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Basic Instinct – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

TorahScrollNo, this is not a movie review and, no, I don’t think I ever saw it either!

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, does challenge us to contemplate: What are our basic instincts as Jews?

Moses presents the Torah to the Jewish people who famously respond with the words “ naseh v’nishma,”  “we will do, then we will listen.”  Seemingly we are pledging that we first accept the Torah unconditionally, no matter what may be written within.  After making that commitment we are ready to hear the Torah’s content.   A quite noble statement, but is that what the words really mean?

Taking the words literally, how exactly is it possible to do anything before first knowing what to do?  Before beginning any task, we have to at least know what the task is.  If not where would we start?  This is really what our words as a people are: “We will do, then, we will listen.”  We seem positioned ready to act.  How, if we don’t know yet what to do?

Let’s examine basic, natural human instincts.  When a person feels hunger, thirst, or really any desire, does the person first think “I need to eat” then begin a thought process of what to eat, when to eat, do I need hot sauce?  What really happens is that, first, we instinctively feel hungry or thirsty.  Only then does our thought process begin for “how will I fulfill my need?”  The actual hunger pang is a natural instinctual occurrence by which our bodies tell us it is time to eat.  We see that the process of eating really begins well before we intellectually think about the fact that we are hungry.

Upon receiving the Torah, we as Jews not only committed to unconditionally accept its priceless lessons, but we pledged to weave the Torah into the very fabric of our being.   Living by the Torah’s word became a very basic instinct of the Jewish people.

Just as we feel a pang of hunger or a sudden thirst, if we listen closely, we can also hear the calling of our souls telling us that our spiritual needs cannot be forgotten.

Something to ponder.  Shabbat Shalom!

What in the World is That Noise? – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

EPSON scanner imageAn unassuming villager, who had never before seen or even heard of a train, once wandered out of town all the way to the edge of a large city.  In the village, people traveled on donkeys, and farmers used cows to plow their fields.  The very idea of large machines for transport or work was absolutely foreign.

As the villager came close to the city, he came across long rows of steel rods.  He couldn’t see the beginning nor the end of the rows.  Even more strange,  every couple of fee, there were these boards laying across the steel rods with these hug nails stuck into them.

The fellow stood for a moment to ponder his discovery, then, being tired from his journey, he decided to take a brief rest on these boards before returning home.  The man fell asleep.

After a short while a train was coming down the tracks.  As the train approached, the conductor noticed a person resting on the tracks and began to send warning signals.  He blew his whistle, rang his bell, and sounded any alarm he could possibly reach.  Finally, all the noise awoke the poor villager who was now perplexed as to where all of these sounds were coming from.  “Bells, whistles” he thought, “it sounds like a band.”  Then the man looked up and saw lots of lights coming at him from a distance.  The whole scene reminded the fellow of the village band and the special carriage used to escort a bride and groom on their wedding day.  “There must be a wedding coming my way” and our villager friend stood up and began to dance in the middle of the tracks.
Imagine the thoughts of a bystander watching the scene: Is this guy deaf?  Maybe he can’t hear the train coming his way?  The truth, is that he heard very well, he just didn’t know what he was listening too!

This week’s Torah portion tells us that Yitro heard all that happened to the Jews as they were leaving Egypt.  He was so inspired that he came to join the nation.  Why do we have to be told that Yitro heard?  He was not the only one that heard, in fact the whole world heard.  Yitro was just the only one who reacted.  Why?

The Torah is teaching us that even though the whole world heard about the miracles that had occurred, Yitro was the only person who was impacted because he was the only one listening and open to what he was hearing.  Yitro was a seeker of truth and when he heard it, he internalized the message and responded accordingly.

What a powerful message.  Every day of our lives we encounter “messages.”  God is constantly involved in our lives, and sometimes makes it loud and clear.  Sometimes the bells and whistles are even sounded.  Often though, we don’t even realize.  We go on with our lives as if nothing had happened at all.

The messages are loud and clear.  The question is: are we listening?

Navigating by Moonlight – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

moonlightThere is always a light at the end of the tunnel, just sometimes the tunnel seems to extend miles and miles.  The sun will come up tomorrow (bet your bottom dollar), but sometimes tomorrow fells much more than a day away.  Often when we find ourselves in the darkest most difficult moments of life we feel hopeless and as if there is no way out of our pressing situation.  The Torah, however, teaches us that it is that very feeling of despair that allows us hope for better times ahead.

In this weeks parsha, Bo, we as Jews are given our first mitzvah (commandment) as a people.  What is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people you may ask.  So many to choose from: Shabbat, Kosher?  Nope, the first Mitzvah the Torah commands us of is that of Rosh Chodesh: to bless each new month.

What is it that makes this mitzvah so significant that it should be our first charge?

The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, each month beginning with the new cycle of the moon.  Our story as a people is also compared to the cycle of the moon.  Towards the end of each month the moon’s light diminishes more and more until, in the final days, hardly a glimmer of light can be seen.  But just as much as that darkness is a sign of the end of a month, it is also a sign that a new month is about to begin.

So is the history of the Jews.  We have experienced many dark moments.  Each of those moments, though, also produces a glimmer of hope for brighter days in the future.  It is this message that in many ways defines us as Jews.  Therefore, God sees fit that our first mitzvah should be one that teaches the lesson of how to navigate life and live all the others.  Persevere and never give up because brighter days do lie ahead.

Hear Rabbi T’s Take on Beginning Anew…

Now that the High Holidays are over, we go back to the start of the Bible, the first chapters of Genesis.

Want an interpretation of  what happened “in the beginning?” Listen to this interpretation of the week’s parsha by Rabbi Teitelbaum of Mesorah DC.

 

(Bereishis from vitaly on Vimeo.)

For an archive of previous weekly portions, see Rabbi T’s video archive here.

Want to hear Rabbi T in person? Come to Mesorah DC services at Sixth & I, followed by a “Shabbat International” Dinner, on Friday, November 4th.

Wholehearted Devotion

Tis the season for…repentance. That doesn’t exactly make for a great Hallmark Greeting card, but this past week we finally entered the auspicious month of Elul. This is a time of serious reflection and spiritual stock-taking. During this month we prepare for Rosh Hashana, the day on which we crown G-d as our king anew each year. During the month of Elul, we analyze our deeds of the past year. We reflect back on the mitzvahs we have done, recall our misdeeds, and resolve to improve in areas in which we are lacking. It is not a time for anxiety or depression (G-d forbid!), but rather one of somber introspection.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, G-d tells the Jewish people that they should appoint a Jewish king after they conquer the land of Israel, saying “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom the L-rd, your G-d, shall choose…”(Devarim/Deuteronomy 17:15). Yet later in Jewish history, when the Jewish people ask the prophet, Samuel, to appoint a Jewish king over them he is displeased with their request, (I Samuel 8:6). G-d too isn’t pleased, going as far as to say, “They have rejected me.”[1] This raises an obvious question. If appointing a Jewish king is not only a not a bad thing to do, but an actual mitzvah commanded in the Torah, why were G-d and his prophet, Samuel so bummed out about the Jewish people’s desire for a king?

Chassidus explains that ideally a Jew’s natural fear of G-d would be so strong that an earthly king would be unnecessary. If we were to operate at such a level, we would not need anyone but G-d alone to rule over us. There are two levels of fear or awe of G-d. The lowest level is a basic fear of being punished. The higher level is a desire to serve G-d that comes from a sense of His awe and majesty. However, the Jewish people requested a “king who will rule over us similar to all the other nations.” In other words, the Jewish people needed an enforcer of law and order to keep society from becoming lawless and immoral. They needed a government that would set up laws to deter people from going against G-d’s will. Rather than serving G-d out of a natural appreciation of His majesty, they needed the fear of an immediately apparent earthly punishment to whip them into shape and keep them in line. It was disappointment in the Jewish people for having only reached the lower level of fear and not the higher level that was behind G-d and Samuel’s unhappy responses.[2]

In Shoftim we also read the injunction, “You shall be whole[hearted] with the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:13). Rashi explains that this is telling us to trust in G-d for what He has in store for our lives.[3] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch approaches this verse from another angle. He writes that a person’s entire being should be devoted to G-d, including in all his or her relationships.[4] This wholeness, he explains, is the direct result of our awareness of G-d’s unity. It is the realization of our vocation as a nation belonging exclusively to G-d.[5]

During this Elul we should all merit to come to greater awareness of G-d’s unity. This awareness should permeate every sphere of our lives from the synagogue to the workplace to the home. The sages teach us that today our ‘kings’ are our rabbis and teachers who strengthen us in serving G-d. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are always individuals who possess a greater love and fear of G-d than we do. It is such people that we should make our teachers.[6]

 


[1] The Chassidic Dimension. Kehot Publication Society, 235

[2] Ibid., 235-236

[3] Rashi Sapirstein Edition, Artscroll Series Mesorah Publications, ltd, 199

[4] The Hirsch Chumash. Sefer Devarim, 417

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Chassidic Dimension. Kehot Publication Society, 237

Being a Signpost

The great Torah scholar, Maimonides writes that in the times of ancient Israel when the Temple stood, there were signposts all over the country proclaiming “Refuge! Refuge!” These signs were pointing to the six ‘cities of refuge’ discussed in this week’s parsha, Parshas Masei. These cities of refuge were meant to provide asylum to those who had accidentally taken a life (through negligence) and protect them from blood relatives of the deceased who may wish to avenge the ‘murder.’ Maimonides explains that it was the responsibility of every community in Israel to make sure that there were no impediments to finding and reaching a city of refuge. Bridges and roads had to be built and maintained over all natural barriers and directions to the cities of refuge had to be clearly demarcated with signs. Every community was obligated to make sure nothing delayed a person who was seeking a city of refuge. A deeper, more mystical analysis of this subject will reveal that this obligation has not disappeared.[1]

On a mystical level every transgression is a subtle form of murder. The Baal HaTanya, also known as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, explains that every transgression, no matter how minor, obscures and further exiles the Divine Presence. Sins hinder the illumination of G-dly light into our world.[2] It is for this reason that our Sages have referred to the words of Torah as ‘cities of refuge’ for the destroyer of spiritual life.[3]

However, what use is a haven if it is not well-known? The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that today’s world is filled with ‘spiritual’ refugees. It is the duty of every Jew who knows even a little bit of Torah to stand at the crossroads and act as a living signpost calling out “Refuge Refuge” and pointing in the direction of Torah.[4]

I know what some of you are thinking. I can’t be ‘signpost.’ My knowledge about Judaism is insufficient even for myself – let alone to qualify me to teach others. Perhaps you may know enough to teach, but don’t feel capable to rise to the occasion – “I’m not a rabbi,” you might say, or “I’ve never been very good at public speaking.” In response to such concerns, it’s important to remember the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that if one knows the Hebrew letter alef,  one should teach alef. In other words one should teach – or perhaps a better word is share – whatever one knows with another.

Hold on a second! Aren’t I hypocrite if I start teaching others about Jewish concepts or ideals to which I myself do not always able to live up by? A quick story addresses this concern. A man was once walking to the city of Lubavitch where he was planning to study in yeshiva. On the way he passed a signpost that read ‘Lubavitch’ with an arrow pointing toward his intended destination. Many years later he left Lubavitch and during his returning journey he passed by the same sign. He remarked: “I have learned and changed so much since I last walked by this sign, but it remains here the same as it was before.” Even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing Judaism you have the power and responsibility to direct others to those who do. You can host Torah lectures and classes in your home or publicize Torah classes and Jewish events via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter etc. You could bring a friend to a Shabbat service or meal, or even slip an interesting thing you learned about the weekly parsha into a conversation with a friend or relative. The possibilities are endless! You, yes you, have the power in your hands to make the world a brighter, friendlier, and more G-dly place. May you be successful in your efforts!


[1] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/298381/jewish/Signpost.htm

[2] Tanya. Daily portion for the 27th of Tamuz, 5771 Igeret HaTashuva Chapter 7

[3] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/298381/jewish/Signpost.htm

[4] Ibid.

 

Espionage Gone Wrong – 3 Mistakes Made by the Spies

In last week’s Parsha, Shelach, Moshe sends spies to scout out the promised land of Canaan (Israel) so that the desert-wandering Jews could get a sense of the lay of the land and its inhabitants. Ten out of the twelve spies returned with a negative report. This incurred G-d’s wrath and earned the Hebrews 40 years of prolonged wondering in the wilderness before they could enter the land of Israel. Where exactly did the spies err?

One major mistake made by the spies was their failure to learn from the mistake of Moshe’s righteous sister, Miriam. At the end of the previous parsha, Miriam spoke unfairly about Moshe. In truth what she said was not that bad, but those who reach such a high spiritual level are judged by a higher standard. Her words caused her to be punished with tzaaras (usually translated as leprosy – See: The Power of Words). The Jews were unable to continue their journey until she was healed. This episode is immediately followed by the parsha detailing the sin of the spies. The spies slandered the land of Israel by claiming that its people were fearsome giants who lived in well-fortified, unconquerable cities. They bewailed that the Jewish people would be no match for the land’s inhabitants. Had they learned the proper lesson from Miriam’s affliction, they would not have spoken negatively.

The spies were no ordinary men. They were the holy and respected princes of each of the twelve tribes, handpicked by Moshe for this mission. Their error stemmed from a spiritual concern. In the desert, the Jewish people were provided with all of their physical needs by G-d in the most direct manner possible. Their shoes never wore out and their clothes repaired themselves. Their food came in the form of manna which descended from Heaven. In this miraculous existence, they had absolutely no reason to think about physical concerns. Indeed the Jewish people at this time were heavily involved in Torah study and observance of the laws they had recently been given. All their time was devoted toward spiritual pursuits. The spies knew that once the people entered the land, the Jewish people would be forced to engage in worldly affairs, such as working the land and earning a living. They feared that this would take a heavy toll on their service of G-d. This is precisely why ten of the spies described the land as one “which eats up its inhabitants,” meaning that the land, its labor, and preoccupation with the material world would ‘swallow up’ and drain the energy needed to perform their holy obligations (Torah Studies. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 248).

This was the spies’ second error. They mistakenly assumed that the only way a person could fulfill their spiritual duties of serving G-d was by retreating from the physical world. Only in seclusion, they wrongly believed, could one properly serve G-d. Most world religions have indeed adopted this way of thinking. It is understandable that human beings would believe that the only way to lead a spiritual life is by avoiding a physical one. This is not true. The Torah demands that we intimately involve ourselves in the world so that we can elevate the physical world and draw down holiness into it. Chassidut explains that G-d’s purpose of creation was so that He could be sanctified even in the lowest world i.e. our physical world in which it is possibly to deny the existence and involvement of the Creator.  By bringing out the G-dliness within nature, we transform the world into a dwelling place for G-d and become partners in creation. This idea of synthesizing and unifying G-d with His creation is one of the most potent and beautiful truths revealed to the world through the giving of the Torah.

In closing, the spies were told to come back with a report describing the land. They were not instructed to provide their own opinion – which is exactly what they did. This was their third mistake. The spies – with the exception of Calev and Yehoshua – told the Israelites, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” In life we are indeed supposed to use our intellect and resourcefulness to ‘scout out the land’ and be aware of the challenges we face. However, we must not despair just because a situation looks bleak. The final outcome of our efforts is decided by none other than G-d. It’s prudent to do our research and be more than a mere spectator in our own lives. However, we must trust that G-d ensures that everything happens for the best.

The Difference between Faith and Trust

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

This week we read in Parshas Behar about the law of shmita. Shmita is the Torah commandment that farmers in the land of Israel must let the land lie fallow every seventh year of the agricultural cycle. Shmita is often compared to Shabbat – the seventh day of the week in which Jews must rest and refrain from work.  But is the comparison congruous?

Before we compare shmita and Shabbat let us look at two Hebrew words that many people use synonymously. The words are emunah and bitachon. Are they the same? Not quite. Emunah means faith while bitachon means trust. Still don’t see a difference? Simply put, emunah is one’s belief in the existence of the Creator. Bitachon, however, is the knowledge that G-d is in control of everything and does everything for our benefit.

On Shabbat a person testifies that G-d created the world in six days and commanded us to rest on the seventh. However, during a shmita year a person who depends on working the land for their very livelihood demonstrates that G-d runs the world and will provide for her every need.

G-d rules over nature. Indeed one who observes shmita is testifying that it is actually G-d whom one is dependent upon for one’s livelihood. Whether the crops grow well, the consumers buy our goods, or the clients arrive at our office is not dependent on our charisma or knowledge, but on G-d’s blessing. Sure, we must work in order to be a vessel that is capable of receiving blessings – G-d purposely set up the world in this way, but the final outcome is determined by none other than the One who created an continues to sustain the universe.

Much thanks to Chabad.org. See: The Real Answer to the Question, “Who Moved My Cheese?”

 

Torah Portion: Making Sure Your Criticism is Constructive

Maybe not a kosher lunch, but perhaps a kosher criticism...

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

Last week in our study of Parshas Tazria we discussed the importance of words and the danger we may incur by speaking ill of others. Our words are indeed powerful and can be used to help as well as to harm. Sometimes helping another person may involve giving him or her some constructive criticism, but how do we know our criticism is motivated by genuine concern for the other’s well-being and not by a need to bolster our own ego?

This week’s parsha, Parshas Metzora discusses the process that a metzora – a person afflicted with a skin disease for having committed the sin of lashon hara (relating unkind, but true information about another) – underwent in order to become purified.

The Hebrew word metzora is a combination of three words – motze (shem) ra. Motze shem ra is a term which means “one who speaks ill of another” when that which he says is false i.e. slander or spreading a false rumor.[1]

The Torah tells us that only a Kohen (priest) had the power to declare someone a metzora. A Kohen must embody loving kindness for his fellow. This is one reason why even today Kohenim have the mitzvah of blessing the congregation. Only a Kohen could declare one a metzora, because if one were to proclaim that another was ritually impure without having a pure and true love for that person, the proclamation itself would be a form of motze shem ra.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D. suggests a good way to know whether our criticism is constructive or destructive. He writes that if we are willing to assist the person whom we are criticizing in correcting the defect or problem, the criticism is constructive. If we’re not interesting in helping the person to do right or at least directing him/her to those who can help, we should leave the criticism to someone who is willing.[2] However, Rabbi Twerski adds that if another seems to criticize us without concern for helping us to improve, we should still consider the comment. Even if the criticizer’s intent wasn’t noble, the observation may still be valid.[3]

Our primary job is to act with kindness toward others. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that if we find fault with another, it is a reflection of our own faults. We would all do well to remember this before we point out deficiencies in other people. Furthermore, we must make sure our care and concern for others is genuine before we pronounce judgment on them.


[1] Pearls for the Shabbos Table. From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Alperowitz

[2] It’s Not As Tough As You Think. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD. 185-186

[3] Ibid, 186

 

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