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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

A Real and Lasting Source of Jewish Pride

Recently Gather the Jews co-founder and president, Stephen Richer, declared that Jewish pride is not a sin. He is correct. Not only does Jewish pride lack sinfulness, but it is a seminal and necessary ingredient in bringing a Jewish person to involve him/herself in communal Jewish life. But, what is Jewish pride and how can we foster a real and lasting pride in being Jewish?

The answer can be summed up in one word: Torah. If we desire to see subsequent generations of Jews not only survive, but flourish, we need to make sure they are educated about Judaism. After all, it is Judaism, which unites us as a people and in which most of our cultural traditions, quirks, humor, and even success are rooted. The Torah is the foundation stone of Judaism, and its study and observance is what has sustained Jews as a cohesive group with a strong identity for thousands of years.  The Torah has kept us alive against the backdrop of both violent persecution and times of encouraged assimilation and apathy. It is what makes us a nation and unique entity. Its values have enabled us to make the world a better place.

The problem American Jewry faces right now is apathy and a disturbingly high rate of intermarriage. Studies have shown that children of interfaith families are far less likely to actively participate in Jewish life when they reach adulthood. Yes, Holocaust remembrance and support for the Jewish state of Israel are very important and noble activities, but more is needed to ensure that Jewish young people marry Jewish and raise committed Jewish children. A person who has incorporated such things as kosher and Shabbat – to whatever degree they choose – will naturally want a marital partner with whom to share such things. ‘After-the-fact’ discussions about how to get Jews to marry within the faith or stay connected are not nearly as effective as the vaccination of Jewish education and observance.

A lot of us in this age of high-speed internet and smart phones, so used to the instant gratification these things provide for us, would like a ‘quick-fix’ or an easy solution to the problem of Jewish assimilation and disintegration. Unfortunately there isn’t one. Jewish education is the key to ensuring a Jewish future. To learn or teach Judaism is a gratifying and pleasurable experience, but it is one that takes time, dedication, and most of all hard work. Flashy advertisements and t-shirts or other programs that seek to make Judaism seem ‘hip’ or cool, but are devoid of substance, will not make a lasting impression on young people as evidenced by the recent collapse of J-Dub and Jewcy. A Jewish communal life that is only focused on social justice or tikkun olam, as Joel Alperson pointed out, will also end in failure.

We live in a changing world, and the spirituality, healthy family structure, and intellectual stimulation that a Torah observant lifestyle provides is the only way to effectively combat all the sterile alternatives that the mainstream established Jewish community has thus far offered.  Our ancestors survived for thousands of years by studying and observing the Torah and transmitting that knowledge of Judaism to subsequent generations. Today there must be a renewed effort at enhancing and promoting Jewish education. Thank G-d, there are many organizations that provide children, teenagers and adults with Torah classes. Obviously more has to be done, but a positive trend is emerging. A substantial number of Jews are reclaiming their tradition and raising their children with a love and passion for Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness.  There is truly no better buffer against the rising tides of assimilation. Many young American Jews are tired of the fluffy and the superficial. Young people today need something real if they are going to continue to identify as Jews.

Social events such as Gather the Jews happy hours and Israel trips such as Birthright are excellent for bringing Jews together and fostering that basic Jewish pride, but it’s what we do with that pride that matters and will ultimately determine the Jewish future. It is one thing to be inspired to want to do something a little more Jewish, but temporary political causes and social events fade. Torah is eternal.

Some will undoubtedly not like this answer to the problem of Jewish continuity, but they should consider the following. The study of Torah has sharpened Jewish brains for millennia and this devotion to education has carried over into the secular realm with Jews earning a disproportionate amount of college degrees, wealth, and Nobel Peace prizes. We are foolish if our ‘pride’ is based on false beliefs that somehow Jewish people are naturally ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ than the rest of the population. Such assertions are foolhardy at best and down-right racist at worst.

We are successful, because our roots are in the Torah and its observance. When a plant is severed from its roots it will continue to live for a little while longer, but eventually it will begin to whither and decay. As American Jews we must ask ourselves why we should continue to be Jewish. We need to know what to tell our children who may one day ask us this question. We need to have a better reason than ‘because they tried to kill us’ or bagels and lox. Torah and G-d are eternal. By investing in G-d and His Torah we too will remain eternally.

We would do well to consider the following words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “At a collective level [Torah Judaism] is the ultimate path to the unity of the Jewish people. We are one because we are part of the Torah. The Torah is one because it is the word of G-d. That is the truth which our ancestors carried with them from generation to generation, enlarging not only themselves but the moral horizons of mankind.” We owe it not only to ourselves, but to all of humanity to stay connected to Jewish tradition.

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.

 

Unity in Division

Americans are fond of the concept of equality. Indeed, the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence proudly proclaims “that all men are created equal.” But, is this really true? What does the Torah have to say about this subject?

Most would agree that the concept of equality found in the Declaration of Independence means equal treatment under the law. However, many in contemporary society wish to extend the famous quote above to denote that all human beings are the same. Those of this school of thought mistakenly believe, consciously or unconsciously, that there should be no differences in regards to opinions, religion, financial statuses, or societal roles. In short, in order for all of us to get along we must all be the same. People who think this way cannot reconcile diversity with unity. All divisions are barriers to be broken and all differences keep human beings from achieving universal peace and harmony. This is not a new idea. In fact a wealthy and brilliant man once fought for such ideals over 3,300 years ago. His name was Korach and this week’s parsha bears his name.

Last week the spies angered G-d and caused a tragedy to befall the Children of Israel. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more exciting, Korach leads a rebellion against Moshe, which leads to conflict, numerous strange deaths and strife. Why did Korach rebel?

The great Torah commentators teach us that Korach’s intentions were actually noble and something to be emulated. Korach wanted to be the High Priest. In this way he could enjoy a very close connection with G-d. It is indeed a wonderful thing for a Jew to desire a close relationship with G-d. For having such good intentions Korach’s name was immortalized as the title of this week’s Torah portion.

What are some other reasons for Korach’s protest? At Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and the Rabbis interpret ‘priest,’ in this case, to mean High Priest. Furthermore every single Jew has this lofty potential within him/herself (In the Garden of the Torah, 56). Korach reasoned that since the entire congregation is holy and every Jew possesses a spark of G-dliness, there should be no division of labor within the service of G-d. He also internalized the lesson of last week’s parsha, which teaches that action – serving G-d through mitzvot in the physical world – is more important than intention. If we must all do mitzvot, why should Moshe be held in any higher esteem than anyone else? Furthermore, Moshe only appointed members of his own tribe (Levi) to services in the Holy Tabernacle (later the Temple). Moshe’s own brother, Aaron, was designated High Priest. To Korach and his cronies, these details not only smacked of nepotism, but the choice of who should work in the Temple suspiciously seemed to have come from Moshe rather than the Holy One Blessed is He. All of this led Korach to protest Moshe saying: “Why have you made yourselves elite over G-d’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3).

Korach’s intention was admirable. His error lay in how he went about pursuing his ambitions. Korach’s rebellion resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Not only in deed was Korach evil, but his very essence was rooted in divisiveness. In Hebrew the root of the name Korach (kuf, resh, chet) means ‘division or ‘split.’ Causing division and strife contradicts the purpose of the Torah which was given in order to bring about peace in the world (In the Garden of the Torah, 57). So why was he honored by having a Torah portion named after him?

To answer this question we must first define unity. Absolute oneness is not possible or desirable in our physical world. Rashi points out that G-d created differences such as morning and evening. Our world is made up of a multiplicity of divisions – hot and cold, darkness and light, big and small, male and female, and a variety of plant and animal species. However, this inherent diversity in the world need not be an obstacle to the kind of unity the Torah desires. A true unity is one in which divergent entities are able to work together in perfect harmony without compromising their own individual natures (ibid., 58). Differences are not to be feared and eradicated. Rather, they are to be embraced. In fact it is the variety and diversity in our world, which makes life so special and interesting.

The Torah is endorsing pluralism. It is ok for men and women or Jews and non-Jews to have separate roles and different ways of achieving the ultimate purpose of unifying the spiritual with the material. G-d left it up to each of us to utilize our own unique talents, intelligence, and creativity to figure out our place in the grand scheme of things. When every individual plays the note they were meant to play, we can all make some beautiful music together.

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.

Shavout – What it Means to Receive the Torah

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

Shavuot celebrates matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. On this day the Ten Commandments were uttered before the entire congregation of the children of Israel. But the holiday not only commemorates the giving, but the receiving of the Torah as well. What does it mean to receive the Torah?

The Torah tells us that the Jewish people readily accepted it declaring “na’eseh v’nishma” (‘we will do and then we’ll hear’). Every Shavuot we receive the Torah all over again.

The Torah is G-d’s blueprint for the world and for humanity. Its 613 commandments are tools that we utilize to connect with the Creator of the universe. Every single mitzvah – no matter how insignificant it may seem to us – is an unbreakable connection with eternity.

Some people object to the idea of accepting the Torah, saying: “All that matters is that you are a good person. I am already a good person so what use do I have for all these laws and rituals prescribed by the Torah?”

While the question is understandable it reveals a lack of understanding. It is true that being a good person is primary. Someone who observes Shabbat, but cheats in their business dealings is seriously lacking in their service of G-d. However, the Jew who treats others with kindness, but doesn’t observe Shabbat is also missing out on the purpose of life.

All of the laws of the Torah can be broken down into two parts – those that we understand intuitively and those we do not. The ethical laws are usually more easily understood. Then there are laws like keeping kosher and not mixing wool and linen in the same garment. These have no rational basis discernable through finite human reason and intellect. “We will do and then we’ll hear” means that we try our best to fulfill G-d’s commandments – even the ones we don’t understand. We have good enough reason to trust that G-d knows what is best for us.

The Torah teaches us not only to be good, but to be holy as well. What does it mean to be holy? Holiness means being separate. By giving us the Torah, G-d made us a holy people. There are plenty of good Jews who are not observant, but without the observance of the laws many dismiss as “ritualistic,” a Jew cannot actualize his inborn potential for holiness. Popular radio show host, Dennis Prager points out that even in secular life we have a concept similar to that of holiness. For example, he says, a person who eats spaghetti by burying his face in the plate and eating it in a messy fashion will be told that he is eating like an animal. The person is not evil or immoral, but he is nonetheless behaving like an animal. To be holy means to go beyond our animal nature and to do things that separate us from simply obeying our animal urges and instincts. Rather than being restrictive the Torah frees us from being slaves to these often self-destructive urges. Our modern society of “anything goes” and “do what feels good” has not produced happier people. Some boundaries in life are necessary and healthy. Plus even the non-rational laws are imbued with ethical and moral teachings that can be seen by those who study them in depth.

Receiving the Torah is to accept that there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct one’s life. As Jews we have a special responsibility to not only be good, but to be holy. Not only that, but those who claim they are “good” without Torah may be surprised to find out that the Torah demands a higher standard of goodness than what they may feel is necessary. There is good, and there is great. The Torah teaches us to be great. How do we define goodness? One person’s definition of good may be different from another’s. Who is to say what is right? The Torah brought a universal moral standard into the world. Only G-d can decide what is moral and what is not. The Torah conditions us to get beyond ourselves and our personal egos so that we can get to the truth. In this way we can become kinder, gentler, and more compassionate.

The Jewish people received the Torah on Mount Sinai as a united people – “like one people with one heart.” Jewish unity is also an important precondition to receiving the Torah. This year let us all resolve to study Torah, do more mitzvot – both the interpersonal and the non-rational ones – and develop more love for our fellow Jews. In this way we will soon merit the long awaited redemption.

 

 

 

 

 

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?”

 

Passover and the True Meaning of Freedom

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

maRO(A)R!!!!!

Pesach (Passover) is here once again and being that Pesach is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays among American Jewry today, it’s safe to say that most of us will do all or at least one of the following: attend a Seder, rid the house of chametz (leavened products and other things forbidden for consumption during Passover), retell the story of the Jews leaving Egypt, or spend time with family. During the Seder it is traditional to read the Haggadah. The Haggadah tells us that we must not think of the Passover story as a thing of the past. Rather, each of us must envision that we ourselves are slaves leaving Egypt and embarking on a life of freedom. But what is freedom? Sounds like an easy question. After all freedom means doing whatever you want, right? Actually Judaism has a slightly different interpretation of what it means to be free.

Many have heard that G-d commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh and say “Let my people go,” but the last part of the sentence is often forgotten. It reads as follows “Send out my people so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” So that they may serve Me should remind us that G-d redeemed the Jewish people from bondage in order to enable them to serve Him. Indeed the whole purpose of life is to recognize and come closer to G-d. This is achieved through studying the Torah – G-d’s blueprint for living – and performing the mitzvot. Each mitzvah is a connection to the Creator and Sustainer of all life.

So how is this freedom? It seems as if the Jewish people traded in one type of slavery in for another! The truth is that serving G-d is actually the only kind of freedom that exists. A person who is ruled by their impulses is not free. Often what we think is right or good for us does not lead to good results. The Torah is a manifestation of G-d’s will and intellect in this world. It provides us with objective advice divorced from our own limited, fallible understanding of what is right and wrong, beneficial and harmful, wise and foolish. Yes, everyone makes mistakes in life, but the Torah enables us to transcend ourselves and connect with something higher. When we free ourselves from the chains binding us into our own little worlds of me – a recipe for misery – and connect with our Source we become free to actualize our potential as human beings.

Mitzrayim (Egypt) is related to the word, Meitzar, which denotes limitation. The Jews leaving Egypt was not just a story that happened once long ago. We are confronted with the challenge of freeing ourselves from our own limitations on a daily basis. We all have our own personal Egypt holding us back from experiencing freedom. For some, Egypt may mean an inability to control emotions like anger, selfishness, or excessive pessimism. For others it is never ‘finding the time’ to discover more about their Judaism. Still others can’t turn off their cell phones for a few hours or decrease their time chasing money or recognition. Whatever our struggle may be, this Pesach we should reflect on the meaning of freedom – in the Jewish sense of the word – and resolve to take at least one step toward being free people.

During Pesach we eat matzah, the bread of affliction and we avoid all leavened products. Chassidus teaches that all of our negative character traits stem from ego – our conception that we the individual are the center of it all. Yeast symbolizes the ego. Matzah, which is devoid of yeast, is flat and easily broken. Chassidus explains that the first step toward personal growth and self-improvement is humility and self-nullification. With a contrite and ‘broken’ heart we can engage in honest introspection and connect with a higher reality. May we all emerge from the bondage of Egypt and taste freedom now!

 

 

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