Nov 21 2014

Rabbi Zeff Interviewed on Sacramento News Radio Station

On November 18, in the wake of the horrific murders of 4 Jewish men while saying the morning prayers, and a druze police officer who was the first on the scene to help stop further bloodshed in the Jerusalem synagogue where the terrorist attack took place; Rabbi Zeff of Knesset Israel Torah Center was interviewed.

Listen to the following broadcast,  here: 

The interview was broadcast on KFBK radio in Sacramento.


Jul 29 2013

Fowl Play and Kosher Kindness: Parshat Re’eh

storksThis week’s parsha lists the fowl that we are not allowed to eat. In contrast to kosher animals which possess the identifying characteristics of split hooves and chewing the cud, the Torah simply lists the fowl that we are not allowed to eat. Among the forbidden species is the Chassida. Though we cannot be sure as to the precise translation, Chassida is often rendered as “stork.” More interesting is the fact that the Hebrew word Chassida happens to come from the same root as the word chessed, meaning “kindness.”
Why should this bird be called a name which could be translated as “kind?” The Talmud answers, “because it performs kindness with its fellows.” Rashi, both in his commentary on the Talmud and in his commentary on the Torah explains this as a reference to the Chassida sharing its food with its fellows.
Well this is a very impressive bird indeed! But why, then, is it not kosher? The Kotzker Rebbe points out the qualifying phrase used by the Talmud, “with its fellows.” The chassida shares its food with others of the same species, but not with other types of birds. This is a defective, non-kosher, kindness.
We humans have the tendency to be very similar to the Chassida. It is relatively easy to be kind and considerate to our friends and with those whom we feel a basic affinity. But what about those individuals who are less appealing and less attractive to us? Do we show them the same kindness?
Let’s commit ourselves, as individuals and as a community, to be extraordinarily kind, to display kosher kindness, even when it takes effort.


Jun 12 2013

Parshat Chukat: At Least Keep It Private!

Rabbi Joel Zeff: Parshat Chukat

Moses Bringing Forth Water From the Rock

This week’s Torah portion recounts the collapse of one of Moshe’s highest aspirations. Imagine having taken on the assignment of leading the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. Moshe had endured the most taxing of crises, some of them in the form of the seemingly never-ending series of internal rebellions. When the Bnei Yisrael arrive in a location without any obvious supply of water they confront Moshe and Aharon in an outrageous expression of unmitigated chutzpa.

“If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink!”

God instructs Moshe to speak to a rock so that it should miraculously produce water. Moshe gathers the nation in front of the rock and declares: “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” He then strikes the rock, resulting in an eruption of a gush of water. This act of Moshe was regarded as such a grievous affront that God decrees the ultimate punishment, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.”

The midrash points out that not only was this not the first time that Moshe had not responded optimally to the complaints of Bnei Yisrael, but it is not even the worst:

But had not Moshe previously said something that was worse than this? For he said (Numbers 11:22): “If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them?” Faith surely was wanting there too, and to a greater degree than in the present instance. Why then did G-d not make the decree against him on that occasion?

The midrash answers with a most significant observation:

Let me illustrate. To what may this be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. Now this friend displayed arrogance towards the king privately, using harsh words. The king, however, did not lose his temper with him. After a time he rose and displayed his arrogance in the presence of his legions, and the king passed a sentence of death upon him. So also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: “The first offence that you committed was a private matter between you and Me. Now, however, that it is done in the presence of the public, it is impossible to overlook it.” Thus it says: “[Because you did not believe in Me] in the eyes of the children of Israel.”

There is only one thing worse than sin and that is public sin. Why? The answer lies in reminding ourselves of our job description as Jews. We are entrusted with the weighty responsibly of being God’s public relations professionals, charged with mastering and utilizing all manner of social media in order to promote God’s name. When our private behavior falls short it is a personal failure. When our public behavior is odious it is a desecration of God’s name and a betrayal of our mandate as Jews. Let us never cease to be mindful of the awesome responsibility of bearing the title “Israel.”


May 10 2013

Why in the Desert? Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Bamidbar (“In the Desert”) and reiterates the geographic context of the revelation of Torah, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” The Torah never conveys information gratuitously. What is significant about the desert as the context for the giving, and receiving, of the Torah?
The Midrash focuses on this issue and provides multiple answers:

The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it. (Mechilta D’Rashbi)

Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end. (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana)

The Torah is not the monopoly of an intellectual elite, those with distinguished “yichus,” graduates of yeshivot, or any other subgroup of Jewish society. The Torah is the universal possession of the entire Jewish nation, no matter who we are or how we define ourselves. At the same time, we cannot fully actualize this heritage unless we are prepared to commit ourselves to a life-long engagement, full of discovery and self-discovery.

In light of these midrashim, the synchronicity of Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah, is no wonder. There can be no better time to renew our commitment to Torah than right now. I invite you to participate in the many opportunities available for learning in your community.


May 1 2013

Yom Yerushalayim -Jerusalem Day

 

Jerusalem of Gold

Jerusalem of Gold

This coming Wednesday, the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, Jews the world over will observe Jerusalem Day, celebrating the re-unification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty. “If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its strength. Let my tongue cling to my palate if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my highest happiness.” (Psalms 137) More than 2500 years ago the Jews sent into Babylonian exile uttered these words, swearing to maintain a profound mindfulness of Jerusalem. Why this radical commitment to Jerusalem?

I would like to share with you a few selections from a marvelous analysis by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, appearing on aish.com.

London comes from a Celtic word which means “a wild and wooded town.” Cairo is an anglicized version of the Arab name for Mars, the Roman god of war. Paris is named for the Paris of Greek myth, who was asked by the gods to choose between love, wisdom, and power. The Talmud says Jerusalem was named by God. The name has two parts: Yira, which means “to see,” and shalem, which means “peace.”

Elsewhere, God is a theory, but in Jerusalem, God is seen, and felt, as a tangible presence. In Jerusalem we reach beyond the frailty and vulnerability of our lives, and we sense and strive for transcendence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. In Jerusalem we anticipate clarity. Paris may be for lovers, but Jerusalem is for visionaries. Jerusalem is a metaphor for a perfected world, and it gives us perspective on our lives…

Already divided by language, by geography, and even by religion, our people are bound only by threads of memory and of hope. These threads are exquisitely fragile. If they sever we will fragment, and the long and bitter exile of our people ? not yet fully ended, is a consequence, says the Talmud, of the dissensions which sunder us from one another.

To this threat, Jerusalem provides counterpoint, for Jerusalem embodies our memories and hopes. Jerusalem is a living memory, a vision of God in our lives, an image of a perfected world. Jerusalem gives us the strength to achieve what we as a people must do, to unite ourselves, and to sanctify this world…

When Jerusalem was liberated by the army of the nation of Israel in June 1967, time was conflated. The past became present. What we had longed for became ours. What we had dreamed of became real, and soldiers wept because an adolescent Mediterranean country suddenly recovered a memory lost for 2000 years. The past was instantly present, incredibly, transcendentally, transforming who we knew ourselves to be.

I strongly recommend you read the article of Rabbi Simmons in its entirety.


Apr 18 2013

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Beyond Lies

Tell the Truth!

Tell the Truth!

This week’s Torah portion opens our eyes to the breath-taking demands made by Judaism for uncompromising adherence to honesty. In an intriguing string of prohibitions, the Torah commands, “You shall not steal, you shall not deny, neither shall you lie, one to another.” The fact that these three items are listed together led some commentators to suggest that the stealing referred to includes what is referred to in Jewish law as “gneivat da’at,” literally, “stealing of the mind.”

Let’s examine a biblical example that uses a very similar term. The Book of Samuel relates the story of the rebellion of Absalom against his father, King David. The text describes how he would ingratiate himself to the populace by displaying feigned affection and insincere sympathy for their grievances. Absalom’s behavior is summarized in the phrase, “and Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” Similarly, “stealing the mind” (gneivat da’at) refers to any conduct which serves to mislead people, even if well-short of being an overt lie.

The great Maimonides, in his monumental code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, rules:

“A person is forbidden to act in a smooth-tongued and luring manner. He should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart. Rather, his inner self should be like the self which he shows to the world. What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips. It is forbidden to deceive people… For example, one should not sell a gentile the meat of an animal which has not been ritually slaughtered as if it were ritually slaughtered meat, nor a shoe made from the hide of an animal which has died of natural causes as if it were made of the hide of a slaughtered animal (even though kosher considerations have no legal relevance to a non-Jew). One should not press his colleague to share a meal with him when he knows that his colleague will not accept the invitation, nor should he press presents upon him when he knows that his colleague will not accept them. He should not open casks (of wine) supposedly for his colleague which he must open for sale, in order to deceive him into thinking that they have been opened in his honor. The same applies with all matters of this sort. It is forbidden to utter a single word of deception or fraud. Rather, one should have only truthful speech, a proper spirit and a heart pure from all deceit and trickery.”

Our Talmudic sages add, “There are seven types of thieves, foremost among them is he who “steals the mind” of others (misleads)… He is considered as one who would even be willing to mislead the Almighty (!), for anyone who misleads others is called a thief…”

Another curious feature of our verse is that the three prohibitions listed use the plural form of the word “you,” while previous verses and subsequent verses use the singular form of “you.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Torah means to direct its remonstration not just to private citizens, but to those who represent and lead society as a collective whole, such as judges and political leaders.

All of society would be well-served to be reminded of the far-reaching demand on honesty and candor which the Torah imposes on both the simple citizen and, especially, upon leaders.

 

 

 


Feb 2 2012

A Better Understanding of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur

Talk is Cheap- Not!
In a very short time, millions of Jews throughout the world will gather in their synagogues and listen to the soul-stirring plaintive chant of Kol Nidre. Even though Kol Nidre is technically not part of the evening service (known as “maariv” or “arvit”) of Yom Kippur it has become synonymous in popular parlance with the evening service and is certainly experienced as its emotional highlight. Yet, an examination of the words of Kol Nidre leaves one mystified. What is so inspiring about “All personal vows, oaths, and pledges… we publicly renounce…”? Not only are the words not particularly emotionally resonant, their plain meaning is far from obvious.

Kol Nidre is one of the most awesome prayers of the entire Jewish year.

The Torah addresses the issue of vows in several places: “If a man vow a vow…he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” and “When you vow a vow…you shall not delay to pay it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be a sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you. That which is gone out of your lips you shall keep and perform.”

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes further sharpens the sentiment: “Do not be quick with your mouth… so let your words be few…many words mark the speech of a fool. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it… It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?

The Talmud goes one step further, declaring: “Even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked.”

The message is unmistakable. Talk is not cheap. It is very dear indeed. Our word must be our bond. It is better not to make promises.

Is there any positive function of vows? Yes. The great sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva, asserted that vows can be help to self-restraint. Precisely because of the awesome gravity by which we view our verbal commitment, such an articulation can be an effective last resort when battling weak self-control.

What is Kol Nidre? The Torah provides for mechanisms for cancellation of vows but within very specific familial circumstances or in the context of a court of law. As early as the ninth century Rabbi Amram Gaon in Babylonia pointed out that Kol Nidre does not conform to those parameters required by the Torah for the cancelation of vows.
The popular notion that Kol Nidre arose as a response to the Spanish inquisition of 1492 in order to allow for those Jews forced to vow allegiance to Catholicism to renege on that commitment is clearly false, given that it predates this event by at least 500 years!

One of the most compelling explanations of Kol Nidre was offered by Rabbenu Tam, the famous grandson of Rashi. Pointing to a comparable passage in the Talmud he suggests that Kol Nidre is not canceling past vows already uttered, but proactively clarifying the intent of promises that might be made in the coming year. They should be understood as careless formulations rather than as conscious and formal articulations of a vow. It is indeed similar to the practice of saying the Hebrew words “bli neder,” meaning “without taking a vow,” when offering to do something. It is akin to saying that we will make a good faith effort, but we value our words too much to take upon ourselves promises that we may not be able to fulfill.

From where does this reverence and care about the spoken word come? It is interesting to note that the first thing we learn about God in the Torah is that He creates, and He creates through the power of speech- “let there be light.” The pinnacle of creation is the human being, made in His image. When the Torah describes the creation of the first human being it states, “and man became a living being.” The classic Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah called Targum Onkeles, translates this phrase, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Our capacity for speech is the reflection of our Divine image. It is the most fundamental creative capacity by which we give form to that which existed only in the potential and hidden realm of thought.

Speech is our most precious and powerful capacity. To cheapen speech is to betray our very humanity, our Divine image. Isn’t it abundantly true that many, if not most, of the difficult situations which we create for ourselves are a product of our injudicious misuse of the power of speech? Indeed, I can think of a no more appropriate way to begin the Day of Atonement than through the somber reflection on just how cheap talk is not.

 


Feb 2 2012

Ellul Reflections

We are currently in the Hebrew month of Ellul leading up to the High Holiday season of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Now is the time to reflect on our private and communal lives, to evaluate the past year and to chart a better course for the future. The third day of the month of Ellul happens to be the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Israel during the period of the British Mandate. His memory serves as an instructive and inspirational message to frame this season and set priorities, especially for our communal lives.

When Rabbi Kook moved to Israel from Latvia in 1904 he encountered Jewish communities in conflict with each other: traditionalists verses secularists, rightists verses leftists, Ashkenazim verses Sepharadim, and the list goes on. Rabbi Kook devoted much of his rabbinic leadership to serving as a bridge between adversarial worlds.

In this spirit, Rabbi Kook invited some of the leading traditionalist rabbis to join him on a visit to the agricultural settlements of the secularist Zionist pioneers. Rabbi Kook’s motive was to help the other rabbis appreciate the self-sacrificing idealism of the young Zionists and to inspire the pioneers with the nobility of the message of the Torah.

The rabbinic delegation arrived one evening to the agricultural settlement of Poriya, near Tiberias, just as the workers were sitting down to eat. Since the food was not kosher the rabbis waited outside the dining room for the meal to end. When the rabbis heard the pioneers begin to sing, Rabbi Kook convinced his colleagues to join the young men and women of the settlement. Upon entering Rabbi Kook raised his hand and silence fell upon the room. He then passionately implored, “The time has come to end the state of estrangement between us. Dear brothers and sisters, come close. The time has come for the uniting of the hearts of the Old Settlement with those of the New Settlement. We have come to you, but please take a step towards us …”

At this point Rabbi Kook urged all present to join a dance. As the pioneers and the rabbis began to dance together in circles Rabbi Kook stealthily left the room. He approached the guard of the settlement and exchanged clothes with him. As the enthusiastic dancing was continuing, Rabbi Kook returned, dressed as a pioneer guard, complete with kafiye Arab headdress and rifle in hand. Upon noticing Rabbi Kook’s entrance, the dancing and singing ceased in curious amazement at the strange sight. Rabbi Kook addressed the crowd with words emerging from the depths of his heart, “The Chassidim teach that the greatness of dancing lies in the necessity to jump a little off the floor. We then can view the world from a different angle, from a fresh perspective. Let us join in dance. Let us see a renewed world. A world without “old” and “new,” without hatred and hostility, a world where rabbis can where the clothes of pioneering guards and where pioneer guards are capable of wearing the clothes of rabbis.” The dancing of the rabbis and Zionist pioneers continued till dawn when Rabbi Kook collapsed muttering, “Blessed be God who has brought me to this moment…”

Let’s lift our feet off the floor and gain a refreshed and continually renewed perspective that will preserve and further nurture a cohesive community- the hidden secret of our peoples’ survival.

 

 


Apr 14 2011

What’s in a Name, in the Case of Passover, a Lot!

What’s in a Name? In the Case of “Pesach,” a Lot!

Rabbi Joel Zeff

 

The holiday of Pesach is known in English as “Passover.” Though English translations of Hebrew terms are occasionally imprecise, in this case the translation seems appropriate, after all, in the Haggada itself we say, “Because the Holy One, blessed be He, passed-over the houses of our fathers in Egypt.”  It may be news to many that this reference in the Haggada is not to the name of the holiday, but to the name of the special offering, the Paschal lamb, enjoyed by all in Temple times on Passover. But this is not the big surprise.

The famous Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Onkeles renders the Hebrew term “u’phasachti,”  (Exodus 12:13- a verb from the same root as Pesach) with the Aramaic word, “ve’achus,” which means  “I will have compassion.” The Talmudic sages also suggest such a meaning in a midrash found in the collection Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, “As a reward for the mitzvah that  you are doing I will reveal myself and have compassion on you, as it is said, “u’phasachti over you,” and this term means nothing other than compassion.” Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, quotes this rather unknown translation of the term Pesach suggested by Onkeles and the midrash, only to emphatically reject it, insisting that the term does indeed  mean  “to  pass over.”

These two schools of thought can be reconciled, with a profound insight, through another midrash from the collection entitled “Pesikta Rabbati.” Let’s examine the text:

The voice of my beloved is coming, skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills (Song of Songs 2).

Rabbi Yehuda explains, This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed, did not the Holy One, blessed be he tell Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years, and only 210 years have passed?! Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your calculations, but rather will skip-over them…”

Rabbi Nachman explains… This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed, is not the land of Egypt filled with our idolatry?  Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your evil deeds, but rather will skip-over them…”

The rabbis explain… This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed when we have no good deeds?  Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your evil deeds, but rather will skip-over them…”

The Song of Songs is a romantic poem describing the loving relationship between God and Israel which is expressed particularly through the exodus from Egypt. The verse referenced in the central text of the midrash “skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills” is understood as an allusion to the Pesach of the exodus from Egypt in which God skipped over. But the passing over is not being interpreted solely with the conventional meaning of the passing over the Jewish homes during the plague of the killing of the first-born. The passing over here is God’s passing over of consideration of all the many reasons not to redeem His nation: the appointed hour had not yet arrived, we were full of idolatry, and we lacked positive good deeds. In other words, God skipped and passed over his attribute of justice and expressed his attribute of pure loving kindness, his unlimited grace, like that of a mother who loves her children unconditionally. Indeed, the same Hebrew root that means “womb” also means “mercy.”

This midrash unites both meanings of the name Pesach.  It does mean to “pass over,” as Rashi explains, and it does mean “compassion” as Onkeles explains. Pesach is a powerful reference to God’s passing over his attribute of reasonable and just considerations (in Hebrew, din) in order to redeem Israel through his unconditional loving compassion (in Hebrew, rachamim). We often feel unworthy of God’s love and perhaps rightfully so, but Pesach is the great reminder that ultimately we rely on a wonderful Jewish notion of divine grace.

The prophet Micah tells us, “As in the days when you left Egypt, I shall show you wonders [during the final Redemption].”  Though we dare not desist from our unending obligation to grow as Jews, we must never despair because of our shortcomings, for ultimately the final redemption will be a “passover” just as the first. May it be soon, in our days!

 

 

 

 



Mar 13 2011

Purim’s Strange Mitzva

One of the most perplexing and seemingly “un-Jewish”  of the practices of Judaism is the Talmudic injunction, “One is obligated to drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.’” The Torah addresses excessive drinking in several narratives.

Upon the conclusion   of the cataclysmic flood, Noah plants a vineyard. The biblical next relates that Noah imbibed his wine to intoxication and “uncovered himself within his tent.” Whatever then occurred is hidden in an extraordinarily cryptic text, “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw their father’s nakedness and told his two brother’s outside.” The Talmud suggests that a grievous transgression of a sexual nature took place. In any case, the severity of the act is reflected in the punishment meted out to Ham’s family, “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

In the wake of the destruction of Sodom and Gemara, Lot and his two daughters find refuge in a cave. His daughters assume that the world has come to an end and the three of them remain alone of all humanity. In an effort to replenish the earth’s population they ply their father with wine and proceed to sleep with him. From these unions are born the nations of Moav and Ammon, known in the biblical context for their ignoble legacy.

This is just part of what seems to e the Torah’s polemic against drunkenness. The dissonance between this and the “strange mitzvah” of drinking on Purim was duly noted by the medieval commentators. Let’s examine the subtly profound view of Rabbi Aharon ben Yaakov (14th century). But we must first see the formulation of the great codifier, Maimonides (12th century), who states:

What does the obligation to serve this meal entail? One should eat meat and in general have as fine a repast as his means would allow, and drink wine until it overcomes him and makes him fall asleep… It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Is. 57:15)

Maimonides is not altogether clear on how much one should drink on Purim. Some suggest that he means that one should drink a little more than usual so that one becomes sleepy and in a state of sleep one cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman and blessed be Morchechai.” In any case, what interests us is his qualifying of the Purim feast with the exhortation to budget more for the gifts to the poor than on a particularly lavish feast for family and friends.
Now let’s carefully examine the formulation of Rabbi Aharon ben Yaakov, in his important work, Kol Bo, whose ordering of the material was clearly inspired by Maimonides :

The statement, ‘A man is obligated to drink on Purim …’ does not mean to become intoxicated, for drunkenness is completely forbidden; no sin is worse, for it leads to sexual misconduct and spilling of blood and various other transgressions. Rather,  one should drink a little more than he is accustomed to, so that he should be very joyful. Thus he will also give joy to the poor, comforting them and speaking to their hearts – and this is joy in its full perfection.

Rabbi Aharon’s juxtaposition of the Purim feast with the emphasis on providing for the poor is clearly evocative of Maimonides. But notice the difference! In Maimonides the connecting link is the budgeting issue. In Rabbi Aharon the link is causal, “thus he will also give to the poor…”. Somehow, the proper fulfillment of the mitzvah to drink wine leads to the proper fulfillment of the mitzvah of charity. Furthermore, Maimonides does not address in what manner the mitzvah of charity is to be carried out, other than “writing a check.” Rabbi Aharon, in contrast, states “…comforting them and speaking to their hearts…”. But how does “drinking a little more than he is accustomed to” fulfill the Talmudic measure of not be able to distinguish between “cursed be Haman and blessed be Morchechai”? The answer is the key to the subtly profound approach of Rabbi Aharon.

Perhaps Rabbi Aharon is suggesting that we tend (sometimes justifiably) to classify people into two groups, “the good ones and the bad ones, the successful and the failures, the attractive and the repugnant” or in metaphorical terms, “the Morchechais” and “the Hamans.” The poor and destitute are perceived as failures and are often unattractive and even repulsive in their dress, hygiene, and mannerisms. Most of us are willing to share are resources with them, as long as we don’t have to relate to them on a truly personal and human-to-human level. We fear personally associating with these unfortunates, lest we somehow then be perceived, by ourselves or by others, as not that different. Rabbi Aharon is telling us that a glass of wine can be a gentle aid to changing our consciousness, helping us to transcend our classification of people in a way that divides and separates, preventing us from the fullest possible fulfillment of the mitzvah of giving to the poor, which cannot suffice with a mere writing of a check but must be accompanied by “comforting them and speaking to their hearts.”

Wishing us all a most joyous Purim, “for no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers.”