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Monday, June 12, 2017

Seeking Opportunities to Teach - Parashat Bemidbar - May 26, 2017

This week’s parasha, Bemidbar, recalls the death of two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah says, “and Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem because they brought foreign fire before Hashem in the Sinai desert; and they had no children.”

The context of the incident of Nadav and Avihu is more fully treated in Sefer VaYikra. Moshe communicates Hashem’s command to Aharon and b’nei yisrael to bring ingredients for four different offerings – a chatat, an olah, a shelamim and a mincha – all for the culmination of the inauguration of the mishkan. All of the respective parties brought the proper ingredients to the mishkan in conformity with Hashem’s command. Moshe then gave Hashem’s next command of what to do with these ingredients – the result of which will be G-d’s glory appearing to the nation. Aharon and b’nei yisrael brought their respective offerings in exact conformity with Hashem’s command.

Aharon lifted his hands to the nation and blessed them and then descended from performing these sacrifices. Moshe entered and exited the Tent of Meeting together with Aharon and then blessed the nation – subsequently, G-d’s glory appeared to the nation. Fire descended from before Hashem and consumed all of the sacrifices. The nation praised Hashem and fell on their faces. Immediately following this accounting is the incident of Nadav and Avihu – two of Aharon’s sons who were destroyed while offering a foreign fire that had not been commanded to them.

The Torah twice emphasizes in the first event of the necessity of acting with strict conformity only to that which Hashem commanded. The Torah uses the same language to explain that the cause of Nadav and Avihu’s death was their failure to conform only to what Hashem commanded.

Hashem never commanded Aharon to bless the nation. Instead, Aharon seems to take it upon himself to bless the nation. Why did Aharon not meet the same demise as his sons for his seeming failure to conform only to what he was commanded?

In his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam cites the halacha that the Kohen is not permitted to look at the nation during birkat kohanim lest he lose his focus. Furthermore, the nation should not look at the kohanim lest they lose their focus. The importance of the kohanim not losing their focus is readily understandable, but what does the nation have to focus on?

Sefer HaChinuch explains that birkat kohanim is an opportunity to focus on true ideas about Hashem and the importance of turning our actions towards Him. He explains further that the kohanim do not bless the nation in the sense that they have the power to bless. Only, vesamu et shemi al bnei yisrael, vaani avarechem – and place My name on the People of Israel and I will bless them. Because the kohanim represent the lifestyle of constant service of Hashem, they are conferred with the responsibility of enunciating true ideas about G-d’s Providence. When they hear these ideas coming out of the mouths of these individuals, the nation will be aroused to focus on these ideas and in so doing raise themselves to a level where they deserve Hashem’s blessing. In other words, everyone must concentrate on the ideas contained in these words in order to approach Hashem and benefit from His blessing.

Aharon was authorized to bless the people because Hashem charged the kohanim lesharet u’levarech – to serve and to bless. The blessing of the people by the kohanim concretizes the messages of the service that they do – to teach to the world the ideas of Hashem. An additional service – such as that of Nadav and Avihu – was not authorized. Aharon’s blessing was acceptable to Hashem; the service of Nadav and Avihu was not.

This message applies to each and every one of us. We are a nation of priests. Hashem defines what constitutes a mitzvah – a commanded act. We do not have the right to invent our own service. Hashem does give us the charge, however, to teach and to publicize the ideas of the commandments and the ideas about Hashem. Like the kohanim, we must be on guard constantly for opportunities to teach Torah to others.

Israel is our Homeland - Parashat BeHar-Bechukotai - May 19, 2017

Parashat Bechukotai, the second parasha of this week’s double parasha, outlines the berachot and kelalot – the blessings and curses for adhering or not adhering to the mitzvot. This tochacha – rebuke – pertains to the Jewish people. When we follow the mitzvot, G-d rewards the Jewish people in order to help us serve Him better. When we do not follow the mitzvot, G-d rebukes us in the form of curses in order to teach us to improve our ways.

The Torah says, “And the produce of your threshing season will last until the grape harvest; and the produce of the grape harvest will last until the planting. And you have your fill of food. And you will dwell securely in your land.” On this last statement, “and you will dwell securely in your land”, our Rabbis comment in the Midrash Sifra that this blessing applies in the Land of Israel but not in the exile.

What a perplexing statement! Our Rabbis are teaching here that the mitzvot that we perform, the closeness to G-d that we achieve through learning about Him and through emulating Him and the righteousness that we exhibit – all of these are rewarded with security in the Land of Israel. In exile, Jews are not assured security! Even observance of the Torah does not assure protection outside of Israel!

The Chafetz Chayyim – Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen – made comments which are particularly relevant to this interpretation. These comments were translated by Rabbi Bernie Fox from a biography written by Rabbi Aharon Sorasky. The Chafetz Chayyim often discussed the advent of the Messianic era. Towards the end of his life he delivered an informal discourse on this issue. He explained that the Messianic era is inevitable. We do not know when the Messiah will arrive. Nonetheless, we are certain that the Almighty’s plan for humanity will only be fulfilled in the Messianic era.

The Chafetz Chayyim explained that we are not passive participants in the unfolding of history. Our actions and attitudes can hasten or delay coming of mashiach. What can we do to expedite the Messiah’s arrival? The Chafetz Chayyim explained that we must truly desire his accession. We must recognize exile as banishment. We must sincerely long for deliverance. Conversely, apathy delays the coming of the Messiah. If we are complacent and comfortable in galut – in exile – we fail to recognize our banishment.

The Chafetz Chayyim offered a proof of his assertion. The Chumash, in Sefer Shemot discusses our redemption from Egypt. The Chafetz Chayyim argues that this event is a model for future redemptions. In order to understand the conditions required for the arrival of the Messiah, we must study this previous redemption. The Torah explains that, in their suffering, b’nei yisrael cried out to Hashem. Immediately after this appeal, the redemption began. Our delivery from bondage was not initiated by repentance. It was set in motion by a much simpler event. The people turned to Hashem and asked for salvation. Yetziat Mitzrayim – the exodus from Egypt – provides a model for future redemptions. In order for the Almighty to act, we must recognize that we need His salvation.

The Chafetz Chayyim concluded by asserting that many Jews of his time were complacent. They had come to accept exile. They did not regard exile as banishment. They uttered the prayers beseeching the Almighty for redemption. But they were not completely sincere. He felt that it was crucially important to change this attitude. B’nei yisrael must acknowledge exile as a severe punishment. The people must earnestly turn to the Almighty and pray for salvation. The Chafetz Chayyim made these comments at the end of his life. He passed away in 1933 – a short time before the beginning of the Holocaust.

One of the most important messages of the Torah is that our people’s destiny is in the Land of Israel – the land of our forefathers and foremothers, the land where Torah can be fully realized and implemented, the future land of Messianic sovereignty. When we – ourselves and our children – internalize this message, we become inspired to grow spiritually. We become motivated to learn. We deepen our commitment to our fellow Jews. We create a picture for ourselves of an idealized society that we want to be a part of – one guided by talmud torah and mitzvot. We additionally internalize the message that complacency about our current situation in exile would be spiritual poison.

The Power of a Blessing - Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - May 5, 2017

In the second parasha, Kedoshim, of this week’s double parasha, the Torah teaches, “When you will come to the land and plant any food tree, you will treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years they will be forbidden to you; they may not be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be sanctified to praise Hashem.”

The final phrase of these verses, “all its fruit shall be sanctified to praise Hashem,” is understood by our Rabbis to be the source verse for the obligation to make a blessing prior to eating food – the obligation of bracha rishona. Based on this understanding, our Rabbis teach in Masechet Berachot that it is forbidden to eat food without first making the appropriate initial blessing.

This Gemara in Berachot makes a further point. The Rabbis teach, “Anyone who benefits from this world without making a blessing first is like stealing from the holy things of heaven as the verse states, ‘To G-d is the land and everything that fills it’”.

The Gemara further analyzes this teaching. There are two verses in the Book of Psalms that discuss the relationship between Hashem and the land. L'ashem ha’aretz u’mloa – to Hashem is the land and all that fills it – and another verse – hashamayim shamayim la’Hashem veha’aretz natan livnei adam – the heavens belong to Hashem and the land He gave to mankind.

On the surface, these two verses contradict each other. The first verse conveys that G-d owns the land and everything in it. The second verse conveys that G-d owns the heavens, but that He gave the land to mankind. Both statements cannot be true. Who owns the land and its content – G-d or mankind?

The Gemara offers a curious resolution: the first verse refers to the state of affairs prior to man making a blessing and the second verse refers to the state of affairs subsequent to man making a blessing.

How does a blessing transfer this “ownership” from Hashem to mankind?

Apparently, according to the first verse – everything in this world is identified exclusively for the service of Hashem. Every food, every animal, every human has a purpose – for serving Hashem. A beracha – a blessing in which man acknowledges Hashem as being the ultimate Creator of the food and hence the One who defines its purpose – gives man the right to use it. This beracha gives man the right to use the food because he has now recognized Hashem as the Creator and that the food is now an object that is being used in the service of Hashem.

The bounty of Hashem’s kindness is all around us. Through regular recognition of this kindness, the recitation of a blessing sensitizes us to this reality and helps us realize Hashem’s constant benevolence.

Kedusha and Tahara - Parashat Tazria-Metzorah - April 28, 2017

Kedusha, holiness, refers to the identity that an object has of being associated with or designated for service of Hashem. Items in the Temple, a kohen and a sefer Torah all have kedusha as each one is designated for serving G-d.

Tahara, halachic purity refers to the state of being prepared to encounter the Almighty in the Temple. Specifically, one must be in a state of tahara prior to entering the Temple. Note that the halachic state of impurity is not bad or a sin. Most people in history were regularly in a state of impurity.

The beginning of this week’s parasha deals with these two concepts – holiness and purity – as they relate to giving birth.

The Torah explains that when a woman gives birth, she is tameh – halachically impure – for a period of time. The Torah explains that if she has a boy, she is tameh for seven days. On the eighth day, her son is circumcised and she continues to be tameh from that eighth day for another thirty-three days - a grand total of forty days. If she has a girl, she is tameh for fourteen days plus another sixty-six days for a grand total of eighty days. In other words, if a mother has a girl, she may not enter the Temple for almost three months.

There are two questions that are particularly puzzling about these laws. First, why does the Torah associate tumah, halachic impurity, with birth? Having a baby is a joyous experience, a momentous experience, even a religious experience! Why does it yield tumah? Second, why are the periods of tumah doubled when a woman gives birth to a girl as opposed to when she gives birth to a boy?

In general, the state of tumah is created by an intense encounter with physicality. The state of tahara implies an intense encounter with the soul. The tumah of the mother who gives birth arises out of the physical nature of the birth experience. When she gives birth to a child, a mother becomes a partner in the process of creating a new life. The process of childbirth itself is a physical process of pain, exhilaration and deep and powerful emotions. At its core, it is an experience that directs our attention to the body. The forty or eighty days after the birth represent a period of recalibration of the mother as a physical being with a non-physical soul. It is the time of restoring the balance between body and soul.

Why is the period of impurity doubled when a woman gives birth to a girl?

Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch offers a powerful answer to this question. He explains that the Torah creates a parallel between the brit milah and the extra forty days of tumah. Rav Hirsch explains that with the brit milah, the parents are inducting their son into the world of kedusha – of holiness. Through the circumcision, the parents induct their child as a permanent member of the Jewish People thereby preparing and designating him to serve Hashem. This is the idea of kedusha that we mentioned above.

Rav Hirsch suggests that by extending the period of tumah after the birth of a girl for an extra 40 days, the mother is modeling the idea of tahara – purity – for the girl. Although the baby does not understand the idea at that point in her life, the mother is communicating a deep value and belief at the outset of the baby’s life – the value of tahara.

Kedusha is modeled to the family with the brit milah, and tahara is modeled to the family with the forty or eighty days of separation from the Temple. Kedusha and tahara become foundations of a Jewish home. These mitzvot communicate the imperative of inculcating our families with these values immediately upon the birth of our children. The importance of these foundations does not diminish with time. On the contrary, as our children grow and mature, we must constantly search for ways to teach, model and reinforce these messages to our children.

The Impact of the Seder - Parashat Bo - April 7, 2017

In the section from Parashat Bo that we will read on the first day of Pesach, the Torah recounts Moshe’s command to the elders of Israel regarding the night of the exodus. Moshe commands the details of the Pesach sacrifice and concludes by commanding the elders to guard this matter as a law for all generations.

Moshe continues and says, "And it will be that when you come to the land that Hashem has given to you like He spoke. And you will guard this service.

And it will be that when your children say to you, ‘What is this service of yours?’

And you will say, ‘It is a Pesach offering to Hashem that He passed over the houses of the Jewish People in Egypt when He smote Egypt and our houses he saved and the nation bowed and worshipped. And the children of Israel went and did like Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon – thus did they do.'"

In summary, after commanding the people to offer the Passover offering, Moshe tells the people that when they enter the land of Israel, their children will ask what this service is of theirs.

How are we to read this foretelling of future events regarding their children — negatively or positively?

On the one hand, it can be read as a dire prediction of the future generation. The children won’t even know what the service is about.

On the other hand, it can be read optimistically – the children will have distanced themselves from idolatry to the extent that they won’t understand why their parents sacrificed a lamb in Egypt. They won’t understand the intricacies of idolatry and how sacrificing a lamb represents a rejection of the idolatry of Egypt.

If the pesukim can be read either way, what is the Torah teaching us? What is the message of the pesukim?

I believe that the Torah is highlighting that either eventuality is possible in the next generation. The nation is entering a new land and will be encountering a totally new situation. The effect of this change on the next generation is unpredictable.

Will the next generation forget the Torah and not know the reasons for the mitzvah of the Passover sacrifice or will the next generation be so committed to Torah and Hashem that they will not be able to relate to the rejection of idolatry that the Passover sacrifice represents?

The Torah aims to teach us that although there is no predicting how the next generation will respond to the new situation – the parent’s reaction to the child’s question should be to use the question as an opportunity to teach the child Torah. No matter the value system of the child, the prescription is always Jewish education.

Our society has experienced a revolution of sorts – a technological revolution. Many of our children have their own cell phones, Facebook accounts and email. Our children are influenced by the popular culture and by their friends more than ever. Whether we like it or not and whether we admit it or not, many of our children are regularly exposed to everything that our society has to offer – good and bad. How will these influences affect our children?

In our generation, many of our Jewish children are even more committed to our values than we are. Yet, many of our Jewish children are very distant from our values.

We cannot predict the outcomes. Maybe our children will become more disassociated with our values. Maybe our children will cleave even more strongly to our values.

Wherever our children are at: philosophically, religiously, culturally – the seder teaches a timeless Jewish idea – true freedom comes through education. Indeed, the entire seder is steeped in education and teaching:
  • Prompt our children to ask a question
  • Discuss the four sons
  • Show and tell
  • Demonstrate freedom
Jewish education helps us to think clearly. Jewish education helps us to relate properly to Hashem. Jewish education connects us to our history and our people.

The seder provides each of our families the opportunity – within the protection and security of our homes – to engage our children at their level and teach them in order that they should be free people.

In the seder, we proclaim, “in every generation, a person is obligated to show himself as if he was exiled from Egypt.” The seder itself is the demonstration – the freedom that is achieved through discussing and learning about the story of the Exodus and about G-d’s Providence replicates the freedom that the Jewish people achieved when they left Egypt.

I pray that each of us experiences freedom through Jewish education this Pesach at our respective sedarim.

The Small Aleph - Parashat VaYikra - March 31, 2017

This week, we begin reading Sefer Vayikra and its first parasha, Parashat VaYikra. The parasha discusses many of the laws of specific korbanot – sacrifices – including the olah, shlamim, chatat and others.

The parasha opens with the following verse, “And He called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him from the tent of meeting saying …” Our mesorah – oral tradition – teaches that the word, vayikra - and He called – is to be written in the Torah scroll with a particular nuance. The last letter in that word – the letter aleph – is to be written in a significantly smaller font. Our commentators have a number of different explanations and interpretations of this requirement.

One explanation is given by the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz. He explains that the letter aleph is associated with learning and education. The letter aleph is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet – the basis of learning. The root of the word aleph is also associated in Hebrew with training and preparation. The Kli Yakar explains that the letter is written in a smaller font to convey the idea that learning and education can only be sustained when a person makes himself or herself “small” – or humble.

Moshe Rabbenu merited to have this letter written in reference to him because he was the archetype of the humble person. One indicator of this quality was Moshe’s attitude towards leadership – he ran away from power and authority over others and lived by the Talmudic dictum mentioned in Masechet Eruvin, “Those who chase authority, authority will run away from them.”

In his sefer, Torah Le’Daat, Rav Matis Blum tells a story of a man who approached a great chacham who was disturbed because authority and power were not “chasing after him”. He explained to the chacham that he expressly runs away from power! The chacham explained to the man that it appeared from his question that while he is running away from power he is constantly looking back to see if power and authority are following him. This attitude is the greatest expression of seeking power – therefore, it constantly escapes him.

Why is humility so critical to the process of education?

The ability to ask a question – the basis of all learning – is tied up with the acceptance of one’s own ignorance. A person who thinks that he knows all cannot ask a question – nothing bothers him. On the contrary, one who is humble is open to the realization of his own ignorance and is open for new knowledge. The small-font aleph teaches us that arrogance is a barrier to education. Moshe Rabbenu, the paragon of humility, is the greatest of our teachers.

Moshe and Betzalel-Parashat Vayakhel-Pedudei - March 24, 2017

We read a double parasha this week – Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei. Each of these parashiyot describe the building of the mishkan and the construction of the vessels that were housed and used within it.

Betzalel was charged with overseeing the construction of the mishkan and its vessels. Parashat Pekudei opens with the statement, “And Betzalel the son of Uri the son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah did everything that Hashem commanded Moshe.” Rashi explains that we would have expected the Torah to say that Betzalel did what Moshe commanded him to do. Instead, the Torah tells us that that Betzalel did everything that Hashem commanded him to do.

Based on a passage from Masechet Berachot, Rashi explains that Betzalel did things that did not make sense to Moshe, his teacher. Specifically, Moshe told Betzalel to make the vessels first and then to make the mishkan. Betzalel argued that the way of the world is to first make a house and then to place the vessels inside. Moshe was won over by Betzalel’s argument.

On the surface, this explanation is difficult to understand. Moshe was the greatest prophet. How could this important fact – the order in which to make the mishkan and its vessels – have escaped him? How could Betzalel have known a fact that was not revealed to his teacher, Moshe?

The disagreement between Moshe and Betzalel was not an argument regarding a fact. If that had been the case, Moshe would surely have known it. Instead, the argument was about a new application that was not directly instructed by Hashem – the order in which to make the mishkan and the vessels. Betzalel argued that a house is always made first, then the vessels. Betzalel was employing his intuition – an intuition honed by Torah learning, aptitude and experience. Betzalel was an expert craftsman. He understood the impact that the mishkan and its vessels would have on those who saw them. He understood something that Moshe’s intuition did not recognize – the vessels must not be left outside of their home – not even to wait for the home to be built. The mishkan must be built before the vessels.

One important lesson of this idea relates to leadership. Even a leader like Moshe needed the counsel and expertise of others. Each person has different insights and can provide different perspectives. In heeding Betzalel’s advice, Moshe allowed the vessels and the mishkan to be created in the best possible order.