Category Archives: TORAH TEACHINGS

Conquering Eretz Canaan … and Ourselves


I was riding on public transportation a few months ago when a young person, sporting a ponytail and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt peered over my shoulder at the sefer I was reading.  It was a copy of Mesilas Yesharim with an English translation.  I imagined that he would not give it a second glance, but to my surprise, his eyes lit up, he smiled broadly and asked me, “Is this the new one that’s just out. I read the first one and it was great.”  Before I could absorb his comment and respond, he got off.  His reaction aroused my curiosity.  I came to learn that the mussar movement has attracted adherents from unlikely quarters. They are young secular people, who, to their great credit, have apparently become disillusioned with relativistic morality. They appreciate a teaching that says that there is correct and inappropriate behavior. In a spiritually and morally challenged world they apparently have found the teachings of mussar to be comforting and inspiring.

However, the transformation even from a G-d fearing serious minded Jew to the tzaddik portrayed in the closing chapters of Mesilas Yesharim is quite a journey.  How much greater is the distance, we may imagine, for that young man and his colleagues. Yet, we have learned that our Torah is accessible to all who sincerely strive to attain it. We do not need to ascend to heaven or cross the seas to find it. Thus, such transformation must be both feasible and practical.  We therefore can ask ourselves, How does this journey begin?

An answer to this question can be found as a solution to a puzzling piece of Torah.  In this week’s parasha, when Hashem promised to drive out the nations that lived in Eretz Canaan, it says, “Hashem, your G-d will thrust these nations from before you little by little; you will not be able to annihilate them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase against you”(Devarim 7:22). Wouldn’t it have been better had Hashem driven them out all at once?  Wouldn’t it have been easier for Bnei Yisrael to have subdued the occasional wild animal that might have crossed their path rather then do battle with the well armed, well fortified military forces of a number of powerful enemy nations?

These lines of Torah can, perhaps, at one level be understood as a parable – a parable that explains just how we can begin to walk the path carved out by the great and profound teachings of mussar and chassidus.

Eretz Yisrael may be compared to the body which can either serve as a vessel for holiness or its opposite.  The connection between the land and the people can be seen in the word Yisrael, which refers to both and represents the spiritual DNA that makes up our personal and national characteristics.  The letters yud, shin, reish, alef and lamed which form the word “Yisrael” are an acronym for the names of the Avos and Imahos, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people: Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sara, Rivka, Rachel, Avraham and Laya whose positive middos, personality traits, were handed down to us as a spiritual legacy (according to the Ari HaKadosh, Likutei Torah, Kisvei Ari, parashas Vayishlach, d’h, Vayikra es shemo Yisrael). 

The powerful “nations of the land” who built fortified cities and established military forces are parallel to various forms of knowledge and information which could be used to construct a thriving beneficial civilization based on truth and justice or a corrupt society.  When the seven Canaanite nations who occupied the land chose to use their knowledge to live an immoral existence, those nations came to represent the seven kelipos, unholy husks, the negative counterparts of the seven positive spiritual attributes expressive of Hashem’s goodness and humanity’s true goal (Likutei Torah, Kisvei Ari, Parashas Devarim, d’h, Yesh Ladaas).  These are the middos of chessed, loving kindness for the sake of Heaven, gevura, directed holiness through discipline, tiferes, harmony through the Torah, netzach, eternal connection to the Creator’s will, hod, splendor in the service of Hashem, yesod, moral purity in righteousness and malchus, the power of royalty to orchestrate and combine them all.  These middos are hinted at in our daily prayer of Vayevareich David when we say, Lecha Hashem, “Onto you Hashem, we ascribe Hagedula (chessed), Vehagevura, Vehatiferes …”  Thus, in the hands  of the Canaanite nations, wisdom or knowledge became a vehicle for the pursuit of  amoral, unprincipled and unethical diversions.


The “beasts of the field” represent the baser emotions which will clamor for the fulfillment of personal desires at the expense of loftier goals unless they are properly channeled. These “beasts of the field” are ruled by the heart and lead one to self-serving, ego pleasing pleasure seeking.


When we enter the Land – meaning when we begin the process of transforming ourselves, we must confront two fierce adversaries which have to be subdued and controlled: One is the powerful, well fortified intellect which navigates through the world using verifiable scientific and sociological data and submits to society’s codes and mores in order to promote its survival. 

The other is the seat of equally powerful emotional drives which will urge us to bend or break the rules of society whenever they interfere with the fulfillment of personal pleasure. We can harness the intellect and the emotions and use them to aid us in the acquisition and perfection of the positive attributes that have been handed down to us, in potential, from our Avos and Imahos.  Indeed, it is the acquisition of the positive character traits of our Avos and Imahos that earns us the title of Bnei Yisrael.  In this process, we are able to affect the soul’s purpose on earth by allowing these lofty goals to guide our intellectual decisions and control our emotional responses so that we can achieve the proper service of Hashem. However, the self willed intellect and the exuberant emotions will not meekly yield to this yoke without a struggle.

It is to this struggle that our portion of Torah addresses itself. It teaches that the intellect set upon pursuing misdirected secular goals – the enemy nation – is not as harmful to us as the unbridled lower emotions – the wild beasts of the field. Importantly, it teaches that the mind, like the land, is never empty – it is either occupied by people or by wild animals – meaning by intellectual pursuits or emotional experiences. 

Thus, if in the conquest of our “land” we try to rid ourselves of non-beneficial pursuits before Torah driven values, ideas and activities have had a chance to increase, spread out and occupy our thinking, then the vacuum thus created, could, if we are not exceedingly careful, be filled by the “beasts of the field” – the lower passions and desires. Thus our Torah teaches that  “Hashem, your G-d, will thrust these nations from before you little by little; you will not be able to annihilate them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase against you.”


Growth in the service of Hashem is like climbing a ladder.   We must be realistic about our present level and not try to pretend to a righteousness that is not yet ours.  The transformation from secular ideologies and their corresponding lifestyles cannot occur all at once, but only “little by little.”  Just as a person cannot mature from infancy to adulthood in a brief period of time, so too we cannot instantly make drastic changes in our natures. The Torah, therefore, warns that this process of vanquishing inappropriate mindsets and lifestyles needs to take place little by little to give an opportunity for the Torah driven values that we have planted to grow and spread and keep the wild beasts of the field at bay.


By way of example, let us assume that someone has attended an inspiring mussar shiur and makes a decision to forgo reading novels and secular newspapers. For someone who has spent a great many evenings in those pursuits, this is quite a tall order. The person certainly means well, but does not yet have the training, the discipline or the motivation to dedicate those long evening hours exclusively to learning Torah, doing community work or engaging in other constructive activities.  That person might feel frustrated or anguished and could, at one extreme, decide that he or she is not capable of keeping to this newfound resolve and may let go even of spiritual levels that had already been achieved.

Therefore the Torah wisely informs us that if such a person sincerely wants to change these aspects of their lifestyle they might choose to begin by looking critically at what they read and by exchanging certain harmful and debased subject matter for that which is less so, all the while increasing slowly but surely their pursuit of a Torah directed lifestyle. 

As Torah values are put in place, unnecessary and unhealthy intellectual pursuits can be safely removed or transformed into useful ‘servants’ of the soul. Unrefined emotions will have no foothold because our neshama will have spread out, filling the potential vacuum with the glory of the Divine Radiance that is waiting to shine within all of us. This means that as we mature, develop and apply the attributes that are part of our inheritance from our Avos and the Imahos, then and only then will Hashem totally remove any connection with the lifestyle of the other nations.  Eventually through effort and sincerity we can reach the level of living life according to the will of and for the sake of the Creator alone. Hopefully, through this perception and approach to life’s challenges and most importantly with the help of Hashem, we will succeed in returning to our inheritance and living within its borders in peace and holiness soon in our days.

All articles appearing on this blog are copyrighted by Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin Falk. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share/download/copy this information as long as it is accompanied by the copyright. Separately authored/copyrighted materia


              Our dreams, hopes and deeply felt needs are directed privately and quietly throughout the day to the Creator as we communicate with Him -sharing our joys and travails, our hopes and disappointments – often without uttering a word. Instinctively we believe that some of those thoughts and feelings are best left unspoken. Yet, we are taught that our formal tefillos-prayers should be said at least loudly enough to be audible to our own ears. This halachic guideline directs us to verbally express the outpourings of our heartfelt prayers and suggests that we should be attentive to what we say. What is achieved through our audible prayer?

          The author of the sefer Noam Magidim asks why the halacha requires us to utter our tefillos audibly, when the Ari zal informed us that it is sincere inner intention of the mind and the yearnings of the heart that actually empower prayer? If in fact vocalizations are required in order to awaken awe and fear of G-d (Hashem) in the heart of the supplicant then surely, at least, the tzaddik, who always is properly focused, should not be required to utter his prayers aloud. The Noam Magidim explains that audible tefillah is a Divine decree (chok) hinted at in Torah reading (Parshas Chukas -19-1) where we are taught the procedure of  sprinkling the waters of the Parah Adumah:  ”Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon saying: This is the decree of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take…” That is to say even tzaddikim like Moshe and Aaron are commanded to speak – ie. – make their tefillos audible. The connection between tefillah and the halachas of the Parah Adumah possibly further suggests that even as the sprinkling of the waters of the Parah Adumah purifies the impure, so also does davening audibly “sprinkle”/anoint this world with the purifying holiness contained within our sincere words and expressions. We all appreciate how fresh flowers and spices have the power to fill their surroundings with their fragrant aroma and how revitalized and inspired we feel upon hearing joyous news or a sweet melody; even more so do our tefillos and brachos have the power to purify and enhance our surrounding as well as ourselves.

         In our efforts to understand the value of verbal prayer, it behooves us to look at another sphere of human endeavor that is credited with elevating the human spirit and that is music. Tefillah shares with music the quality that both were designed to bring joy and inspiration to the world through the means of sound. Of course music that remains in the mind of the composer is not accessible and can have no effect upon another, while prayer that remains unspoken can still have its intended benefits since the Hashem knows well what is within our hearts.  Nonetheless, a comparison between these two powerful forms of expression can be profitable.

Musicians who wish to bring to the listener’s ear those sound sequences that had previously been kept in the privacy of their minds and hearts must evoke the ideal sound that resides within their thoughts and feelings through the vibrations of key and string creating notes and cords.  It is only when the music is played aloud that the musicians can determine whether  the music they have intended and hoped to express was actually what emerged. They can then endeavor to refine the performance so that it comes as close as possible to the perfect synthesis of rhythm, melody and harmonic sound.

How much more so, when we audibly express our prayers, we gain an additional ability to assess and then enhance our efforts through now hearing our inner expression from a vantage point outside of ourselves. Our heartfelt, audible words of prayer and praise then resonant with the rest of creation adding its special uniqueness and value that each of us has been blessed with. May all our tefillos be accepted on High as a fragrant offering (rei’ach necho’ach) for Hashem.  

All articles appearing on this blog are copyrighted by Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin Falk. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share/download/copy this information as long as it is accompanied by the copyright. Separately authored/copyrighted materia

Of Giants Men and Grasshoppers

                     “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant

                                     from among the Nephilim; and it came to pass that in our eyes
      [we were] like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”  Bamidbar, 13:33


             The military reconnaissance of the Land presaged a battle that  appeared hopeless as it would pit  the weak and small  against the strong and mighty. The spies – meraglim – in  answering the questions posed to them upon their return, seemingly did no more than state the obvious danger;  yet we know that they committed a grave sin in so doing.  What can we learn from this tragic event in order to avoid the errors of the meraglim?
The first step is to understand the nature of their failing. The commentators acknowledge that the meraglim recognized  Hashem’s power but suggest that the spies thought that Hashem was going to limit Himself and act in accordance with nature and therefore B’nei Yisrael would be unable to triumph.
 Yehoshuah and Caleb, men of complete faith, demonstrated what it takes to remain men – anashim – even in the face of  vastly stronger and more powerful enemies. Yehoshua faced the distraught assembly that was weeping and entreating Moshe to return to Egypt and told them a simple but profound truth.  He did not deny the obvious size and strength of the giants, but exhorted that “If  Hashem is pleased with us then will He bring us into this land  and will give it to us . . . and you , you should not fear the people of the land for they are our bread; their protective shadow is departed from them as G-d is with us . . . “ (Bamidbar 14: 8-9).
           It all depends on the lens through which we view the test. The meraglim saw the inhabitants of the land as being too daunting and the land as being unconquerable, because they used their own personal discernment, Yehoshua and Calav viewed the inhabitants of the land through the lens of daas Torah and thus perceived them as presenting no meaningful obstacle.  
Unless a Jew sees himself as a representative of G-d who is All Powerful, he will see himself  not as a person facing his adversary, but rather as a “grasshopper” facing a “giant”. The way in which we perceive our relationship to  Hashem is the deciding factor in how we view ourselves.
 Referring to the spies’ encounter with the giants, the  Torah says “vanehi b’eineinu k’chagavim” and   “and in our  eyes [too] we were like grasshoppers.”  “Nehi” connotes weeping or crying and suggests a diminished, disheartened and despairing emotional state.  Although the  meraglim were initially described as ‘anashim’  righteous men — heads of the tribes of  Israel,  their lack of faith now surfaced transforming them from human beings into a more demeaning form of life.  
As is all too apparent from our experiences during this long difficult galus, if our belief in Hashem weakens, our Jewish self esteem is diminished undermining our ability to see and appreciate our unique mission in this world.
            The Kotzke Rebbe explains: The spies had no right to consider how the giants viewed them. As Jews and emissaries for the Jewish people, they should have thought only of their mission, not of what anyone else thought of them.   How many times do we become discouraged because of what we feel or perceive that other people think?
When, in that diminished psychological state, if we should be confronted by a difficult challenge, it takes on the hugeness of a giant in our eyes and as such has the power to discourage us from achieving our true potential and fulfilling our destiny. How can we overcome this challenge?
First we should realize that there is no barrier so  large or overwhelming that we cannot hurdle it,  if it is Hashem’s will  that we do so. The Maraglim saw themselves as grasshoppers. Why grasshoppers? Perhaps to teach us that every challenge gives us the opportunity to choose our direction and destiny in life. When threatened, the grasshopper can  jump away, as did the meraglim who counseled the nation to jump far away from their  “giant” challenges.  The grasshopper however has another option. It can leap over the barrier that lies before it.  When we take up a challenge for Hashem’s honor,  He will empower us to easily hurdle the barriers in our path.
The Torah is teaching a profound lesson in attitude and choice. Does challenge bring with it retreat and despair or does it elicit feelings of courage and optimism? It all depends on our connection to Hashem and His will.

All articles appearing on this blog are copyrighted by Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin Falk. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share/download/copy this information as long as it is accompanied by the copyright. Separately authored/copyrighted materia