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The Power of Words


Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Everybody has heard the old expression: “words can hurt.” In Judaism speech is considered very important. Our Torah begins with an account of G-d creating the world through His speech. By G-d’s speech our world is also continually sustained. One implication of being created in G-d’s image is that we have been endowed with the ability to speak. Our gift of speech is something that distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Our words could be used to build, but can also be used to destroy.

Parshas Tazria deals mainly with the laws concerning tzaaras. Tzaaras, often incorrectly translated as leprosy, was actually a spiritual affliction that was a Divine punishment for speaking lashon hara (literally, ‘evil tongue’). Lashon hara mainly refers to gossip. A victim of tzaaras was identified by a white spot on their skin. If two white hairs were within that spot of missing pigment a Kohen (priest of the Tabernacle) would pronounce that the person had tzaaras and the person would be exiled from the community for at least one week.

The only cure for the malady was sincere repentance. If after a week the person was cured he or she was allowed to return to society. However, there is a question as to why a person with tzaaras had to endure the shame of being exiled from the community. After all, it was a spiritual condition rather than a physical one and therefore there was no cause for concern that the disease would spread.

The Maharal of Prague explains that a person who speaks lashon hara undermines the peace of society and of the people living in the society. Therefore it is a fitting punishment that as a result of such unacceptable behavior a person be separated from the community and be forced to live alone.[1]

The Torah only legislates punishments which fit their respective crimes measure for measure. Just as lashon hara breeds separation and disunity between people, a person who spreads gossip must be separated from society until they have changed their ways.

The Talmud tells us that the sin of lashon hara is one that everyone of us commits daily. Luckily for us, no one is afflicted with tzaaras anymore. Nevertheless, lashon hara is still considered a grave sin. The Chofetz Chaim writes that the sin of lashon hara taints all of one’s mitzvos and good deeds done previously. The Torah describes tzaaras in great detail in order to teach us to be exceedingly careful with our words. Whenever we say an unkind thing about another we develop an ugly blotch of tzaaras on our souls. The malady of tzaaras was meant to train the Jewish people to guard their tongues. We must not only be careful not say unkind things about others, but we must also sincerely repent when we transgress. In many cases a person must beseech the person they have wronged with their speech for forgiveness.

We have all been a victim of gossip and rumors at some point in our lives. As many of us already know, even when the person who wronged us offers us a sincere apology the damage may linger much longer. A person can never put words they have spoken back in their mouth. As a result of lashon hara a person’s reputation may be left permanently ruined. This is why Jewish sources liken the sin of lashon hara to murder.

We would all do well to try to be a little more careful with our words. A great thing we can do is try to speak more words of kindness. The Talmud tells us that the Temple was destroyed as a punishment for baseless hatred between Jews. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that the Temple will be rebuilt on a foundation of baseless love. We can all do our part to foster unity and peace in the world by being careful with the words we speak. Through our efforts we will all merit the final redemption of the entire world.


[1] Studies in the Weekly Parsha Vayikra. Nachshone, Rabbi Y., 724

Torah Portion: Who are the Cherubim (Kerubim) or the winged statutes atop the Holy Ark?

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

I look for cracks, moments when the normative tradition allows in its midst a weed. The Cherubim are a crack in the normative tradition.  A pair of cherubim, with faces and wings, adorned the Ark of the Covenant – either atop the ark or standing in front of the ark, covering the ark with their golden wings.

And he [Bazelel] made two cherubim of gold: of beaten work made he them, at the two   ends of the ark-cover: one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of          one piece with the ark-cover made he the cherubim at the two ends thereof. And          the       cherubim spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with   their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover were the faces of the cherubim.  Exodus 37:7-9.

And in the Sanctuary he [King Solomon] made two cherubim of olive-wood, each ten       cubits high. And five cubits was the one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the other           wing of the cherub; from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the   other were ten             cubits. And the other cherub was ten cubits; both the cherubim were of      one measure and one form. The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so was it of          the other cherub. And he set the cherubim within the inner house; and the wings of the     cherubim were stretched forth, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall, and the      wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings touched one another in          the midst of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. I Kings 6: 23-28.

And,

The wings of these cherubim spread themselves forth twenty cubits; and they stood on     their feet, and their faces were inward.  II Chronicles 3:13

Making images of the Divine is forbidden.  This one of the Ten Commandments and a central tenant of Jewish tradition, it is against this backdrop that that golden calf becomes a terrible sin.  And yet the Cherubim stand in this most sacred space, the place from where God speaks.

And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover,        from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things            which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel. Exodus 25:22.

According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Cherubim faced each other when the Jews were obeying God, and faced away when the Jews were disobedient. Baba Betra 99a.  Yet, the text is clear that the Cherubim faced each other – why then is Talmud discussing their positioning?  Perhaps the Talmud is looking for an explanation for their existence, keenly aware that there is little explanation for such creatures in the Jewish tradition, and even a bit embarrassed by their presence. The Talmud, expresses its embarrassment by describing what the other thought of our Cherubim.

When the heathens entered the Temple and saw the Cherubim whose bodies were  intertwisted with one another, they carried them out and said: These Israelites, whose blessing is a blessing, and whose curse is a curse, occupy themselves with such things!  And immediately they despised them, as it is said: All that honored her, despised her, because they have seen her nakedness.

The Cherubim are our nakedness; a vulnerable moment – a moment that questions the very foundation of normative Judaism, where God has no face and no name; a crack in the holy of holies.  Perhaps, the sacred demands inconsistency and ambiguity even if might embarrass.

Torah Portion: A Time to Work and a Time to Rest

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Last week G-d instructed the Jewish people not to work on the Mishkan (Tabernacle) during Shabbat. G-d anticipated that the Jewish people in their anxiousness to repent for the sin of the Golden Calf might not wish to put aside their work on the Mishkan for Shabbat. Today everything that is considered prohibited ‘work’ on the Sabbath day stems from the 39 types of labor that went into constructing the Mishkan. This week, in Parshas Vayakheil, G-d again reminds the Jewish people to honor the Shabbat saying “You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day must be kept holy to you as a Sabbath of Sabbaths to G-d” (Exodus 35:2).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that while doing our weekday work we must be careful not to invest all of our energies. Our weekday work is indeed very important. During the week we earn a living and simultaneously refine the world and make it a home for G-d through our daily, mundane activities. However, we must not allow our weekday work to overtake our minds and hearts. Furthermore, our work must not be allowed to encroach on our set times for communal prayer, Torah study, charitable pursuits, educating our children, and so forth.[1] During the week, we use our creativity to perfect the world through all of our activities. However, on Shabbat we take time out from the pressures and concerns of the week to honor this special day by focusing more exclusively on holiness, family, and enjoying G-d’s creation rather than utilizing it for our own ends.

G-d was right in anticipating that the Jewish people may be hesitant to desist from work and honor the Shabbat. The Rebbe teaches that if we devote all of our energies to work, our weekday thoughts and worries will haunt us on Shabbat. It will then be very difficult to divorce ourselves from work.[2] Many people find refraining from work especially difficult because they cannot conceive of taking a break from the things in which they are so engaged.  On Shabbat we recognize that G-d runs the world and continually sustains it. By honoring the Shabbat we also testify that we have intrinsic value even when we are not working.

On Shabbat we do not abandon the world completely. In fact, we enjoy it and derive pleasure from it rather than make it bend to our will as we do during the week. Shabbat is a time of joy in which Jewish people laugh, drink, eat, and sing more than they do during the week. However, Me’am Lo’ez reminds us that “and the seventh day shall be holy to you,” is meant to teach that one who is so immersed in their work that they do not study Torah during the week must at least study on Shabbat.[3]

Many of us have productive and hectic schedules. It is understandable that the stresses of everyday life sometimes overwhelm us, but we must always strive to maintain a balance. Shabbat can give us that balanced perspective and bring a wonderful sense of holiness, peace, and tranquility into our lives. Shabbat Shalom!


[1] Torah Chumash Shemot The Book of Exodus. With commentary based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Kehot Publication Society, 71

[2] Ibid.

[3] Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, The Torah Anthology. Exodus-VII 10

Parsha Time: The Hidden Face of G-d

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

The question: “Why do bad things happen to good people, while many wicked people seem to prosper?” is one that has troubled philosophers and religions over the centuries. Questions about why the righteous suffer are understandable, but they are based on the assumption that what we see in our limited perception is the way things really are.

After the sin of the Golden Calf in Parshas Ki Sisa, G-d informed Moshe that His Divine Presence would not accompany the Jews into the land of Israel. Instead, an Angel would accompany us into the Holy Land. Moshe pleaded that G-d’s presence alone be the One to guide us, and his prayers were answered.

After successfully pleading with G-d not to destroy the Jewish people for creating the Golden Calf and convincing G-d to allow the Divine presence to travel with us into the Israel, Moshe decides to do something that seems totally in line with the trait of classical Jewish chutzpah. He makes a demand of G-d saying “Show me now Your Glory” (Exodus 33: 18).

The Talmud states that part of the reason for this demand was Moshe’s burning curiosity to know the answer to one of life’s greatest questions: ‘Why there are righteous people who suffer, and wicked people who seem to have it easy?’ Shortly thereafter, G-d tells Moshe “you will see My back, but My face may not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). This statement requires some explanation.

Our Sages debate whether or not G-d answered Moshe’s question – Rabbi Meir holding that He did not, while Rabbi Yehoshua holds He did. Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) suggests that the two Tannaic rabbis were not arguing, instead explaining that in the cryptic statement above, G-d was telling Moshe that no mortal human being can ever know who is righteous and who is wicked, or what is good and what is bad. In other words G-d did indeed answer Moshe, but He did not include a reason. In other words, while Moshe was asking why the righteous suffer and wicked earn reward, G-d was informing Moshe that as a human living in a physical body, Moshe’s perspective was limited. Therefore not even Moshe – a person to whom G-d revealed everything that can be revealed to a human being – can know when reward begins, punishment ends, or what righteous people of today were like in previous incarnations.[1]

Chasam Sofer teaches that the ‘face’ of G-d refers to what we experience as the events in our lives unfold.[2] A person never knows where events in the present will lead to in the future. We cannot judge the purpose of any given situation until after the fact. Only after all is said and done can we possibly understand why something happened in our own lives, and sometimes it is not until much time has passed. It is then that we see the ‘back’ of G-d so-to-speak, but His ‘face’ will always remain hidden to those whose souls remain in a physical body.

This idea is demonstrated quite clearly by the miracle of Purim which we will be celebrating next month. Purim is the only story in the Bible in which G-d is not explicitly mentioned. However, through a string of seemingly coincidental events we see G-d was indeed a character with an active role throughout. This is true in each and every one of our own lives. Everything that befalls us is Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence), or the product of G-d’s orchestration of the world. Furthermore nothing bad comes from G-d. If we truly understood why things happen the way they do from His perspective we would no longer see the bad. The challenge of life is to try to see G-d in all that befalls us and remain steadfast in our faith that all is for the best.


[1] Y. Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parshah. 583

[2] Ibid.

Parsha Time: Part 1 — Rabbi Berkman on working hard

To round up the week, Gather the Jews is posting three commentaries on this week’s Torah portion.  This is the first and is a continuation of Rabbi Berkman’s post earlier this week.

Rabbi Berkman is a rabbi for Mesorah DC and leads this weekly discussion of the Torah portion.

Blogn’ from the Beach

I just checked the weather. As I write this blog entry, it’s 21 degrees in D.C. I’m away in sunny Florida, it was 85 today. That’s probably enough food for thought to get you through the weekend, but let’s revisit our question of the week anyway.

We asked about the words and concept “Chacham Lev”- “wise of heart.” Wisdom usually refers to intellect, while the heart is a place of emotions and desires. What does the merger of the two ideas tell us?

Let me know what you think of this. We all know the type. The guy (or gal) for whom everything seems to come easily. Straight “A”s without even trying, constant promotions while putting little effort into his or her work. You know what I mean.

This person probably has some sort of natural talent that allows her to not work so hard. Maybe she was born smart and is really just more intellectually gifted than the rest of us. Good for he; we really should be happy for her.

Then there are the rest of us. Things may not always come so easily, and if we really want to accomplish something and to succeed, we have to work at it.  More than any natural gift, our success is a product of our desire to succeed. The more we want it, the harder we will try and the more likely we become to accomplish our goals.

Allow me to suggest that a “chacham lev” “wise of heart” is not a person who is naturally talented or someone who was born intellectually gifted. The Torah is telling us about the person who had to work hard to acquire the skill that he has. This is a person fitting to make the regal garments of the “kohain” in the tabernacle to be worn in the holiest of places at the holiest times.

Now let’s look at the rest of the passage: “speak to every wise of heart in whom I invested the spirit of wisdom.”  If they are already wise, born smart, why then would God need to provide any ‘spirit of wisdom’?

The Torah is teaching us an awesome lesson about the power of one’s desire and search for wisdom. God says: “speak every wise of heart”- all those who yearn for and desire true wisdom, because among them you will find “those with whom I have invested the spirit of wisdom.” If we truly want it, and honestly search for it, God will lead us, help us discover and bring true wisdom into our lives.

I’m typing outside today and should probably go in before I get sunburned.

Shabbat Shalom

Torah question of the week: wise of heart?

Rabbi Berkman is a rabbi for Mesorah DC and leads this weekly discussion of the Torah portion.

In case anyone is still a little groggy after a late Super Bowl night, here’s some food for thought to help wake you up and get your week started. Enjoy!

Wise of Heart?

This week’s Torah portion describes, in great detail, the regal garments that the Kohanim (priests) would wear to serve in the Tabernacle. A kohain in full uniform was certainly, and God willing, will certainly be a sight to see. Who made these unique and detailed garments?

God tells Moshe “speak to all those who are wise of heart,” telling him to employ the most skilled craftsmen to make the vestments. What jumps out at me are the words “wise of heart” or “chacham lev”. The word “wise” is usually an expression of intellect that belongs to the brain not the heart. The heart on the other hand is usually associated with emotions or feelings. What is the Torah expressing by combining the intellectual properties of wisdom with the emotional aspects of heart? What do the words “chacham lev” – “wise of heart” – mean to you?

Chew on it. Let me know what you think, and have a wonderful week!

Always Remember that the Best is Yet to Come

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Parshas Terumah details how the Mishkan (a sanctuary in which would G-d’s presence would be most felt on Earth) would be constructed and what materials were needed for its construction. The Torah tells us that shitim (cedar or acacia wood) would be needed for the beams of the Mishkan. Rashi tells us that the Jewish people had been already been carrying the wood with them in the desert when given this commandment. In other words, they brought the wood with them from Egypt. Rashi bases his interpretation on a Midrash that states that Yaakov brought trees from eretz Canaan (Israel) and planted them in Egypt after prophetically seeing that the Jewish people would one day use the wood of these trees in constructing the Mishkan. What was so special about these trees and why did Yaakov have to bring them from Israel? Moreover, why did the Jewish people have to use these specific trees and carry them into the desert?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that it is noteworthy that Rashi cites Midrash Tanchuma in his explanation. Rashi rarely cites his sources, expecting us to find them ourselves, but in this case he felt it necessary. The word, ‘tanchuma’ means comfort. Rashi therefore cites the title of this source in order to teach us that the trees were to serve as a reminder to the Jewish people living in the Egyptian golus (exile) that one day they would being going out from Egypt. Their unhappy situation was not going to last forever. The sight of the trees comforted them that one day they would be free and would use the trees for a holy purpose (building the Mishkan).

But why did the trees have to be from Israel? The answer is that Yaakov wanted trees that were totally uncorrupted by the golus. They had to be ‘rooted,’ so to speak, in the kedusha (holiness) of the land of Israel. Not only would the trees remind the Jewish people of better times to come, but they would remind them that the trees were implanted into the lowly golus from a higher place.

Finally, we see that Rashi refers to the shitimas ‘arazim’ (cedars). The Rebbe cites Keli Yakaras stating that tzaddikim (righteous people) are frequently likened to cedar trees because the trees stand tall and strong. Like the cedar trees, righteous people are uncorrupted by the golus. They have broken free from its snare and have risen above it. They are truly free.

In our own generation, the golus is overwhelming and it often seems like Moshiach (the final redemption in which G-d and his creation will be united in the most revealed way) is not coming anytime soon (G-d forbid!). The trees used in the Mishkan are not around to help us emotionally get through the spiritual trials and tribulations of our times. Instead, we must take comfort in our tzaddikim – the righteous Jewish leaders of the generation – by studying their Torah teachings and applying them to our lives. G-d mercifully plants tzaddikim into each generation. They tower above the golus and give us the strength to transcend it. Their encouragement will enable us to break free from our spiritually low situation, may it happen speedily and in our days!

Contested Parsing the Parsha: Identity, the Midwives, and the Burning Bush

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

A short meditation on identity in Parshat Shemot.

First, there are the midwives. The text tells us their names – Shifra and Puah, but the problem is that we do not know what to make of those names. They never appear again – their lineage is unknown. Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill Jewish boys as they are born. Heroically, they resist Pharaoh, protect their clients, and lie to the ruler. There is a debate as to their identity – the text refers to them as hameyaldot ha’ivriyot – a phrase that can be translated as either Jewish midwives or midwives to the Jews. According to Rashi, Shifra and Puah are Yochebad and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe – Jewish midwives. According to the Abarbenel, a contemporary of Rashi, Shifra and Puah are righteous Egyptian women – midwives to the Jews. Shamot 1:15

The subject of identity is also addressed when Moshe asks God at the burning bush, “And they [Jews] say to me what is his name, what shall I say to them?” God famously answers “I shall be what I shall be.” Ehyeh asher ehyeh. Exodus 3:14.

There are two main schools of thought on how this can be interpreted.

1) The Septuagint and Philo, influenced by Greek thought, interpreted this Hebrew phrase to mean “I am the BEING” or more simply “I am” God is existence.

2) Medieval Scholars, Rashi among them, understand this phrase not as a statement of God’s essential “being-ness” – but of God’s essential “doing-ness.” “I shall be with them during their troubles.” Buber captures a sense of doing-ness when he translates the phrase to mean “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every-time.”

Moshe, as evidenced in his question to God, is constantly concerned with identity. On his first encounter with the outside world, he immediately places all his allegiances with the Jews and kills an Egyptian overseer. He divides the world into who is his brother and who is not his brother – even though he has a foot in both cultures. One would expect him to have a more complicated view of Egyptians and Jews. Moshe wants to place God in that same paradigm – he wants to learn God’s name. God resists.

In contrast, the narrative gives the midwives specific names, but their names stand alone. They are ordinary women – it is their heroic actions that form their identity. They exceed their subject positions, moving beyond their names, to their actions, risking personal and national safety for justices.

I cannot help but wonder how the exodus story would have been different, if instead of Moshe, it was Shifra and Pauh who lead the Jews out of Egypt.

Rochel’s Self-Sacrifice and the Woman’s Role in Judaism

Editor’s Note:  This article is the first in a series of commentaries that GTJ will publish on this week’s Torah portion.  Stay tuned for the others.  Will Gotkin is a recent graduate graduated of The George Washington University and now studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will.

If you travel to Israel and visit Machpela (the gravesite of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Judaism) in Hebron, you would notice that Rochel’s grave is conspicuously missing.  Her gravesite is actually located in BeisLechem.  It might trouble you that she is not buried alongside Avraham, Sarah, Rivkah, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Rochel wanted it this way.

Early in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov asks his son, Yosef to take his body back to the land of Canaan to be buried alongside his forefathers in Machpela.  But Rochel was buried where she was so that she could help her descendants who in later times would pass by her grave on their way into Babylonian imposed exile.  She would then emerge from her grave, pray, and shed tears for the Jewish nation.   The Jewish people would experience redemption in the merit of her actions.[1]

By choosing to be there for her troubled descendants over the spiritual contentment and blissful reward of being buried alongside the founders of Judaism, she demonstrated an extremely high level of self-sacrifice.  The Babylonian exile was Divine punishment to the Jewish nation for going away from the path of Torah and yet she still gave up her own reward to give them comfort in their time of need.[2] Rochel embodies the qualities the Torah ascribes to the ideal Jewish woman and her exemplary conduct enables her to serve as a role model for all Jewish women in their service of Hashem.

Men and women have different roles to play in how they each serve the Creator. Yaakov’s burial in Machpela is symbolic of the very external and public way by which men serve G-d.  Men are expected to daven three times a day, study Torah, and do many other mitzvahs from which women are exempt.  Women on the other hand serve Hashem by not only giving physical life to the Jewish nation and being in charge of the house (often in addition to having a career outside the home), but by being the spiritual bedrock of the home and instilling a faith in Hashem and Torah in children.  It is for this reason that the Jewish soul and Judaism passes through the mother, while tribal affiliation i.e. Levi, Yehuda etc. (a more publicly recognizable quality) passes through the man.  While her role may not seem on the outside to be as glamorous or worthwhile, the woman’s service is in many ways higher than that of the man, because her actions do not usually get the praise they deserve.  Rochel eschewed the kavod (honor) of being buried at Machpela so that she could be there for her children. In the same way, a good mother sacrifices much there for her children. Rochel’s ability to sacrifice some of her own spiritual reward is a lesson for all of us that we must take some time out from our own divine service in order to bring others closer to Hashem.


[1]Rashi on Bereishis 48:7

[2]LikkuteiSichos: Lamed