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  • The Spirit of Our People and The Crown of Torah

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    "And Israel encamped there before the mountain." (Shemot 19:2)

    "And Israel encamped- The singular denotes that they were united as one man with one heart." (Rashi)

    "Every single Jew has in his soul the soul of every single soul in Klal Yisrael. Since all of their souls are bound together, this one has a share in that and that one has a share in this." (Tomer Devorah)

    The most celebrated trial of the century was that of Otto Adolf Eichmann. On May 23, 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced to the world that Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann has been captured and would stand trial in Israel. Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler's "final solution of the Jewish question," was captured by Mossad and Shin Bet agents on the streets of Buenos Aires, where he had been living under the name of Ricardo Klement since 1952. The agents drugged Eichmann and he was flown out of Argentina disguised as an Israeli airline worker who had suffered head trauma in an accident. Three days later, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion announced that Eichmann was in Israeli custody, where then he was put on trial for genocide. The decision was made to film the trial for a worldwide TV audience.

    Eichmann's trial began in Jerusalem. It was the first trial to be televised in history. Eichmann faced 15 charges, including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and war crimes. He claimed he was just following orders, but the judges disagreed, finding him guilty on all counts on December 15 and sentencing him to die. On May 31, 1962, he was hanged near Tel Aviv.

    The identity of the executioner was kept secret for 30 years and was not revealed until the man retired. As a human-interest story, German television wanted to interview the man who actually pulled the lever and killed Eichmann. The German film crew traveled to Israel to interview the man. As it turned out he was an orthodox Jew of Yemenite descent.

    The man agreed under one condition - that they interview him at the Kolel - study hall where he was attending daily. The producer asked him why he wanted to be interviewed in a crowded room and not in a quite studio. He answered "I want the German people to see why we survived. I want the German people to see us learning Torah."

    Rabbi Matityahu Solomon asks that on Mincha of Yom Kippur there is a special Segulah of not losing, Chas V'shalom, children before the parents die. They have to shed a tear for the loss of the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, who died at an early age when they were consumed by fire at the altar. Why is this a concern on the day of judgment?

    We are embarking on the holiday of Shevuot and there are numerous points to keep in mind for our spiritual success in commemorating our Torah. Everyone is aware that the High Holiday period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a period of judgment (Din). However, not everyone is aware that the Ari z"l and the Shaloh HaKodesh write that there is judgment on Shavuot as well. The judgment of Shavuot affects each and every one of us. On Shavuot there is Heavenly Judgment that determines the degree of success each of us will have in pursuing our Torah studies during the coming year. Just as the amount of material sustenance each of us will receive for the next 12 months is determined on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, so to the amount of spiritual sustenance each of us will receive from our Torah study during the next twelve months is determined on the Day of the Giving of the Torah.

    We know how to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We know we are to pray, we know we are to do mitzvot. These things determine the nature of the Judgment we receive during the season of the Days of Awe. What are we supposed to do on Shavuot in order that the Almighty will say "If this is how he acts, then he deserves to be given a year of success in his learning endeavors?"

    We all know the story of Purim and how the wicked Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people. It says in Tractate Megila when Haman came to pick up Mordechai for the royal parade, he found Mordechai teaching Torah to children despite of the decree of annihilation. He was curious to know what they were learning. They answered the laws of sacrifices for the future when the Bet Hamikdash would be functioning. At that point in time Haman came to a startling realization, that the children's learning of the laws of korbanos-sacrifices would overwhelm his plotting to destroy the Jews. What was it that deflated Haman? What was it that made him realize that his plan was doomed? Haman expected them that they were planning their end. He thought they, if anything, would learn the laws of death or dying for G-d (Kiddush Hashem) but to find them learning about a Bet Hamikdash that didn't even exist yet and how they were anticipating the coming of it demonstrated to him their resilience and willful stubborn spirit. It was a spirit to exist and co-exist- a spirit that is nurtured by the Torah.

    The Holy Books say that a person's judgment in this matter is dependent on his desire (cheshek) to learn. The more he wants it, the more he shows the Master of the Universe somehow that this is important to him and he wants success in his learning endeavors, the more he will receive it. It is this "cheshek to learn" that determines the extent to which the Almighty will allot him success in learning and that is how he strengthens his spirit.
    This is what we have to demonstrate over the next few days leading up to Shavuot - our desire to learn! One develops a 'cheshek' if one comes to an appreciation of what Torah is and of how important Torah is to his life. Somehow, in these next few days, we must spend time thinking of the role Torah plays in our lives, the importance that it has. In this way, we can sincerely express to the G-d our desire to grow in learning.


    Study of Torah is a specific mitzvah in Deuteronomy 6:7 (which we recite daily in the Shema): "You shall teach them diligently to your children" - which directs us to transmit Torah to the next generation... "and you shall speak of them (words of Torah) while you sit at home, while you walk on the way, when you go to bed and when you get up" - which directs us to study the Torah ourselves. This need to devote ourselves to knowing the Torah, to work at it, to strive to comprehend it, to give it first priority - is repeated over and over again throughout the Bible. Our history demonstrates that the moment study of Torah is neglected, assimilation of the Jewish people into its surroundings makes its inroad. Without fail, every Jewish community in history that did not teach and study Torah as its first priority gradually disappeared from the scene. Beyond all the good, rational reasons, Torah is the mysterious bridge which connects the Jew and God, across which they interact and communicate, and by means of which God fulfills His covenant with His people to sustain them and protect them.

    It is therefore no surprise that Torah study is so central with us. It is the first blessing a newborn child receives: "May he grow up to Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds." The prayer book is filled with petitions to God to help us understand His Torah. No wonder Rebbe Akiva in the Talmud states that to expect a Jew to live without Torah is like expecting a fish to live without water. That's because the fact is that the Torah is the essence of the Jewish people, our very life and soul, and without it we literally have no existence. This explains why, in a traditional Jewish community, the one who is looked up to and most admired is the scholar of Torah - not the entertainer or the athlete.

    When we study Torah, we are not studying an abstract and arcane text of the ancient world. We are studying the way in which God wants us to live on this earth... (We) are in fact engaged in discovering the essence of Judaism, which is to say, the essence of ourselves.

    Rabbi Paysach Krohn asks a great question. Why did the Angel fight with Yaacov and not with Avraham and Yitzchak? Why did he pick on Yaacov? We know Avram represents kindness-chessed and Yitzchak represents sacrifice and prayer. Yaacov represents Torah. In essence the angel was saying they can do kindness as much as they want; they can pray all day. However, if I take away the Torah there is no future generations. Why should we shed a tear for Nadav an Avihu?

    Rabbi Matityahu Solomon quotes the Ponavitch Rav. Moshe said that Nadav and Avihu were greater than himself and Aharon. As great as they were, can one imagine how great they would have become? Can one imagine what Klal Yisrael would have looked like if for forty years they would have been taught by MOSHE, AHARON, NADAV, AND AVIHU! Can one conceptualize how they would have influenced Klal Yisrael? Furthermore, how much would our nation look like TODAY!

    Rabbi Ephraim Waxman expounds on the Tomer Devorah when it says, "Every single Jew has in his soul the soul of every single soul in Klal Yisrael. Since all of their souls are bound together, this one has a share in that and that one has a share in this." When one learns Torah, he lifts up every Jewish soul in Klal Yisrael that resides with in his Neshama. Even Jews that don't have an inkling that Torah exist benefit from your learning. The power of studying Torah not only transcends space, but it transcends time. One who learns G-d's Torah benefits generations before him and the generations before him learning Torah benefit him through the millennium. Inside our souls rest the souls of our fathers. We have the souls of Nadav and Avihu. In other words, every Jew is timeless and ageless and we all come together and are united through Torah. He explains this point from an interpretation of Kedusha that is recited by the Ashkenazim. "NEKADESH ET SHIMCHA BA'OLAM K'SHEM SHEHMAKDISHIM OTO" - "We, in this world, sanctifies your name through our learning Torah like your name is sanctified in the heavens by the Jews who perished and are by your side, our ancestors."

    In every generation there is that bad angel in one form or another who tries to deter or, at times, destroy us. Rabbi Matityahu Solomon relates an incident, when he was a boy, barely bar mitzvah, where his father one day brought home a 16-year-old refugee from Eastern Europe. It was soon after the war and many of these boys were shipped to England, broken, without families. "My father said to my mother 'Bring out to this boy a pack of cookies'. We were all taken aback, a pack of cookies back then was a big deal at the time. My father continued 'This boy was just tested by the Rosh Yeshiva-Head Master and incredibly, it became known to us that he memorized 200 daphim-pages of Gemarah while he was in the Concentration camp! The boy's father was a Rav in Eastern Europe and gave Daf Yomi classes and when he and his son were forced into the camps the father taught his son.'"

    Rabbi Solomon continues: "I thought, can one imagine the father and son in the barracks in the concentration camp huddled up in one corner afraid not to get caught and the father teaching the son. That is the desire one prays for on Shevuot. That is the spirit of our people. The son, now, will study Torah, unfortunately, without his father. But, in essence, they both will sanctify G-d's name, in this world and the Heavens, for they are part of a nation that has spirit!"

    Rabbi Avi Matmon

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  • Silence is Golden


     The princes of each tribe are identified in the census of the nation. But the lists are not identical, when they probably ought to be:

    לְגָד אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן דְּעוּאֵל – For Gad, Elyasaf, son of De’uel. (1:14)

    וּמַטֵּה גָּד וְנָשִׂיא לִבְנֵי גָד אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן רְעוּאֵל – The prince of the children of Gad was Elyasaf, son of Re’uel. (2:14)

    His fathers name has changed. Why?

    It is important to note that the names of the Nesi’im are not listed for historicity – all are written for deep rooted reasons – what follows is just one.

    The Chida explains that the tribe of Gad merited Moshe Rabeinu being buried in their portion, as they kept silent in the face of Reuven’s instructions. Reuven and Gad were encamped next to each other, and Reuven was “Rosh HaDegel” – leader of their formation, in charge of all camp movements. Reuven was a firstborn of Leah, as was Dan of Bilhah, and both tribes were “Rosh HaDegel”, whereas Gad, a firstborn Zilpah was overlooked. The tribe of Gad did not protest to Moshe that they weren’t given this privilege, and as such merited for Moshe buried in their portion.

    This trait is characterised in the saying of R’ Shimon Ben Gamliel in Pirkei Avos לא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה – I’ve not found anything better for the body than silence. Self sacrifice in the interest of the greater good was prevalent in Moshe’s personality too. Moshe is occasionally referred to as ריע א-ל – friend of G-d – the name of the ancestor of the Nasi of Gad – רְעוּאֵל.

    There is a story told about the Sdei Chemed, who was already known for his diligence and sharpness as a young man. There were two young men who attempted to get into the yeshiva he studied in, but were rejected. Feeling bitter, one of them hatched a plot to get back at the institution, by disgracing its star student, the Sdei Chemed. The Beis Midrash was prepared every morning by a local village lady. Knowing that the Sdei Chemed was there by sunrise every morning, the plotter offered her money to falsely accuse the Sdei Chemed of molesting her one morning. She flatly refused, insisting that she would lose her job and income. The plotter assured he’d hire her if she lost her job, to which she agreed. Word got out that the Sdei Chemed had “molested” this woman, and the whole town was in outrage and uproar.

    Knowing the Sdei Chemed’s character, the Rosh Yeshiva was adamant and refused to believe her, and she lost her job, and would hear no more of the matter. Not days after the incident, the plotter who had paid off the woman passed away. She saw the young man had gotten his come-uppance, and he had died without getting her anew job. Tearful and contrite, she approached the Sdei Chemed on his way home and begged forgiveness, and told him the truth of what had happened, and asked that he go to the Rosh Yeshivah and try to get her old job back. The Sdei Chemed accepted her apology on the spot; “I have no problem helping you get your old job back, I’ll sort that out. But I forbid you from disgracing the memory of the deceased by mentioning his involvement!”

    Chazal say המעביר על מדותיו, מעבירים לו כל פשעיו. Overlooking personal inconvenience to preserve what’s right is a phenomenally difficult thing to achieve, but its worth it.


    The agricultural aspects of the Chagim are often forgotten in today’s world of finance and commerce. People would plant their fields around Sukkos; cut the crops at Pesach; and leave them to dry until Shavuos, when they would gather in the yield – hence the alternative name for Shavuos, Chag Ha’Asif – the Chag of Gathering. The main feature of Shavuos was the Omer offering, where people would bring the first two bushels they harvested to Jerusalem.

    People nervously check their investments to see if they work out. It’s the same for crops, between planting and harvesting. Once cut, owners can be satisfied with the certainty of that year’s yield. Yet in Judaism, the freshly cut crops would be off limits until the Omer offering was brought. This then permitted consumption of the rest. Shmitta and Yovel govern land use so that people relinquish control and effective ownership of their land every few years, and the Omer serves a similar purpose.

    Typically, communal offerings consist of a single animal or unit, representing the united Jewish people. Why is the Omer made up of two portions?

    Rav Hirsch teaches how the laws regulating use of the Land of Israel instil a sense of gratitude and trust in a person. That little bit of doubt, that little bit of insecurity, are exactly the points at which a person can actionably show their dependence and gratitude for the blessings they have.

    When a communal offering has more than one unit, it is for the component parts of the Jewish people. There are two portions to the Omer offering to remind us that we cannot enjoy our blessings unless others are able to as well. It’s part of the trust and thanks we owe for what we have.

    We cannot say thank you for our blessings without sharing them as well.


    Midrashim are cryptic, and often misunderstood. They are metaphors, literary devices that encode how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.

    There is a Midrash that teaches that before Creation, God went to all the nations that would one day be and offered them the Torah. Each time the offer was made, all the nations inquired what they would be bound to do. All the nations, except the Jews, who accepted without knowing what it entailed.

    What is this Midrash about?

    The Midrash does not say the Jews would not care what was in it. If they had been asked, perhaps the response would have been about gossip, and the Torah would be declined! The Midrash does not mean that the Jews do not care about the pitfalls. R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationship. R’ Binyamin Finkel gives a simple analogy.

    If a broker you do not know calls, and gives a half hour window to make a large investment that he assures you would give large returns, there would be a lot of questions to ask. It is perfectly reasonable to want to know what you’re getting yourself into – the Midrash is not speaking of a deficiency in the nations for their questions. The questions are fair. “What would this agreement require from me?”

    Instead, consider that your parents, or in-laws, were the ones on the phone, offering a half hour window in which to join a venture of theirs. Undoubtedly there are risks, but with the love and trust of the relationship, there needn’t be any questions.

    This is what the Midrash is about. Whatever duties the Torah requires are worth taking on, because it is our Father offering the package.


    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.


    Shavuos is very different to the other Chagim.

    Each Chag celebrates something, but Shavuos does not explicitly recall a particular event; the Torah simply says that when the count from Pesach is complete, there is a Chag. There tends to be a specific thematic mitzva for each Chag, yet Shavuos has no such mitzva.

    The Chagim require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and each Jew who makes the journey must bring a sacrifice which can only be brought on the Chag. Yet Shavuos has a six-day window afterward in which people can still bring this offering. And unlike the other Chagim, the Jewish people had to prepare themsleves for three days before Sinai.

    Shavuos is clearly different, but why?

    The Chagim celebrate greatness and grandeur on God’s part. That He saved us; the He sheltered us; that He is particular in judgment; that He is benevolent in forgiveness. Shavuos is the exception, because it’s about us.

    Moshe emphasised that people can never deserve God’s love, it is always a gift:

    כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹקיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹקיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. He has selected you to be his chosen people from all nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; you’re not. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)

    It is not possible to earn something in a framework in which everything is from God. Yet God loved them all the same. Just like winning the lottery, we celebrate our good fortune. This is עצרת – “stopping” – to take stock of the monumental moment.

    The Torah calls Shavuos שבועותיכם – “your Shavuos”. The Torah does not call any other Chag “yours” – not סוכותיכם, nor פתחיכם. Shavuos is the Chag of the Jewish people. It is for us and about us. . There is no mitzva, because the Chag is marked by just being ourselves. There is no mitzva, as it would confine the expression of love to a particular thing. The relationship cannot be adequately expressed through a ritual act. We simply celebrate and enjoy ourselves.

    However, there is a caveat. To internalise what the Chag entails, it cannot simply be an experience. It demands an integral preparation that the others don’t; the three days of preparation. The six-day window afterward is the Char carried over to an ordinary, everyday life.

    Shavuos was not the day the Torah was given. That was on Yom Kippur, when Moshe came down the second time and told them they’d been forgiven. The Midrash says that Shavuos is when Moshe ascended, and was confronted by angels, who could not abide for the Torah to be given to man, or in their parlance, “one borne of a woman”, an epithet alluding to his mundane, material existence. But God told them all that the Torah was always meant for mankind.

    The speciality of Shavuos celebrates physicality because that is precisely what elevates the human being. We are holy because we are human, and our choices and achievements can mean something.

    The Kotzker said it best.

    God has plenty of holy angels. What He is after is holy people.


    The Torah never refers explicitly to Shavuos or Rosh Hashana by their primary themes of the Torah and the day of judgement. Why does the Torah overlook this?

    The Kli Yakar explains that the themes transcend a particular moment.

    Torah each day is a new experience, bringing fresh understanding and enhanced insights with it. The Torah is on offer every day, and we choose through our actions whether to accept or decline. Calling Shavuos “Torah Day” is a disservice to our responsibilities.

    Likewise, is described as the day to blow the Shofar, because our actions are under scrutiny every day. We are accountable always. Calling Rosh HaShana “Judgment Day” is a disservice to our accountability.

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  • Before His Suicide, The Wisest Jew of His Era Offered Three Life Altering Messages

    by Rabbi YY Jacobson

     Three Instructions

    He was one of the most brilliant men of the Tanach, and one of its most tragic personalities. In his prime time he was considered the greatest Jew of his era, yet he ended up killing himself. His final will to his children moments before he strangled himself is perplexing.

    Achitofel of the city of Giloh, lived in the times of King David. (We will explore his life shortly). Before he committed suicide, he imparted three instructions to his children.

    The Talmud relates the story:[1]

    תנו רבנן, שלשה דברים צוה אחיתופל את בניו: אל תהיו במחלוקת, ואל תמרדו במלכות בית דוד, ויום טוב של עצרת ברור - זרעו חטים.

    Our Rabbis have taught: Three things did Achitofel command his children before his passing: 1. Do not enter into quarrels. 2. Do not rebel against the sovereignty of David. 3. If the weather is clear on the holiday of Shavuot, plant wheat.

    We are struck by three obvious questions:

    1) The first and second pieces of advice are redundant. Surely if one avoids all quarrels, he will avoid rebellion against the kingship of David. Why would Achitofel repeat himself? And why is it considered a separate instruction from the first one?

    2) Achitofel was a brilliant man, the Tanach describes his advice as being Divine. He was considered the wisest man of his time. If these are his dying words surely they must contain his greatest and most profound insights gleaned from a lifetime rich in experience. What is the significance of these three ideas that warrant the fact that they are his last charge to his children? What is their underlying unifying theme? How do these three statements sum up his life?

    3) What does he mean, “If the weather on Shavous is clear, plant wheat?” Was this simple agricultural advice? If yes, what does it mean? And why did he decide to say it now moments before his death?

    For this, some historical background is necessary.

    Who Was Achitofel?

    Achitofel was born in the Judean town of Giloh, a small suburb of Jerusalem, and lived in the times of King David (David lived approximately from 1040 till 970 BCE). He was a man of phenomenal talent, a brilliant Torah Scholar, a world-class politician, a thinker and intellectual whose advice was sought after by the greatest men of his time, and ultimately, he was a king-maker. At a very young age Achitofel was already the president of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin (the Sanhedrin was the body of 70 Torah scholars responsible for the transmission of the Torah, and for the spiritual welfare of the people).[2] Even among those towering figures, Achitofel stood out.

    The Tanach itself testifies to his intellectual greatness with a compliment, unparalleled in all of scripture:

    And the counsel of Achitofel which he counseled in those days was as if a man inquired of the word of G-d, so was all the counsel of Achitofel.” (Samuel II 16:23).[3]

    Achitofel rose to become a man of immeasurable influence and power as the chief advisor of King David. In the book of Chronicles when all of King David’s staff and personnel are listed, only he is titled ‘yoetz hamelech,’ the king’s personal counsel.

    And Achitofel was the king's counselor, and Chushai the Archite was the king's friend.[4]

    Advisor Turned Traitor

    But from being David’s most trusted advisor and confidant, Achitofel turned into a traitor.

    This happened when Absalom (Avshalom), one of David’s most charismatic sons, begins a massive rebellion against his father. Absalom wanted to usurp the kingdom. Quickly, he gains much popular support and actually forces his father David to flee his own palace and his capital Jerusalem. Achitofel joins the rebellions son Absalom and becomes his number one advisor.

    What led a man like Achitofel to treachery? Why did he leave David, the man who gave him so much status and power?

    There are two possible answers. The Talmud suggests[5] that Achitofel felt that he was supposed to be the king. (After all, the king sought his counsel.) He was supporting Absalom because he was hoping that in the turmoil that inevitably would follow the coup, he would seize power for himself and become king.

    (In a sense, the Talmud says, his hunch was correct. But not for himself, rather for his grandson, Solomon, who would one day become the king.[6] Sometimes, people feel things, and they might be correct, but the timing is not right.)

    The Midrash gives a much more sinister motivation.[7] The Talmud states that Achitofel’s daughter was none other than David’s beloved wife Bat-Sheva. Bat-Sheva had been married to a warrior named Uriah the Chiti but David had Uriah sent to the front lines where he was killed in battle and then married Bat-Sheva himself, an act he never got over till the end of his life.

    David was reprimanded by the prophet Nosson for his actions, and spent the rest of his life repenting. “My sin stand before me constantly,” he says in Psalms 51. David fasted twenty-two years to gain atonement for this sin. But Achitofel never forgave him. Now he found his chance for revenge.[8]

    When David is fleeing Jerusalem from his son Absalom’s mutiny, he is more afraid of Achitofel than he is of Absalom. He prays to G-d to corrupt the advice of Achitofel. He does not just rely on prayer, he also sends his most devoted friend Chushai the Archite as a spy into Absalom’s camp just to ‘frustrate the counsel of Achitofel.’

    Two Articles of Advice

    Achitofel gives Absalom two pieces of strategic and shrewd advice:[9]

    The first was ingenious in its brutality. In the words of the Tanach: "Have intimate relations with your father's [David] concubines that he has left to keep the house; and all Israel will hear that you are abhorred by your father; then the hands of all that are with you will be strengthened.

    “And they spread for Absalom a tent upon the roof; and Absalom had relations with his father's concubines before the eyes of all Israel.”

    Until that point the supporters of Absalom worried that he might ultimately feel compassion for his father and back down from the revolt. While he might be forgiven by his father, they would not enjoy forgiveness and their fate would be destined to a tragic end. This act of publicly disgracing his father’s intimate life, made the break between David and Absalom irrevocable. It was an ugly and clever political move that proved in the most public way Absalom’s seriousness and intentions. After that, there was no turning back. Absalom was beyond the point of return. This would secure him the support of the people who craved David’s downfall.

    The second piece of advice was that Achitofel and 12,000 men would pursue David immediately as he and him men were exhausted from escaping Jerusalem. David’s men would escape, and Achitofel would kill David.

    “I will come upon him while he is weary and weak-handed, and I will startle him: and all the people that are with him will flee, and I will smite the king alone.”

    Absalom likes the sound of this, but decides to get Chushai’s take on it before making an ultimate decision. Chushai, David’s loyal friend who was sent by David as a spy to try to foil the plots, knows that Achitofel is right, so he suggests the exact opposite: He plays on Absalom’s arrogance and confidence in his popularity, suggesting that Absalom gather a massive army “from Dan in the north, until Be’er Sheva in the south” and together to march on David’s soldiers slowly and methodically. Absalom accepts Chushai’s advice. This gives David time to reorganize himself and his people. David’s life is saved. Absalom is killed. David returns to the throne.

    A Tragic End

    Achitofel, with his infallible political acumen, is certain that by failing to follow his advice Absalom is destroying himself and his kingship. David would prevail and Achitoful would be killed. He therefore turns to his last resort: Suicide.

    “And Achitofel saw that his counsel was not done, and he saddled his donkey, and he arose, and he went to his house, to his city, and he gave charge to his household and he strangled himself, and he died, and was buried in the sephulcre of his father.”

    Achitofel’s suicide was not the frenzied and blind madness of a sudden attack of despair, rather it was calculated, methodical, patient and deliberate. The Tanach states clearly that “he gave charge to his household.”

    But what did he tell them?

    As we recall, the Talmud states that Achetofel told them three things: 1. Do not enter into quarrels. 2. Do not rebel against the sovereignty of David. 3. If the weather is clear on the holiday of Shavuot, plant wheat.

    Now that we have the context, his second command ‘Do not rebel against the Kingdom of David’ is well understood: Achitofel is regretting his part in the rebellion. But our other questions still remain: What is the underlying thread in his three statements? Why the redundancy? What does he mean when he says, “If the weather is clear on Shavuos, plant wheat?’” Why did he choose these three statements as his final message before dying?

    In the midst of the uproar of civil war, seconds before he strangles himself, Achitofel has nothing better to say than a farming tip about planting wheat? Is this the final message coming from the most brilliant man of his day, whose advice was seen as second to G-d?

    Three Arenas of Human Ambition

    There are three arenas of human ambition. There are three fields that man sees as truly valuable and worth devoting his life to. All of our goals and dreams can be placed in one of these categories. In the words of our Sages in Ethics of the Fathers, they are the ‘three crowns’ that every man seeks to obtain and be crowned by.[10]

    1) Knowledge, wisdom, study, academia, discovery, and information. This is called the “crown of Torah.”

    2) Spirituality, service, dedication, self-improvement, refinement, personal growth, deep connection to G-d and to the higher consciousness. This is called “the crown of Priesthood,” as the priests represented service.

    3) Leadership, influence, power. This is called “the crown of royalty.”

    Two Roads

    These are the three destinations. But there are two paths, two roads that lead there. These two roads are very different. They are two approaches how one chooses to live his or her life.

    One path is based exclusively on my own intellect and my own instincts and feelings. The axis and basis upon which all is founded is my own mind and heart. First I will explore, then if I am satisfied, I will commit. And then if I am disenchanted, I will simply un-commit, and continue searching. In this philosophy, the final decider is always my own mind, my own subjective self. I determine what is true, what is false; what is good and what is evil.

    Another approach is one in which one sees himself or herself as a carrier and an ambassador of truths and tradition which transcend his or her own identity. The bedrock of this person’s philosophy is surrender to a greater truth, to values and standards that are beyond and before me. Only after this, will I begin my own investigation and search.

    While the first person asks “What do I ask of life?” the second person asks “what does life ask of me?”

    Achitofel’s Great Realization

    Achitofel lived his entire life based on the first path. He always acted in the way he saw and understood best. Never did he surrender his mind to a greater truth.[11] Never did he say ‘I don’t understand but I will do it anyway.’ Theoretically, it is a path that can work, yet now, on his death bed, as his entire life passed before his mind’s eye, he is telling his children that he has erred and that they not learn from his mistake.[12]

    In the words of the Ethics of our Father: “One whose fear of sin takes precedence to his wisdom, his wisdom endures. However, one whose wisdom takes precedence to his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure.”[13]

    Why? Because In life, you must search, ask, inquire, seek, and yearn to understand, internalize and experience. Yet if your own identity remains the exclusive barometer of right and wrong, of good and evil, of happiness and sadness, you may end up in the gutter. Even the greatest and most fertile mind can be bios and self destructive. Only when your self-expression is founded on the foundations of absolute truths which transcend you, will you be certain that your own search will be expansive and successful and will bring you to great places.

    Saying, "I won't do it until I fully understand" is like refusing to take the medicine the doctor has prescribed until you understand exactly how antibiotics are made and how they neutralize bacteria, or refusing to breathe until you've studied how the lungs function and why your body requires oxygen. Once you know the doctor is trustworthy and knowledgeable, you take his prescription even if you don’t understand how and why, and even if you are not in the mood of it. In life too, once you can appreciate that the Creator of the universe who loves you unconditionally and wants you to be the happiest and the most fulfilled human being possible has granted you His prescription for your life, you embrace it, even if at the moment you don’t understand the reasons and benefits.

    This, then, was Achitofel’s mistake. On his deathbed he tried to correct it for his children’s sake. He told them three things, corresponding the “three crowns”—the crown of wisdom, priesthood and royalty.

    Wisdom Follows Humility

    Let’s begin with the third:

    “If the weather is clear on Shavous, plant wheat.” This was his inimitable way of saying that the truest and profoundest wisdom is that wisdom which is founded on the acceptance of the source of all wisdom.

    “If the weather is clear on Shavous, plant wheat.” Wheat is distinguished as human food, as opposed to barley which is considered animal fodder.[14] The human being is distinguished over the rest of the animal world only by virtue of his intellectual capacity. Hence, wheat is symbolic of the intellect. The Tree of Knowledge was, according to one opinion in the Talmud, a stalk of wheat (no, not an apple). That is why it is called the Tree of Knowledge, because a child’s mind develops enough to say ‘father’ only after eating grain.[15] (The Hebrew word for wheat, Chitah, has the numerical value of 22, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Torah.)

    So Achetofel was telling his children: “If the weather is clear on Shavous, plant wheat.” Only if the Shavuos energy is sparkling clear, will your wheat grow well.

    What happened on Shavuos? It was not that the Jewish people received the Torah at that time; the wisdom and ideas of Torah were studied by the Patriarchs and generations of Jews before Sinai.[16] What occurred at Sinai was that the Jewish people embraced the yoke of Torah; they entered into a covenant with the Almighty and they committed themselves to the Torah.

    So Achetofel said, if you want your wheat to grow well, if you want your philosophies and value systems to persevere, make sure “your Shavuos is clear,” your commitment to Torah is unshakeable. Only then will your wheat grow tall and satiating.

    If the mind is left to own devices, it can come up with the most perverted and grotesque ideas, all justified in the name of rationality. Only a mind which is built on the foundations of Divine truth, is protected from developing insanely immoral ideas and is capable of reaching tremendous heights. (Of course, conversely, a mind that does not seek and question and trusts any “doctor,” even if the doctor may be a killer, will damage himself and others. This is what some religion shave produces over our bloody history).

    The Path to Royalty

    Achetofel addressed also the “crown of royalty.” ‘Do not rebel against the Kingdom of David.” Here too he was addressing two paths of leadership. Achesofel throughout his life believed that the primary quality of a leader is his confidence in his own skills and decisions. David believed that although a leader must possess much confidence, the primary trait of a leader must be his absolute humility and submission to a higher cause.

    This was the paradox of David. He was a fearless warrior, yet when we read the book of Psalms, we observe his profound vulnerability and humility.

    “I am a worm and not a man; a reproach of man, despised by peoples. All who see me will mock me; they will open their lips, they will shake their head.” (Psalms 22:7-8)

    In David’s mind, the power of the king stemmed from his powerlessness. It was not his ego which conferred so much power on him, but rather his complete submission to G-d and to his people which granted him the power. That is why David completes his life on the holiday of Shavuot, the day of commitment and surrender.

    That is what made David unique. Saul sinned and David sinned. Saul lost his kingship, not David. Why? Saul justified his actions. David immediately acknowledged his error and did not stop repenting. His readiness to be vulnerable and accountable—just like his great grandfather Judah who immediately confessed publically that it was he who cohabited with Tamar—is what made him most worthy of the mantle of royalty.

    At his deathbed, Achetofel finally embraced the path of David. He realized that when a king, a president, a leader is arrogant, he can become a very dangerous man.[17]

    The Path to Spirituality

    He also advised them in the area of service, “the crown of priesthood.” “Do not enter a quarrel.”

    Achetofel, during his lifetime, believed that the path to spiritual refinement and transcendence needed to be paved exclusively by a person’s own ideas and feelings. You define your own spirituality.

    Yet at is his death bed he proclaimed: “do not enter a quarrel.” The Talmud states that the origin of all quarrels was the rebellion of Korach against Moses and Aaron. Korach had a valid and rational claim: “The entire nation is equally holy, and G-d dwells amongst them, so why do you Moses and Aaron, take positions of power and spiritual leadership?”

    Logically, Korach had a point. There was only one flaw in his argument: G-d said otherwise. Serving G-d must be about G-d, not about me. If I want to touch G-d, I need to surrender my own conception of spirituality and sublimity to G-d’s will.

    But that was the something that Korach, like Achitofel, could not accept. On his deathbed, he tells his children, do not engage in quarrel. In the arena of service too, you must surrender your sense of egotism. A spiritual ego is still an ego.

    This was Achetofel’s great message: Let your creativity soar, your mind blossom, and your individuality shine. But if you wish to truly become a great person, ensure that it is all founded on the absolute principles of Divine ethics and morality, then they will serve as the permanent “light houses” which ensure that the ship does not get lost in the endless tumultuous waters of the ocean.

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    (This essay is based on a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe from the eve of Shavuos 1949, published in Igros Kodesh vol. 3, p. 490).

    To comment on this essay, please click here.

    [1] Bava Basra 147a

    [2] According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 69b, 106b) Achitofel died at the age of 33. In those times, people married and had children very early.

    [3] If you notice in the verse, the word ish is actually missing from the written text (kesiv) and only inserted by the Masoretic tradition (kri.) Radak explains that this is telling us that asking Achitofel advice was not like seeking human wisdom but actually it was the equivalent of seeking Divine wisdom!)

    [4] Chronicles I 27:33

    [5] Sanhedrin 101b

    [6] Sanhedrin ibid.

    [7] Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel 151. Cf. Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160 – 1235).

    [8] This also explains why Achitofel wanted to kill David himself as he describes in Chapter Samuel II 17, 1-4.

    [9] Samuel II ch. 16-17

    [10] Ethics 4:13

    [11] See Tosefos Chagigah 15b. Rashbam Bava Basra 147a.

    [12] See Rashbam Bava Basra 147a

    [13] Ethics 3:9

    [14] Talmud Pesachim 3b

    [15] Berachos 40a

    [16] See Talmud Yuma 28a

    [17] See Yuma 22b


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