Dec 19 2015

Parshat Vayigash: Reviving the Spirit of Yaakov

Joseph_Overseer_of_the_Pharaohs_GranariesSurely one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah is when Yaakov receives the news that Yosef is alive and is the viceroy of Egypt. As expected, Yaakov is in a state of shocked disbelief until, “he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent to carry him, the spirit of Yaakov their father was revived.” What was it about seeing the wagons that revived him?

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi, is well-known as the foremost exegete of the most straightforward level of meaning of the Torah, referred to in Hebrew as “peshat.” The Rashbam notes that after Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers and sends them back to Yaakov with wagons, the Torah is careful to state, “Yosef gave them wagons, as Pharaoh had commanded, and he also gave them provisions for their journey.” Pharoah himself had authorized the provision of wagons. In fact, the Torah records that very authorization, as Phaorah commands Yosef, “You are also directed to tell them, ‘Do this: Take some wagons from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come.”

Apparently, the export of wagons from Egypt was strictly regulated and could only be done at Pharaoh’s behest. When Yaakov saw the wagons, it confirmed that Yosef was not only alive, but had risen to a position of incredible influence and respect, so much so that Pharoah himself would act on his behalf. This sight signaled to Yaakov that Yosef’s dreams of ascending to a position of rule had been fulfilled. This was the moment which Yaakov had pondered from the time he had about Yosef’s dreams, “his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”

Rashi, Rashbam’s “Zeida,” gives a very different interpretation, based on a Midrash, “Yosef gave his brothers a sign to relay to their father: that at the time that Yosef had parted from Yaakov, they had been studying the laws of Eglah Arufah (“The Beheaded Heifer,” Deuteronomy 21). Thus, although it was Pharaoh who had sent the wagons, the verse says, “And when he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent” — for the “wagons” (agalot) of which the verse speaks is a reference to the Eglah Arufah.”

This Midrash requires quite a bit of unpacking. The law of the Eglah Arufah, simply stated, is that if a corpse is found in an open field and it is not known who is the murderer, the elders of the nearest city have to go out and make a proclamation including the phrase, “our hands did not spill this blood.” They then bring an atonement offering, a special sacrifice, known as the Eglah Arufa, the beheaded heifer.

The Talmud wrestles with what seems to be an internal contradiction in this mitzvah. If “our hands did not spill this blood” then why is there a need for an elaborate atonement ceremony? Our Sages explain that, although it occurred outside of the jurisdiction of the city, nevertheless it was their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection. They were remiss in not “going the extra mile,” literally.

Now what is the connection to the wagons that Yosef had sent to Yaakov that so revived his spirit? The Midrash connects these wagons to the mitzvah of Eglah Arufa, through a poetic resonance of the Hebrew words for heifer and wagon: eglah (heifer) and agalah (wagon), which sound so similar. The sight of an agalah (wagon) was a coded reminder of the last topic discussed by Yaakov and Yosef, the mitzvah of the eglah (heifer).

According to the Chassidic masters, this encoded message accomplished much more than the confirmation of the identity of the sender.

The principle behind the law of Eglah Arufah is that a person is responsible also for what occurs outside of his domain — outside of the areas where he is fully in control. This mitzvah is a profound expression of the meaning of taking responsibility. In the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “This is the deeper significance of the message which Yosef sent to Yaakov. Father, he was saying, I have not forgotten the law of Eglah Arufah. I have been exiled from the sacred environment of your home, but I have not allowed my soul to travel to the spiritual no-man’s-land of Egypt without provision; I have not abandoned it to a spiritual death with the justification that ‘This is outside of my element; I have no way of dealing with this.’ After 22 years of slavery, imprisonment and political power in the most depraved society on the face of the earth, I am the same Yosef who left your home on the day that we studied the laws of Eglah Arufah. This was the message that revived the spirit of Yaakov.”

We live in a society which is quick to abdicate personal responsibility. It is someone else’s fault. Some external circumstance led to this mess. Yosef could easily have severed his ties with his family and the covenantal mandate. Yosef had endured a string of traumatic experiences and was very far, in multiple ways, from home. Yet, remarkably, Yosef takes full ownership of his behavior and never betrays the vision and values taught to him by Yaakov while he had “dwelt in the tent” of his father’s tutelage.

It is so tempting to abdicate personal responsibility. It is even fashionable. Our Sages are exhorting us to buck the trend and take full ownership of our behavior. May the great fortitude and integrity of our spiritual heroes inspire us to do the same and thereby revive the spirit of Yaakov in our lives.

Mar 20 2015

Wishing You a Kosher Pesach

animals for sacrifices

animals for sacrifices

Our Torah portion deals with the details of the sacrificial offerings. I am sure that, for many of us, it is a challenge to “relate” to the details of ritual sacrifice which is so far removed from our current reality. One could suggest that our parsha’s significance lies in the future messianic period in which the Temple ritual will be fully restored. But Jewish tradition insists that every word, every letter, even every decorative crown of the letters, has significance and meaning for us all, in every generation, independent of the existence of the Holy Temple.
The word “Midrash” comes from a root meaning “search out” or “demand.” Midrash is not a “bubbe myseh” (Yiddish term for a fairy tale your grandmother might have told you). Midrash is nothing less than the effort to demand meaning from the Torah. The methodology of reading Midrash is a discipline in and of itself and is not for now. Let’s see how the Midrash understands our Torah portion. In fact, an examination of the Midrashic literature reveals a consistent theme winding its way through this week’s Torah reading.
The Torah states, “A man (adam) who shall bring near of you an offering to God.” Midrash Tanchuma comments:
Why does God use the word “adam” for “man” (instead of the more common synonym “ish”)? To teach us that a person cannot offer to God what has not been honestly obtained by him. God is saying: “When you bring an offering to Me, be like Adam the first man, who could not have stolen from anyone, since he was alone in the world.”
The Torah continues with the details of preparing a bird-offering, “And he shall remove its crop with its feathers, and cast it beside the Altar.” Midrash Rabbah comments:
The bird flies about and swoops throughout the world, and eats indiscriminately; it eats food obtained by robbery and by violence. Said God: Since this crop is filled with the proceeds of robbery and violence, let it not be offered on the altar… On the other hand, the domestic animal is reared on the crib of its master and eats neither indiscriminately nor of that obtained by robbery or by violence; for this reason the whole of it is offered up.
What a striking similarity of theme! The Torah demands absolute integrity when it comes to financial dealings.
We are now very much in the Pesach mode. It is a time when the laws of kashrut become more intense and demand quite an effort and focus of intention. It is not surprising that the traditional greeting of this season is, “Chag kasher ve’samayach- Have a kosher and happy Pesach!” Perhaps our Torah portion, read at this time, is reminding us that, just as we make great efforts to assure we have only properly kosher food for Pesach, so too, we must be every bit as careful to assure that we have kosher money, as well- and, of course, not just on Pesach!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher ve’Samayach.

May 29 2013

Parshat Shlach: We are All Converts!

Rabbi Joel Zeff

The Vilna Gaon was the Mentor of Count Valentine Potocki, the Righteous Convert

The yahrtzeit of Count Valentine Potocki was recently observed. Now I am sure that very few readers will recognize this name and may wonder why we would observe the anniversary of the death of a Polish count.

Count Valentine Potocki was born into an aristocratic Polish Catholic family in the year 1700. As a young man he became interested in Judaism and contemplated conversion, a capital offense in most countries of Christian Europe of the time. Valentine travelled to Amsterdam, one of the few places allowing for conversion to Judaism, and formally embraced his new-found faith and people. Years later Count Valentine moved to the area of Vilna and was befriended by the greatest rabbinical authority of the time, Rabbi Eliyahu, known as the Vilna Gaon, who recognized the spiritual majesty of this Jew by choice.

Valentine was subsequently arrested for the “crime” of becoming a Jew. The court gave him the option of renouncing Judaism or execution. Steadfastly refusing to betray his faith and his people, Count Valentine Potocki was burned at the stake in Vilna on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, 1749. According to tradition, some of his ashes were retrieved and were ultimately interred in the same grave as the Vilna Gaon. Born as Valentine Potocki, this heroic soul died as Abraham the son Abraham and is known for posterity as the Ger Tzedek, the Righteous Convert, of Vilna.

This week’s Torah portion provides the framework for conversion, “One rule applies to the congregation and for the convert who resides with you; one rule applies, throughout your generations; just as for you, so it is for the convert, before the Lord.” At first glance this verse seems to say the same thing three times: the insistence that the convert and the born Jew be treated by the same standard.  The Talmud asserts that there are no gratuitous duplications in the Torah.  The phrase “just as for you, so it is for the convert” is explained to refer to the actual procedural requirements for conversion and could be paraphrased as, “Just as you became Jewish, so too, Jews by choice will become Jewish.” The Talmud then analyzes the great event of the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai, which we just celebrated a few weeks ago during the holiday of Shavuot. The Talmud concludes that just as we underwent circumcision, ritual immersion, and brought certain offerings, in order to become Jewish, so too, future converts will need to undergo the same. (The offerings will be brought when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt.)

According to this, we are all converts! The Children of Israel who left Egypt were not formally “Jewish” until they converted at the foot of Mount Sinai. The only difference between me and a contemporary convert is when the conversion took place; mine was 3,325 years ago while my neighbor in shul converted more recently.

In light of this we can bring a more nuanced meaning to the mitzvah, found several times in the Torah, entreating us to love the convert, “The convert who lives with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for “convert” and “stranger” are the same, (ger.) The Torah explains why we are commanded to love the convert, for we were once “strangers” in Egypt. The Children of Israel experienced the sense of alienation and insecurity associated with not being a “native” and therefore should be uniquely equipped to have profound empathy for the convert in our midst.  In light of the Talmud’s explanation that we are all converts, who converted as part of the process of the Exodus from Egypt and culminating at Sinai, we can add that “for you were strangers” might also mean “for you were also converts.” We were both strangers and converts and must, therefore, treat the more recent converts with the utmost love and honor.

There is a powerful symbolism associated with the martyrdom of Count Valentine Potocki-Abraham son of Abraham, occurring on the holiday of Shavuot, the day we became Israel in the fullness sense at the foot of Sinai. This week’s Torah reading, “just as for you, so it is for the convert,” serves to remind us that those precious individuals who have chosen to join their fate with the Jewish people have been, and continue to be, among the most remarkable and inspiring members of the nation chosen to bear witness to the everlasting relevance of the message of Sinai.

May 24 2013

Parshat B’ha’alotcha: “The Disgrace of Accommodation”

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

The Book of Bamidbar, which we began reading two weeks ago, is explicitly dated as beginning with “the first day of the second month after the exodus from the land of Egypt.” It is more than surprising that this week’s portion contains the commandment to offer up the Paschal lamb, “in the second year from their exodus from the land of Egypt, in the first month,” going backwards in time relative to the beginning of this book of the Torah! Indeed, this example is often cited as the proof-text that the Torah is not written in chronological order. Even though we accept this principle we still need to ask why the Torah moves events out of their chronological order. Why didn’t the Torah begin the Book of Bamidbar with this commandment of the first Paschal sacrifice in the wilderness?

Rashi, following the midrash, answers, “Why, indeed, does not the Book of Numbers open with this chapter? Because it is a disgrace for Israel. For in the forty years that the Jewish people were in the desert, this was the only Passover offering they brought.”

This explanation requires an explanation. The Torah limits the Paschal offering to “when you come into the land” and this instance is an exception to that rule. As long as they were in the wilderness they would be disbarred from offering the Passover lamb by Divine command. If so, what disgrace is there in the fact that this instance would be the only Paschal lamb in forty years? After all, God had ordained it so!

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson explains that the answer lies in the very next passage in the Torah describing the genesis of the mitzva of the “Second Passover:”

A group of Jews had found themselves in a state which, according to Torah law, absolved them from the duty to bring the Passover offering. Yet they refused to reconcile themselves to this. And their impassioned plea and demand, “Why should we be deprived?” swayed G-d to establish a new institution, the “Second Passover,” to enable them, and all who will find themselves in a similar situation in future generations, “to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel.”

Therein lies the “disgrace” in those thirty-eight Passover-less years in the desert. Why did the Jewish people reconcile themselves to the Divine decree? Why did they accept this void in their relationship with God? Why did they not petition for an opportunity to serve Him in the full and optimum manner that the mitzvot of the Torah describe?

For more than nineteen-hundred years now, our Passovers have been incomplete. We eat the matzah and the bitter herbs, we drink the four cups of wine, we ask and answer the four questions, but the heart and essence of Passover, the Passover offering, is absent from our Seder table. For God has hidden His face from us, has removed the Holy Temple, the seat of His manifest presence on physical earth, from our midst.

The lesson of the “displaced” ninth chapter of Numbers is clear: God desires and expects of us that we refuse to reconcile ourselves to the decree of galut and its diminution of His manifest involvement in our lives. He desires and expects of us that we storm the gates of heaven with the plea and demand: “Why should we be deprived?!”

Our disgrace is our accommodation with a mediocre, “second-rate,” compromised existence. Let us indeed storm the gates of heaven and demand nothing but the best! And may God, our compassionate parent, “give in” to our petulant petition.

May 17 2013

Parshat Naso: The Holy Sinner?

We are commanded to partake of the good things God gives us.

We are commanded to partake of the good things God gives us.

This week’s parsha deals with, among other topics, the nazirite, who takes a vow to abstain from wine, cutting his hair, and coming into contact with the dead. Our Sages seemed to have contradictory views about the propriety of such a vow. Witness the following discussion in the Talmud. It is inspired by two verses that seem to imply two very different messages about the nazir. One verse decrees that the nazirite bring a sin offering at the completion of the term of his vow, “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by his soul.” Yet another verse proclaims the nazirite to be holy, “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.” The Sages comment:

Whoever fasts is termed a sinner… For it has been taught: … What is the Torah referring to when it says, “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by his soul.” Against which soul did he sin? That he denied himself wine. Now, if this man who denied himself wine only is termed “sinner,” how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things!
Rabbi Eleazar says: He is termed holy. For it is written (ibid., v. 5), “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.” Now, if this man who denied himself wine only is termed “holy,” how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things! (Talmud, Taanit 11a)

Perhaps the resolution between these seemingly contradictory views can be seen in a third Talmudic passage:

Simon the Just said: In the whole of my life, I never ate of the guilt-offering of a nazir, except in one instance. There was a man who came to me from the South. He had beautiful eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls. I asked him: “Why, my son, did you resolve to destroy such beautiful hair?” He answered: “In my native town, I was my father’s shepherd, and, on going down to draw water from the well, I saw my reflection [in its waters]. My heart leaped within me and my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to compass my ruin, and so I said to it: ‘Evil one! Why do you plume yourself over on a world that is not your own? For your end is but worms and maggots. I swear that I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven!'” Then I rose and kissed him upon his head and said to him: “May there be many nazirites such as you in Israel. Of one such as yourself does the verse (Numbers 6:2) say: ‘A man or a woman who shall pronounce a special vow of a nazir, to consecrate themselves to G-d.'” (Talmud, Nazir 4b; Sifri)

Both vows are correct! Refraining from physical pleasures, like wine, can be a sin and can also make one holy! It all depends on our ability to find the right balance of involvement in physicality. We have a body and a soul that require just the perfect balance to maintain proper wholesomeness. Asceticism is a rejection of the delights that God has created for us in this potential Garden of Eden and is a sin. Yet abuse of these pleasures leads to destruction of our Godly souls, as well as our bodily health! At the moment we see that we are out of balance, we need to “err” more to the other side. If we have become overly “angelic,” then that is a sure sign we need a nice glass of wine. If we are abusing alcohol, this is the time to become more like the angels, who only pretend to eat and drink, but in reality abstain.

“The Torah of God is whole, restoring the soul”- The Torah is the ultimate self-help manual. Everything has its time and place, leading us to wholeness. May God grant us the wisdom to discern when to partake and when to abstain.

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.

Apr 25 2013

Parshat Emor: Save the Shmuzing for the Kiddush

Cohanim Blessing the People in the Temple

Cohanim Blessing the People in the Temple

This week’s Torah reading deals extensively with various aspects of the functioning of the institution of the Tabernacle and of what would become the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most interesting of these details is the disqualification of priests who have certain physical abnormalities. It is obvious that these “defects” are not the fault of these cohanim. Neither are those individuals relegated to an inferior class of humanity in any way. The disqualification is exclusively with regards to the full functioning as a cohen in the Holy Temple. Why?

The Torah is quite explicit with regards to the purpose of the Holy Temple and its antecedent, the Tabernacle- “make for me a Holy Temple so that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) The function of the Temple is to create a context for the in-dwelling of the Divine Presence, a sacred space in which we can feel the majesty of God’s presence in the world. There can be no doubt that aesthetics play a major role in the arousal of the sense of awe which the Torah desires we experience in the “House of God.” The physical appearance of the cohanim is one component which contributes to producing the desired aesthetic-psychological-spiritual effect.

Consistent with the above is the Torah’s demand that we engage in only the most decorous behavior in the Temple. The verse, “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” (Leviticus 19:29) is explained by the Oral Law to forbid from the Temple precincts, among other things, excessive levity, unkempt dress and hygiene, spitting, turning one’s back to the Holy of Holies, and non-mitzvah related activities.

When the prophet Ezekiel expressed despair over the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem God offered comfort by responding that even in post-exilic times He will sanction the creation of sacred space, “although I have removed them far off among the nations… yet I will be for them a miniature Temple in the lands to which they have come.” (Ezekiel 11:16) The Talmud explains that this verse is referring to synagogues and study halls.

For this reason many of the same demands for uplifting aesthetics and proper decorum apply to our synagogues. Indeed, the momentous and universally accepted law code, Shulchan Aruch, devotes several chapters to these standards.

With the help of God and the blood, sweat, and not a few tears of many devoted people, many Jewish communities have built a “miniature Temple” worthy of the term. The verse “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” compels us to be ever vigilant to protect and improve the sanctity of our sanctuary.

It is obviously not enough for the furniture to fulfill the mitzvah of “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place.” We who fill this sacred place must demand of ourselves to be on the highest standards of behavior within the synagogue, if not at all times! Let us make sure that our synagogues become known as “the shul in which the worshipers worship,” and save the shmuzing for the Kiddush.

Apr 10 2013

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: The Land of the Shechinah

Our Jewish calendar is fast bringing us to both the celebration of Israel Independence Day and the Torah Portion of  Tazria-Metzora. Israel Independence Day, of course, celebrates the establishment of the modern Jewish State on May 14, 1948. The Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora deals largely with certain types of skin blemishes (tza’ra’at, in Hebrew) and the procedures to be followed in response, including the possibility of quarantine. It is hard to imagine two subjects more seemingly unrelated, but let me take you on a short Torah adventure.

First, just to set the record straight- despite the common translation of the Hebrew term for these skin blemishes as “leprosy,” the commentators emphatically explain that this is not a medical malady. The Torah describes these same blemishes as appearing on the walls of the home and on clothing, clearly not indicative of any known natural dermatological ailment! Our Sages explain that this was a super-natural phenomenon indicating the presence of some form of unethical behavior, particularly leshon ha’ra, destructive speech. These blemishes served to alert the effected parties to the need to change their ways.

In an intriguing twist, the Torah qualifies this phenomenon, “When you come to the land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession, I will place the affliction of tza’ra’at on a house in the land of your possession.” For some reason, tza’ra’at is particularly associated with the Land of Israel. The commentators explain that this phenomenon is a function of the more intense concentration of the Divine Presence, the Shechina, in the Holy Land. Sin diminishes this special concentration of the Divine Presence and it is this diminution of the Shechina which gives rise to these blemishes. The Land of Israel is characterized by a uniquely intense revelation of the Shechina so that its departure might manifest itself in tza’ra’at.

The work of Torah commentary entitled Iturei Torah explains further why this association with the Land of Israel is especially expressed by blemishes on the home. The author suggests that the blemish is finely tuned to identify the specific nature of the sin which brought it about. If an individual sins with his body, then the blemish appears on the body. If the sin was with one’s possessions, then the blemish materializes on garments. Finally, if the sin is not that of the individual, but a collective turpitude of society as a whole, then this communal defect is expressed on the house. This precision aids us to focus our efforts at moral repair. As individual Jews, we bear full responsibility for our sins as individuals, and their repair, no matter where we may live. But the full experience of Jewish society on a collective level is only possible in Israel. Only in Israel do we, as Jews, have the opportunity, and responsibility, to build a state on the ethical vision of our constitution, the Torah. For this reason, tza’ra’at on the house is particularly associated with the Land of Israel.

It surely is no coincidence that this Torah reading occurs proximate to Israel Independence Day. The message of tza’ra’at is a profound reminder of our feelings about the modern State of Israel. Israel is the Holy Land. It is not just another piece of real estate. The Divine Presence is palpable in the Land. At the same time, the Jewish State is an enormous obligation. It is not just another member state of the United Nations. It has been given to the Jewish People in trust. We have a collective mandate to build a society that will illuminate the world with Divine ethics. The message of tza’ra’at on this Israel Independence Day today is to deepen our appreciation of the Jewish State as both profound privilege and awesome responsibility.

Mar 7 2013

Vayakhal-Pekudei: When Not to Do a Mitzvah

I want to share with you a short, and not so sweet, thought based on this week’s parsha. In a remarkable display of generosity, Bnai Yisrael respond to Moshe’s call for the raw materials with which to build the Tabernacle with an overabundance of donations. When is the last time a fund-raising campaign issued a call for the cessation of donations (!), yet here we read:

And they spoke to Moses, saying: “The people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the Lord had commanded to do.” So Moses commanded, and they announced in the camp, saying: “Let no man or woman do any more work for the offering for the Holy.” So the people stopped bringing.

The great commentator Alsheich comments on this phenomenon. “When so commanded, refraining from doing a mitzvah is no less a mitzvah than doing a mitzvah.”

An extremely important application of this principle is concerning the mitzvah of rebuke. The Torah states, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” The Hebrew uses a double form of the verb “rebuke” (hocheach tocheach) which is often understood as providing emphasis, hence “you shall surely rebuke…” However, our sages understood this double expression in a different way. The Talmud records the view that just as it is a mitzvah to rebuke when it will be heeded, so too it is a mitzvah not to rebuke if it will not be heeded.

Now consider the following passage in the Talmud:

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: “In this generation there is no one capable of receiving rebuke.” Rabbi Akiva said: “In this generation there is no one who knows how rebuke ought to be worded.”

The emerging message is that rebuke is most volatile and mostly doomed to, not just fail, but to exasperate the situation. Anyone who has lived in the real world and has eyes in their head has had more than enough experience of this!

As the Alsheich comments, “When so commanded, refraining from doing a mitzvah is no less a mitzvah than doing a mitzvah.”
So what are we to do when confronted by improper behavior? Listen to the profound words of the Baal Shem Tov:

If you see a person doing something ugly, meditate on the presence of that same ugliness in ourselves. And know that it is one of God’s mercies that God brought this sight before your eyes in order to remind you of that fault in you, so as to bring you back in repentance…

Let us hope for the inspiration to do many mitzvot and the wisdom to know when to desist from doing a “mitzvah.”


Jan 17 2013

“Months and Meaning” Parshat Bo

Rashi, the greatest of the Biblical commentators, begins his analysis of the Torah with an astonishing question. Rashi assumes that the Torah is a book of “instruction,” which is the literal meaning of the word “Torah.” If so, the Biblical text should have begun with the verse in this week’s Torah reading, “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year,” which is the first instruction, or mitzvah, given to the newly born Jewish nation. Rashi goes on to explain why the Torah does, in fact, begin with the narrative of Genesis. We can examine his answer another time. For today, let’s focus on why the mitzvah of “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year,” was chosen as the first commandment given to the Nation of Israel and perhaps should even have been the very first sentence of the Torah. What is this mitzvah and why is it so significant?

Rashi explains that the simple meaning of the verse is the commandment to have the month in which the exodus from Egypt took place (what we now call the month of Nissan) be the reference point for the naming of all of the months, in an ordinal fashion. Nissan will be called “the First Month,” Iyyar by the name “the Second Month,” Sivan as “the Third Month,” and so on. Indeed, in the Torah itself, the months are given no other names than these ordinal designations. At first glance it seems that this point is technical and certainly does not justify the seemingly disproportionate attention given to this mitzvah.

Ramban, the greatest of the medieval Spanish commentators reveals the secret. Time references are generally a convenient but arbitrary way of making our lives more manageable. Not so is the path of Torah, which seeks to infuse everything with meaning. Designating the months with ordinal names (the First Month, the Second Month, etc.) starting with the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt makes that great act of Divine redemption the reference point for all dates. If we say, “I was born in the Third Month,” we are also reminding ourselves of God’s saving grace, since the Third Month, by its very semantic nature is only meaningful relative to the First Month- which is the month of deliverance. Every time we write a date, we are not simply marking time. We are heightening our consciousness of God’s ongoing loving and active concern for us.

The Talmud tells us that the present names we use for the months (Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, etc.) were imported into our Hebrew lexicon when we returned to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile after the fall of the Babylonian empire and the ascension of the Persians. If so, doesn’t this undermine the meaning of this wonderful mitzvah? The Ramban again provides the answer. No, he argues, in fact it deepens the meaning of the idea behind this commandment. When we use the Babylonian names for the months we are further reminded of God’s redemptive presence in history, which was not just a one-time act with regards to Egypt. The second great exile, this time to Babylonia, came to end, as well, through the ever-present action, even if somewhat hidden, of Divine Providence.

It is noteworthy that in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the English names of the months are often used, transliterated into Hebrew consonants and vocalization. Could it be that this is yet another, and this time ultimate, reminder of God’s abiding faithfulness to us? When we utter the Prayer for the State of Israel we refer to it as “the first-flowering of our redemption”- redemption from the current dispersion of our people, mostly in the lands of Western civilization, where these names of the months are in universal use. When the process of redemption will be fully actualized and we all make aliya to Israel, then the use of these names by our Modern- Hebrew speaking children will serve, yet again, to remind us of God’s abiding faithfulness to His promises.