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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.

 

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

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 3 — Will Gotkin on the qualities of a leader

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

The Jew and G-d – An Unbreakable Connection

Every Jewish person has a neshama – Jewish soul – which Chassidut explains is part of G-d Himself. True, every human – Jews and non-Jews alike – is made in the image of G-d, but the Jewish people were given a special type of soul that would allow them to pursue the all-encompassing path of Torah and mitzvos. This bond is deep and even goes beyond the Torah.

This week’s parsha is titled ‘Tetzaveh,’ a word that literally means ‘command.’ However, ‘tetzaveh’ is also a derivative of the word ‘tzavsa’ which means ‘connection.’[1] In the first line of the Parsha, Moshe is told by G-d: “And you should command the children of Israel that they should bring to you pure olive oil…it ignite the lamp (until it burns) continually” (Exodus 27:20). The sentence could also be read as “And you should connect the Jewish people,” hinting that Moshe connects the Jewish people with G-d.[2]

This is the only parsha in the Torah (since his first appearance) in which Moshe’s name is not mentioned (The book of Devarim are his words to the people). Although G-d frequently addresses him in Parshas Tetzaveh, Moshe’s name is conspicuously missing.

One famous explanation for this is that G-d fulfilled Moshe’s request that if G-d punishes the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, Moshe be removed from the Torah (see next week’s parsha, which takes place before ParshasTetzaveh). G-d forgave the Jewish people, but still removed Moshe from this Torah portion. This is testament of how powerful our words can be and even more so the words of a righteous leader are in affecting the world.

However, Moshe is mentioned throughout the parsha even if not by name, being referred to as ‘You’ right in the beginning. Why did G-d refer to Moshe as ‘You’? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the objectives expressed in this parsha can only be achieved by Moshe’s essence, the aspect of him that cannot even be conveyed by his name.[3]

By asking to be erased from the book, Moshe wished to invoke an essential bond between himself and the Jewish people and thereby the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish people.[4] This bond is one that goes beyond Torah and mitzvos. It is a supernal connection between Hashem and the Jewish people that is so strong that it is not dependent on Torah and mitzvos. Obviously, Jews must study Torah and pursue mitzvos in order to connect in the way G-d desires, but by Moshe invoking this transcendent, unbreakable bond established by G-d’s covenant with Avraham (see the Book of Bereshis) it allowed for the atonement of the people’s sin and brought them back to the Torah.[5]

Moshe’s self-sacrifice epitomizes that of a true Jewish leader. In the beginning of the parsha he was told that the Jewish people should bring olive oil to him in order that it be used to ignite the menorah so that it burns continually. This is because a true leader can enable the people to reach a level of spiritual self-sufficiency, to the degree that they no longer have to depend on their leader in order to keep the fire of Torah and love and fear of G-d burning continually.[6] It’s up to us to keep that fire ablaze.


[1]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 203

[2] Ibid.

[3]The Torah – Chumash Shemot. Commentary based on works of the LubavitcherRebbe, 214

[4] Ibid., 215

[5] Ibid., 215

[6]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 203

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