly connected to G-d. This is when his “flame” ascended on high and connected to the One Above.

So to answer the question that we started off with: when do we make a difference in the world? When we do what is asked of us, not only when it feels good, but when it brings light into the world. When we do that properly, the flame becomes a miraculous light and it illuminates the world around us.

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