On Shavuos, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth. The subtext of the story is how crucial it is to pursue a personal stake in Torah and to want to be a part of the Jewish people. The story concludes with the genealogy of Ruth’s descendants, culminating in David – and therefore Moshiach too, the ultimate dream of Jewish hope.

But the story is not a happy one. Boaz died the morning after he took her in, leaving her a pregnant widow. She never saw the happy ending; neither did Boaz or Naomi see the vindication of their actions. David’s rise was generations after they had passed.

The story is explicit that God’s justice is not simple or immediate, but calculated over centuries and generations.

The Chasam Sofer notes that the story of Cain and Abel is included in the Torah, right at the beginning, to teach precisely this lesson. God favoured Abel, and Cain murdered him out of jealousy. Yet Cain lived for a full life with countless descendants. Where is the justice? It is not just to say that justice was when they died in the Flood, so long afterward.

The story shows that justice is complicated. It is curious to note that the end of the book, the genealogy of Jewish hope springs from some bizarre circumstances.

Boaz, a member of the house of Yehuda was descended from Peretz, born of the mysterious story of Yehuda and Tamar. The Gemara says that he lost his free will when he approached the crossroads and spotted her.

Boaz fainted at the sight of Ruth in his bed chambers. Everyone castigated him, supporting Ploni Almoni’s arguments. The day after adjudicating Ruth’s case, he died, which could certainly be labeled as divine retribution by his critics.

Ruth was descended from Moav, born of incest between Lot and his daughters. The other child born of this was Amon, whose descendant married King Shlomo.

The story of David and Batsheva is one of the great mysteries in our tradition. She was married, and David orchestrated her husband’s death. The Gemara declares that whoever says David sinned is mistaken; but whoever says he didn’t is as well!

Moshiach rises through bizarre circumstances. Incest, prostitution, adultery, and promiscuity.

The world needs a Moshiach. Judaism believes in a World to Come, but it alone is not enough. Otherwise, we could each just take care of ourselves as hermits, and leave the world to be damned, and passively watch it burn and unravel. Judaism staunchly disavows this. Judaism affirms that this world is ours, and it needs repair. We must do what we can to make it a better place – and Moshiach will finish the job. He emerges out of the ashes of a world which has started to rebuild.

Receiving the Torah is the moment we were chosen to be charged with this responsibility.

Perhaps we read Ruth to remind ourselves that we may fade long before we see success. But success is not why we started. We persevere and endure, fortified with the knowledge that’s what right isn’t always what’s easy.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Growing up together, there was competition between Rachel and Leah, over which man each would marry. Years on, they clashed over whose tent Yakov was to sleep in one night:

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ, הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי, וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, לָכֵן יִשְׁכַּב עִמָּךְ הַלַּיְלָה, תַּחַת, דּוּדָאֵי בְנֵךְ. וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, בָּעֶרֶב, וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ בְּדוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא – In the days of the wheat harvest, Reuven went and found flowers in the field. He brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s flowers.” And Leah said to her, “Is it not enough that you took my husband, but now you also wish to take my son’s flowers?” So Rachel said, “Fine, he shall sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s flowers.” Yakov came from the field in the evening, and Leah went to meet him, and she said, “You shall be with me, because I have won you for my son’s flowers.” (30:14-16)

Immediately after this perplexing exchange, Rachel’s life changes forever:

וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-רָחֵל; וַיִּשְׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ אֱלֹהִים, וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת-רַחְמָהּ –  Hashem remembered Rachel, heard her, and opened her womb. (30:22)

She finally becomes a mother. Rashi explains that what Hashem “remembered” was Rachel’s kindness to Leah. The day Rachel was to be married, Yakov had given her a signal to confirm he had not been tricked. Had Leah not known them, she would have been humiliated. Rachel gave Leah the signal, condemning herself to not being with Yakov, playing a key role in ensuring that Lavan’s scheme was not discovered until it was too late.

But years had since passed since then – why remember Rachel’s kindness only now?

R’ Ezra Hartman explains that this episode contains an incredible principle about kindness. How could Leah so ironically accuse Rachel of taking her husband? Without the codes, Leah could not have married Yakov; Rachel was the sole reason that Leah was not discovered! So in fact, Leah had taken Rachel’s husband! Such a reply would have been utterly devastating.

But Rachel did not do that.

R’ Ezra Hartman explains that sometimes, people like to keep a record that they’ve done someone a favour, and now they’re owed something. Genuine kindness is not something you keep track of. In fact, it is possible to dress up the favour so the recipient is not even aware. Rachel mentioned the signal in passing, something like, “You should know that Yakov’s favourite thing is X and Y,”. Leah was completely oblivious to what Rachel had done for her.

Rachel did not say a word about what had happened years earlier, and just talked about the flowers. By holding her tongue, and declining the perfect opportunity to silence Leah forever, her silence was rewarded. It is specifically at this juncture that Hashem remembers Rachel’s incredible kindness. It had transformed.

It’s one thing to do a good deed. It’s another to do a good deed at personal expense. It’s a whole other dimension to do a good deed while suffering injury for it.

At one point in the wilderness, people went to Moshe, and lamented that they were impure at the time the Korban Pesach was offered, and wanted inclusion in the mitzvah. Their feedback was legitimate, and the law of Pesach Sheni was revealed.

Yet Korach too sought more inclusion – that everyone ought to have access to the holy service, not just the Kohanim. His demise was swift.

What is the difference between what they wanted if their complaint was essentially the same?

There is a concept that all negative characteristics have a positive application – for example, it is permitted to be jealous of a tzaddik or great scholar. Such jealousy can foster aspirations, that if realised, transform a person. This operates on the stepping-stone principle that מתוך שלו לשמה, בה לשמה – misdirected thought can nonetheless develop into legitimate action and intent.

However, there is a caveat to this rule. Not all misguided actions are reparable in the long term – one type of action will never become legitimate – argument. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:17 says כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקים. ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקים.
איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו – Any argument for the sake of Heaven, will endure in the end. One that is not for sake of Heaven, will not endure. What is the paradigm of an argument for the sake of heaven? Hillel and Shamai. What is the paradigm of an argument not the sake of Heaven? Korach and his congregation.

Is it simply that an argument in Torah will endure, and that politics will not?

R’ Yaakov Minkus explains that there is more to it than that. Adding the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni was not a problem – the Torah was not closed canon yet. Korach however, was looking to cause issues and rifts.

Hillel and Shamai were looking to build halachos, and build a system to live by. From one’s point of view, we understand the other better. We need both to build and consolidate. A losing argument is included in the Gemara because it is a valid view that aids in understanding the issue.

Not so with Korach. His arguments were not constructive at all. His claims and goals were literally baseless and without foundation – note how the ground on which he stood collapsed beneath him – he was not fighting for anything real. The same is certainly not true of the Pesach Sheni crowd – therein lies the difference.

The Mishna says as much too. The paradigm of an argument not for the sake of heaven is “Korach and his congregation.”. If the parallel to Hillel And Shamai were correct, it ought to have said “Korach and Moshe”. Korach wasn’t really fighting anyone at all – it was just about causing a stir and breaking down the system that existed.

This is what Rashi and the Targum mean – ויקח קרח – “And Korach took” – What did he take? Himself, to one side.

It was never about Moshe. It was about causing a stir. The Pesach Sheni people wanted to be close to God – the parallel to Korach’s falls away swiftly.

The Torah states in numerous places that upstanding societies are predicated on justice:

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ – You shall judge your fellow with righteousness (19:15)

Rashi notes that this is not just the approach for formal legal systems and executors of justice; this is how people ought to conduct themselves on an individual level too. The Gemara in Shabbos states that הדן חבירו לכף זכות, דנין אותו לזכות – one who judges their fellow favorably is judged favorably in return.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that when a person gets to Heaven, he is ushered into a courtroom, and is instructed to judge a case. The case is presented, the prosecution speaks, then the defense. The eager new-comer pounds the gavel and declares the defendant guilty. The angels pull him aside, and say, “Reb Yid, this case was actually about you. You are the defendant. Don’t you remember that time you…” He must then answer for all the times he was guilty.

R’ Yisroel Reisman points out that this is why we call this process דין וחשבן – a ruling and accounting. The ruling comes first.

R’ Reisman asks a poignant question – this mechanism will not work on people who already know this. When it is eventually and inescapably their turn to judge, will the people who know better declare everyone and everything innocent, and when informed that they are the defendants, will they feign surprise and be absolved?

The Beis HaLevi explains that the judgment in Heaven is not a new, independent decision.

The judgments we make in our lives will one day be applied to ourselves, and we will be held to the standards we expected of others. All a person truly is, is the decision they have made. Are we real? Do we match up to what we think we perceive to be in the mirror? When you judge another, you do not define them; you define yourself. If you are kind, you will be treated kindly. You project the values and beliefs you have, and one day, which will one day be shined on you.

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ is not exclusively about a court system. It is a way of life; a mentality. It is the way to create a community of fair, decent, and good people. Don’t treat people well based on their respective merit, or otherwise. Treat people well purely because you are someone who treats all people well.

We are charged with an eternal war against Amalek:

וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, מִלְחָמָה לה’, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר – And God said, “Because there is a hand upon the throne of God; Hashem’s war with Amalek spans all generations,”. (Shemos 17:15)

This prominent statement, the conclusion of Parashas Zachor, cries out profusely for elaboration. Rashi points out that the word used for throne in this verse, כס, has a different spelling to the usual כסא. In addition, the Name of God that is used in this pasuk is י-ה , which contains only half of the letters that comprise Hashem’s full and ineffable four-letter appellation. Rashi concludes that this is part of the Divine oath; that neither God’s Name nor His throne can be complete until Amalek’s name is eradicated.

The Maharal probes the unique essence of Amalek and why he is such a formidable opponent of God, Truth and Yisrael. The Maharal states that unlike other nations, Amalek is an incessant enemy of the Jews, who opposes them across the ages. Indeed, it was revealed in Sefer Bereishis, through the inability of Esav and Yaakov to reside in the same womb, that Amalek and the Jews are incompatible, diametrically opposing entities. If one rises, the other must fall. This conflict was glaringly illustrated when Amalek attacked the Jews as they came out of Mitzrayim. As Rashi comments, Amalek is even prepared to commit suicide if it will dampen the flames of Jewish inspiration. The Amalekim are the original suicide attackers.

It is surely a fundamental Torah precept that God is omnipotent and infinite; his completeness is independent and indestructible. Yet how exactly does Amalek cause Hashem’s Name to be rendered incomplete? Furthermore, how does Amalek seemingly dethrone Hashem? The imagery of the Midrash appears to be equally baffling.

The Maharal explains that Hashem’s name reflects absolute oneness. Indeed, we declare thrice daily the mantra, שמע ישראל ה אלוקינו ה אחד – Hashem’s Name is One. Now, oneness is harmony’s partner and is undermined by discord and disunity, which is exactly what Amalek stands for. Because a partnership between Yisrael and Amalek is impossible, division enters the universe.

This broken world now becomes a place where unity and the Divine Name are concealed since oneness is blurred by Amalek’s obfuscation. Of course, Hashem is impeccably One and is utterly unaffected; it is just that our perception of Him and His oneness is diminished by Amalek’s divisive influence. The word Amalek, which has the numerical value of ספק – meaning doubt, brings exactly that into our realm. Amalek’s existence causes us doubt to ourselves and our better judgment. What was once a clear and vivid appreciation of God’s uniqueness becomes fragile, fractured and belittled.

This also explains how Amalek limits God’s throne. The throne represents the concept of Malchus, Hashem’s undisputed kingship over the world and its inhabitants. This notion is also rooted in the idea of God’s oneness. Only when there is a unique and empowered monarch can true sovereignty reign supreme. That is the reason, writes the Maharal, why we say, ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד – “Praise the glory of His Kingdom for eternity” immediately following the declaration of unity, ה אחד in Shema. This demonstrates that God’s Kingdom is predicated on His uniqueness as king. Amalek’s splinters, contaminates and ultimately destroys the clarity of this recognition.

The task on Purim is the alchemist’s charge: to turn the turpitude of Amalek into religious gold. When we blur the distinction between Baruch Mordechai and Arur Haman, between good and evil, we revisit a world in which Amalek no longer dulls our senses and numbs our hearts. We catch a glimpse of the Source of all, the King of kings, Whose existence is unlike any other and Who lovingly awaits our reaching out Him.

On Parshas Shekalim, various shuls have a custom to insert Yotzros, additional prayers and piyutim into the Shabbos davening. A recurring chorus is the phrase “ אור פניך עלינו אדון נשא – ושקל אשא בבית נכון – ונשא” – “The light of Your face, shine on us please, our Master, because I will raise a shekel in your glorified house.”

The question is obvious – the Jews were only ever commanded to give מחצית השקל – a  half-shekel – how does the prayer parallel what actually transpired?

The Gemara in Brachos 20b tells us that the angels queried Hashem regarding a contradiction: it is written that: כִּי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱ־לֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד G-d does not show favour and does not accept bribes (Devarim 10:17), however, elsewhere (the bracha of Brichas Kohanim) it is written  יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם – “G-d will show you favor and give you peace” (Bamidbar 6:26).  Hashem answered them that  he must show favour to the Jews, because in the Torah it says that “וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ” – “you should eat and be satisfied and bless your G-d” (Devarim 8:10), and yet the Jews recite Birchas Hamazon after a much smaller amount (k’zayis/k’beitzah). If the Jews go lifnim m’shuras haDin – above and beyond the letter of the law, how could Hashem not reciprocate?

The general attitude of a G-d fearing Jew is to perform mitzvos with zeal, and exceed the requirements necessary, as essentially all mitzvos are not defined by a legal quantity. But an exception would be the mitzva of מחצית השקל, regarding which the pasuk says that a rich person may not exceed, and a poor person may not claim his poverty as impeding his ability. How would a Jew possibly go lifnim m’shuras haDin? Read Full Dvar Torah →