Posted on

The Rav’s Thoughts on the Tisha B’Av Kinot

Excerpted from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot: Lookstein Edition. Edited by Rabbi Simon Posner, Kinot translated by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

This kina, by Rabbi Kalonymos ben Yehuda of Speyer, laments the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders in 1096, which destroyed the most prominent Jewish communities of the Rhineland. The main motif of this kina (מי יתן ראשי מים, Mi Yiten Roshi Mayim), a motif found in some of the prior kinot, is that the death of the righteous is equivalent to the burning of the Beit HaMikdash.

If we are to mourn for the Beit HaMikdash, we must also mourn the death of the great Torah scholars. Since the tragedy of the destruction of the Torah centers in Germany is equivalent to the Hurban Beit HaMikdash, we are justified in thinking that a special fast day should have been established to mourn for the martyrs of those massacres. However, the kina declares, we are not to add any fast day beyond Tisha B’Av to commemorate any other catastrophe, massacre, or destruction.

The phrase in the kina “אי תורה ותלמוד והלומדה, Where are Torah, Talmud, and students?” has a message. The message of this phrase of the kina is that it is important to mourn not only for the great scholars but for the ordinary Jews as well. One does not have to be a genius or a great teacher of Torah. All one has to do is study, at any level. This itself is part of mesora, the chain of tradition. Our mesora consists not only of brilliant scholars, but also of simple Jews who study even if they do not understand what they study.

The phrase “Where are Torah, Talmud, and students?” was the phrase used by a Holocaust survivor to describe to me his feelings at visiting Vilna on Kol Nidrei night in 1945. Shortly after he was liberated, he returned to Vilna where he had lived before the War, for the High Holidays. It is difficult to describe what Vilna looked like on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur before the War. In one neighborhood there were eight or nine synagogues, including the Beit Knesset HaGra and a synagogue that dated back to the Middle Ages. This person remembered what the Vilna shulhoif, the neighborhood where the synagogues were located, was like on Kol Nidrei night when tens of thousands of Jews would congregate. On that Kol Nidrei night in 1945, he returned to the synagogue where his mother used to pray, and it was deserted. He used the phrase from this kina to describe his feelings, “Where is the Torah and those who study it? Her place is desolate, with none to dwell therein.”

This survivor continued with a haunting story. His mother was a pious Jewess and of course attended shul on Yom Kippur. When it came time for Maftir Yonah, she used to leave the shul for half an hour and feed her cat at home. The cat would wait for her, and after feeding the cat she would return to shul. This man, who knew the cat, spent Yom Kippur of 1945 at the home where his parents had lived, and at 4:30 in the afternoon, there was a scratching at the door. It was the same cat waiting for him to feed her the way his mother had. This visit had a traumatic effect on him. At that moment, he felt the full magnitude of the Holocaust. Indescribable despair and bleakness overwhelmed him.

This story also illustrates how accurately Lamentations captures the devastation of the Ĥurban. When a place is desolate and devoid of human beings, it is tragic; but when animals prowl there, the pain is almost unbearable. As the verse in Lamentations (5:18) says, “For Mount Zion is desolate.” It is tragic that Mount Zion is desolate and deserted; but, not only are people absent, the verse continues, “foxes prowl over it.” The fox and the cat walk around. All he saw was the ruins of the synagogues and the cat prowling amidst the ruins. The only link between the past and present was the cat.

Posted on

OU MANUAL for Checking Fruits & Vegetables

Excerpted from OU MANUAL for Checking Fruits & Vegetables, Click here to buy the book

Halachic Introduction

After delineating the various forbidden שרצים—vermin, the Torah makes clear that adherence to this stringency preserves the קדשוה of the Jewish people. Our spiritual¬ity and our nobility seem to be predicated upon refraining from their consumption. ‘‘For I am Hashem who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God, and you shall be holy as I am Holy’’ (ויקרא י”א ,מ”ה) . Rashi cites תורת כהנים where the term ‘‘who brought you up from the land of Egypt’’ is analyzed. So often in the Torah Hashem speaks of having brought us out of Egypt. Why with regard to forbidden שרצים does the Torah deviate from its usual phraseology? Based upon this inference, the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught the following lesson: ‘‘Says Hashem, ‘Had I brought the Jewish people up from Egypt for no other reason than that they should not defile themselves by eating שרצים as the other nations do, that would have been reason enough.’ ’’ In other words, by virtue of this mitzva the Jewish people have been raised to a unique status. Therefore the terminology, ‘‘Hashem, who brought you up’’ is used.

It is well known that the consumption of a single שרץ can be a violation of as many as six לאוין . As noted above, the consumption of a שרץ can also have a detrimental effect on a person, diminishing his or her spirituality.

What is a שרץ?

A terrestrial שרץ is defined as any living creature that is visible to the naked eye yet so small that its legs cannot be seen moving when it runs. When a mouse runs across the floor, one typically cannot make out its features well enough to recognize mov¬ing appendages, as would be the case with a dog or cat. Rather, it slithers—שורץ; the entire creature seems to move in unison. Though mammalian שרצים do not pose a threat to the salad-eating public, תולעים—insects and worms—do and often cling to the vegetables we eat.

In this guide, we will point out the most frequently used vegetables that require special preparation.

Method for checking Lettuce, Open Leaf:

1. Cut off the lettuce base and separate the leaves from one another.

2. Soak leaves in a solution of cold water and vegetable wash. The proper amount of vegetable wash has been added when some bubbles are observed in the water. (In the absence of vegetable wash, several drops of concentrated non-scented liquid detergent may be used. However, for health reasons, care must be taken to thoroughly rinse off the soapy solution.)

3. Agitate lettuce leaves in the soapy solution.

4. Spread each leaf, taking care to expose all its curls and crevices. Using a powerful stream of water or a power hose, remove all foreign matter and soap from both sides of each leaf. Alternatively, a vegetable brush may be used on both sides of the leaf.

5. Leaves should be checked over a light box or under strong overhead lighting to verify that the washing procedure has been effective. Pay careful attention to the folds and crevices in the leaf where insects have been known to hold tightly through several washings. Check both sides of each leaf.

6. In a commercial setting, a vegetable spinner is recommended. (The advantages of spin-drying are: (1) you will not risk an electrical shock when placing the leaves on the light box; and (2) the leaves will stay fresh and moist for a longer period of time.)

7. Three heads or handfuls of leaves from different areas of the bin should be checked over a light box or under direct light. Our experience has shown that if the leaves are washed properly, no insects will be found.

Posted on

The Rav’s Thoughts on the Tisha B’Av Kinot

Excerpted from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot: Lookstein Edition. Edited by Rabbi Simon Posner, Kinot translated by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

An excerpt from the Rav’s commentary on the Kinah, Eikha Yashva Havatzelet HaSharon. Why is it that the stringency of our observance of mourning decreases in the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, at precisely the time that the flames of destruction began to engulf the Beit HaMikdash?

כי כליה חיבתי כדור המבול For we deserved extinction no less than the generation of the Flood. This passage sounds the recurring theme found in the kinot that the Beit HaMikdash served as a substitute, as collateral, for the Jewish people, and the physical structure of the Beit HaMikdash suffered the destruction that rightfully should have been visited upon the entire nation. The kina says that the Jewish people are responsible and are deserving of punishment; we are guilty, and we should have been destroyed as was the generation of the Flood. God, however, in His mercy and grace, subjected His throne, the Beit HaMikdash, rather than the Jewish people, to disgrace, abuse and destruction. It is for this reason that Tisha B’Av contains an element of mo’ed, a festival – God rendered His decision on Tisha B’Av that Knesset Yisrael is an eternal people and will continue to exist. The Beit HaMikdash was humiliated, profaned and destroyed in order to save the people.

This concept is expressed halakhically in the character of Tisha B’Av afternoon. The second half of the day has a contradictory nature in halakha. On the one hand, the avelut, the mourning, is intensified because the actual burning of the Beit HaMikdash commenced in the late afternoon of the ninth day of Av, and the flames continued throughout the tenth (Ta’anit 29a). On the other hand, Nahem, the prayer of consolation, is recited in the Amida for Minha in the afternoon, and not in Shaharit of Tisha B’Av morning or Ma’ariv of the preceding evening (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, Rama 557:1). Similarly, tefillin are put on in the afternoon, not the morning (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 555:1), and sitting on chairs rather than on the ground is permitted in the afternoon, not the morning (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 559:3).

In Minha, one re-inserts in Kaddish the phrase תתקבל צלותהון ובעותהון”, accept our prayers and entreaties” (see Beit Yosef, Tur Orah Hayyim 559 s.v. ve’omer kaddish belo titkabal, with respect to the recitation of Titkabal in Shaharit). This phrase is removed from Kaddish earlier on Tisha B’Av because the assertion that “satam tefillati, my prayer is rejected” (Lamentations 3:8), which prevails on Tisha B’Av, comes to an end at midday. Paradoxically, the moment the Beit HaMikdash was set ablaze was a moment of relief. At that moment, it became clear that God decided to take the collateral, the Beit HaMikdash, instead of pursuing the real debtor, the Jewish people. Paradoxically, once He took away the Beit HaMikdash in the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, the nehama, the consolation, could begin. Tisha B’Av is a day of limitless despair and boundless hope and faith.

Posted on

Day One – 17 Tammuz: Seeking God

Excerpted from In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, by Erica Brown

In the Narrow Places

Day One: 17 Tammuz
FAST OF SHIVA ASAR B’TAMMUZ
Seeking God

Do we achieve holiness, kedusha, through seeking God or through finding God? To answer this question, we turn to one of our sacred texts. The haftara for Minha, the afternoon service, on a fast day is an excerpt from Isaiah 55. It begins mid-chapter, at verse six and closes in the next chapter, verse eight.  It contains some of the most religiously inspiring language in all of prophetic literature.

“Seek God where He can be found. Call to Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). Isaiah offers wise, spiritual advice that is no less applicable to God than it is to all of our relationships. Reach out to God in a place where holiness can be found, when God feels near. Use the fast day as a mechanism for the contraction of the material and physical to create a greater space for the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. The tone of the day invites greater awareness of God. But Isaiah did not utter these words for a fast day; its incorporation into the service was a later adaptation of a text to enhance the day’s emotional demands.

What did the prophet mean when he pronounced these words? Perhaps Isaiah spoke from his awareness that God’s presence was not always apparent during the average working day of an Israelite. Busy with harvesting fields, winnowing on the threshing floor or finding a fertile place to graze sheep, our ancestors could have spent their days preoccupied with the demands of family and making a living, not making a place for God. If this was a challenge for those who worked outside in nature every day, imagine how much greater an obstacle today’s work environment presents to those of us who sit in offices all day. Without creating a clearing for God, a time and place for thinking above and beyond life’s prosaic cares, how can we expect to find Him? If we are not searching, then that which we do not look for can hardly be expected to make itself known. It is like playing hide-and-seek and then not looking. The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (1787–1859) once poignantly remarked, “God is where you let Him in.”

Kavana for the Day:

Seeking is about discovery. Isaiah tells us to seek God where God is to be found. Think about where you might find God. People have a custom to pray and study in a “makom kavua,” a fixed location or place, every day. The idea is that we create spaces that are receptive to spiritual activities, where we have all that we need: the right light, the right balance of privacy and companionship, the right amount of noise or silence to induce spiritual behaviors. Think hard. Where does God seem most apparent in your life? What times and places seem more open and receptive to spiritual seeking and finding? Recreate those times and spaces and make your own makom kavua.

To read the full chapter, see pages 27 through 31 in ‘The Narrow Places’.

Posted on

The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot

Excerpted from The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot: The Lookstein Edition, co-published by OU Press and Koren Publishers Jerusalem

“People respond to the story of an individual personal tragedy more readily than to a national tragedy on a large scale.” (Commentary on Kina 23)

The placement of this kina in the sequence of the kinot initially appears odd. The order of “החרישה ממני” following “ארזי הלבנון” is logical and proper. However, one would have expected that the kina following “החרישה ממני,” which commemorates the martyrs of German Jewry, would have been “מי יתן ראשי מים,” the second kina pertaining to the Crusades in which Speyer, Worms and Mainz are mentioned by name and the dates of their destruction are recorded. Instead, the story of the death of Rabbi Yishma’el’s son and daughter is interjected, interrupting the series of kinot about the destruction of the Jewish communities in Germany. To compound the question, one could also ask why it is necessary to interrupt the description in the kinot of major national catastrophes with a story of a young man and woman who suffered as a result of the Hurban of Jerusalem, but whose deaths did not change the course of Jewish history or the routine of daily Jewish life. The narrative flow of the kinot mourns the destruction of the state, the land and the Beit HaMikdash – all of which changed Jewish history – then the martyrdom of the ten greatest scholars of the Talmud, and then the massacre of thousands of people and the destruction of the most important communities in the Middle Ages, both spiritually and numerically. In the midst of this national commemoration of the tragedies that befell the community, the sequence of kinot is interrupted with the story of the death of two individuals.

The answer is that Judaism has a different understanding of and approach to the individual. We mourn for the individual even if he or she was not a significant person. Rabbi Yishma’el, the father of these youngsters was already killed, and they were orphans. In light of the major calamities, who is responsible to remember a story about an individual young man and woman who were taken captive by some slave merchants? The answer is that we are. We have a special kina dedicated just to them, as if one hundred thousand people were involved, not just two individuals. Their life and their death may not have changed Jewish history, but we suffer and remember. We do not forget the faceless, nameless individual even in the midst of national disaster and upheaval, even when telling the story of the greatest of all the disasters in our history, the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. In this kina we mourn not for the Jews of Worms or Mainz, not for the Hurban Yerushalayim, and not for the Beit HaMikdash. We mourn for a boy and a girl who were not leaders or scholars and who did not play any major public role. They are as important as the greatest leaders. Sometimes we become so engrossed in the national tragedy that we forget the individual, and the sequence of the kinot is interrupted to highlight the worth of the individual.

Posted on

Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Click here to buy the book

Parashat Chukat

by Rabbi Asher Schechter

At the end of Parashat Chukat, the Torah tells us once again of the rebellious behavior of Klal Yisrael during their travels through the midbar. The pasuk relates, “And the people spoke against Hashem and against Moshe” (Bemidbar 21:5), complaining that they were tired of the manna and of the lack of water in the desert. The Torah tells us that Hashem got angry and sent as punishment a horde of poisonous snakes—“ha-nechashim ha-serafim”— to bite the complainers. Many Jews died. The survivors came to beg Moshe Rabbenu for forgiveness and beseeched him to pray to Hashem to get rid of the snakes. Moshe did so, and Hashem told him to make an image of a “saraf,” a serpent, and to place it on top of a high pole. Any Jew who got bitten was to look at the image of the serpent on top of the pole and would survive. The Torah tells us that Moshe then fashioned a “nechash nechoshet,” a copper snake, and placed it atop a pole, and the rest of the Jews were saved.

The distinction between the word nachash, snake, and the word seraf, serpent, is worth a second look. When Hashem punished Klal Yisrael, He unleashed “ha-nechashim ha-serafim.” The Torah uses both terms—Hashem unleashed snakes that behaved like serpents. Then, when Hashem told Moshe how to stem the plague, He commanded him to create a saraf, but Moshe created a nachash instead. Why? What is the difference between these two terms? And why does the Torah use both in this story? Furthermore, why did Moshe make the nachash out of copper when Hashem did not instruct him to do so, and why is that detail important enough for the Torah to mention?

In the English language the word serpent is a synonym for snake. In lashon ha-kodesh also, the words nachash and saraf are more or less synonymous. Nonetheless, being different words they still convey somewhat different meanings. The word nachash has at its root nichush, as in the command “lo tinachashu” (Vayikra 19:26), the prohibition of magic acts and fortune telling, seemingly supernatural pursuits. Likewise, a snake can kill a large human or even a tremendous beast with a tiny dose of poison, a seemingly supernatural faculty. This is an important connection. Those who believe they have supernatural powers no longer feel compelled to rely on Hashem for their needs. This is why the Torah considers magic and fortune telling to be forms of idolatry.

The term nachash represents the challenge of maintaining faith in Hashem, the challenge of adherence to His commandments. It is not a coincidence that the very first individual to challenge Hashem’s commandments was the nachash ha-kadmoni in Gan Eden. His behavior was classic nachash.

The word saraf, on the other hand, emphasizes the method through which the serpent kills. Serefah means burning in lashon ha-kodesh. The saraf injects a tiny dose of venom which burns its way throughout the body of the victim, eventually killing him. The venom is like a small spark that can spread to become a large conflagration. The word saraf is used by Chazal (Pirkei Avot 2:10) to refer to the punishment of one who rejects the commandments and direction of the Chachamim (“lechishatan lechishat saraf”). This hints to the insidiousness of transgressing the Chachamim. Once one lights a spark by violating one rabbinic principle, one is liable to create an entire conflagration by continuing to violate other rabbinic rules and guidelines. Once someone loses respect for the Chachamim, the poison can spread throughout his body. Hence Chazal refer to the retribution against such an individual in terms of the saraf.

With this background, we can understand what was happening in this parashah. When Klal Yisrael rebelled, they committed two sins—one against Hashem and one against Moshe Rabbenu, who represents the Chachamim. Thus, Hashem sent ha-nechashim ha-serafim to kill them, demonstrating that they deserved two punishments—the nachash, for rebelling against Hashem, and the saraf, for rebelling against the Chachamim, i.e., Moshe.

When Klal Yisrael came to Moshe Rabbenu to repent and beg forgiveness, Hashem agreed to forgive Klal Yisrael for the violation of His own honor, but insisted that Moshe Rabbenu’s honor be upheld by a public display of the image of the saraf. Moshe Rabbenu, on the other hand, was quick to forgive the violation of his honor, but was very concerned about the honor of Hashem. Therefore, he created a nachash rather than a saraf, to focus Klal Yisrael on that violation.

As mentioned above, however, nachash and saraf are hard to distinguish one from the other. A typical passerby would look at the image and would not know whether he was seeing a nachash or a saraf. Therefore Moshe Rabbenu decided to make it out of copper. This gave it the memorable name, “nechash ha-nechoshet” that everyone used. This would help Klal Yisrael focus on the honor of Hashem which had been violated, and bring about a proper teshuvah.

This idea dovetails with the famous saying of our Sages that Hashem wears tefillin just like we do. However, the text in His tefillin is different from the text in our tefillin. Our tefillin focus on Hashem’s greatness, beginning with “Shema Yisrael.” God’s tefillin, as it were, focus on our greatness, containing the passage “mi ke-amecha Yisrael—who is like your nation, Israel…”

There are very important lessons we learn from this. First and foremost, we appreciate the importance of respecting Hashem and His Torah, as well as the Chachamim. Second, in life we are surrounded by many nechashim—such as the idea that the “magic” of modern science obviates belief in Hashem. We are also besieged by seraphim, such as the constant degradation of and modern day Chachamim through the mouths and blogs of cynics who try to entice us to deviate from the path of Torah and mitzvot.

We must be diligent in our faith to overcome these temptations and be true ovdei Hashem. In addition, the love between Hashem and Moshe, where each one focused on the other one’s honor, is truly a lesson in musar of how we should treat our family and friends.

Rabbi Schechter is rav of Congregation Ohr Moshe of Hillcrest, New York.

Posted on

Bechukosai- A Casual Curse

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’ Click here to buy the book

Questions

By using the term keri so prominently at both ends of the Tochacha’s equation, in both the description of the nation’s possible transgression and in the description of God’s possible response, the Torah apparently emphasizes a critical idea, central to the very nature of sin and punishment. If we could only understand this concept, the text seems to say, we could finally recognize where we go wrong. We could strike to the core of our failures and their consequences, finding a way to break the recurring, tragic cycle that plagues our relationship with the Divine.

And yet, the text remains frustratingly unclear.

Why, at this point, does the Torah suddenly introduce, for the first and only time, the word keri?

Once introduced, why is this term repeated so often in such a short span of text?

Above all, within the context of the Tochacha, in the realm of both sin and punishment, what does the word keri actually mean?

Approaches

A

Confronted with this puzzling term and its use in the Tochacha, numerous commentaries propose a wide variety of interpretations.

Both Rashi and his grandson, the Rashbam, for example, introduce a basic translation upon which most commentaries build. These scholars translate the word keri to mean “casual” or “inconsistent” (derived, as stated above, from the root kara, to happen). If the nation sins by worshiping God in an erratic, inconsistent manner, Rashi and the Rashbam explain, God will respond in kind and will relate to the nation haphazardly and unpredictably, as well. (Rashi, Vayikra 26:21)

A number of other commentaries, including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ohr Hachaim, choose a related but different path. The term keri, these scholars maintain, describes a flawed world outlook that can lead to immeasurable sin. An individual who sees the world in a fashion of keri perceives no pattern to the events unfolding around him. In place of Divine Providence, this individual observes only random coincidence; and in place of punishment for sin, accidental misfortune. For such an individual, tshuva (return to the proper path) becomes increasingly unattainable. In a haphazard world governed by arbitrary forces, after all, there exists little incentive for change. (Rabbeinu Bachya, ibid.; Ohr Hachaim, ibid.)

Going a step further, the Ohr Hachaim perceives in God’s reaction – “And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri…” (Vayikra 26:24.) – a carefully calibrated “measure for measure” response to the nation’s failing. If the people refuse to see a divinely ordained pattern in the world around them, God will withdraw, making it even more difficult for them to perceive His presence.

The punishments to follow will seem even more random, bearing no obvious connection to the nation’s sins. The people’s failure to recognize God’s imminence will thus prove frighteningly prophetic, for God will respond with “distance.” (Ohr Hachaim, ibid.)

For his part, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch interprets the sin associated with the word keri as “indifference” to God’s will. Those guilty of this transgression find considerations other than God’s will central to their lives and their sporadic obedience to Torah law is thus purely coincidental. God responds to this sin in kind, says Hirsch, by removing His Divine protection from the nation and allowing the natural course of world history to determine their fate. The welfare of the Jewish people will be advanced only coincidentally, when that welfare happens to correspond to the interests and needs of the powerful nations around them. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 26:21, 23–24)

Finally a group of other scholars, Onkelos chiefly among them, diverge from the above explanations entirely and explain the term keri to mean “stubbornness” or “harshness.” If the nation stubbornly refuses to obey based upon God’s law, God’s response will be harsh and unforgiving. (Targum Onkelos, Vayikra 26: 21, 23)

B

A clearer understanding of the puzzling term keri and its repeated use in the Tochacha can be gained if we consider the basic approach of Rashi and the Rashbam (who interpret the term to mean a casual approach to God’s will) in light of the “rules” that govern our own life experiences. )

Many years ago, I asked the participants in one of my synagogue classes to name the one most important component in any successful interpersonal relationship. Expecting a plethora of suggestions, I was surprised when they unanimously responded with the one word which I had earlier defined for myself as my own answer: trust.

Our associations with each other, from partnerships to friendships to marriages, can endure many blows and setbacks. One wound, however, invariably proves fatal: the total loss of trust. When mutual trust is gone and cannot be regained; when the relationship no longer feels safe and secure; when each participant no longer believes that the other consistently has his partner’s best interests at heart, the relationship is doomed.

God thus turns to the Israelites and proclaims: “And if you will walk with me keri…”
If I find that you are deliberately inconsistent in your commitment to Me; if I find that you are only at My door when you choose to be; if I find that I cannot trust you to seek My presence and relate to Me continually; then I will respond in kind…

“And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri

You will no longer be able to count on My continuing presence in your lives. I will distance Myself and not be there when you expect Me to be. Our relationship will become casual and inconsistent; all trust will be lost…

God will forgive many failings and sins, but when we lose His trust, the punishments of the Tochacha are the result.

Points to Ponder

The text’s prominent use of the puzzling word keri in the Tochacha brings our study of Vayikra full circle…

This complex central book of the Torah, with its disparate laws ranging from minute, mysterious rituals to towering ethical edicts, makes one real demand upon the reader.

We are challenged to earn God’s trust.

Judaism is not a smorgasbord. The Torah emphasizes that we cannot pick and choose the elements of observance that suit our fancy. Each law, from a seemingly minor sacrificial detail to a powerful edict such as “Love your fellow as yourself,” has its place and its purpose. Each halachic element is an essential component in the tapestry of trust meant to be woven between God and his people.

In structure and content, the book of Vayikra reminds us that when we earn God’s trust through faithful adherence to His multifaceted law, we will be able to trust in God’s continued presence within our lives.

Posted on

Emor- Mysterious Majesty

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Mysterious Majesty

Context

As Parshat Emor continues with its description of the festival cycle, we encounter a holiday shrouded in mystery.

A series of enigmas surround both the festival of Shavuot, introduced for the first time in this parsha, and Revelation, the historical event with which Shavuot is associated.

  1. Although the rabbis identify Shavuot as Zman Matan Torateinu, the anniversary of the giving of our Torah, no actual connection between the holiday and Revelation is made in the text. Shavuot, in fact, emerges as the only one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot) for which no historical foundation is recorded in the Torah.
  2. At no point does the Torah mention an independent calendar date for the festival of Shavuot. Most often, this holiday is identified as the endpoint of the Omer count (see previous study). The festival’s very title, Shavuot (literally “Weeks”) derives from the celebration’s position as the culmination of the seven-week Omer period.On one occasion, in a series of passages clearly identifying the holidays by their calendar dates, Shavuot is again the glaring exception, with even the festival’s relationship to the Omer period omitted. In that case, Shavuot is mentioned without any calendar reference at all.
  3. The Torah also fails to pinpoint the specific date of the onset of Revelation at Sinai. The text, in fact, seems to deliberately go out of its way to avoid any clear dating of this event. The arrival of the Israelites at the site of Revelation is, for example, described in the Torah as follows: “In the third month from the Exodus of the children of Israel from the Land of Egypt, on this day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”Failing to identify “this day,” the Torah leaves it to the rabbis to compute the chronology and explain that the Israelites arrive at Sinai on the first day of the third month, Sivan.To make matters even more confusing, uncertainty emerges concerning the timetable of events immediately prior to Revelation. Based on ambiguity in the text, the rabbis debate whether or not Moshe, divinely commanded to set aside three days preparatory to Revelation, “adds an additional preparatory day of his own.” This disagreement over Moshe’s actions, in turn, leads to an even more significant divergence of opinion concerning the exact date of Revelation.The majority of the rabbis, maintaining that Moshe followed God’s instructions to the letter, correlate the onset of Revelation to the sixth day of Sivan, the date of the Shavuot festival. Rabbi Yossi, however, the author of the position that Moshe added an additional preparatory day, insists that Revelation does not begin until the seventh day of Sivan – the day after Shavuot.According to Rabbi Yossi’s calculations, we are thus faced with the startling conclusion that Revelation does not occur on the date of the festival identified by the rabbis as the anniversary of the event. (In the diaspora, Shavuot is observed on the seventh day of Sivan, as well as the sixth. This observance, however, does not relate to the above discussion but is the result of a general rabbinic decree concerning calendar uncertainty: yom tov sheini shel galuyot, the added second day of observance of all the festivals in the diaspora.)
  4. Finally, in contrast to other festivals, no unique observance is associated in the text with the holiday of Shavuot (all-night learning sessions are a minhag, a custom, and not biblically or even rabbinically mandated). This festival is governed only by the generic laws common to all biblical holidays.

Questions

Why does so much mystery surround the festival of Shavuot and the commemoration of Revelation?

Shouldn’t the single most important formative event in Jewish history be clearly dated and uniquely celebrated?

Approaches

A

The Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer count, as opposed to a holiday with a separate calendar date of its own, may well reflect and expand upon lessons learned from the Omer period itself (see previous study).

As discussed, many authorities see the mitzva of Sfirat Ha’omer, the counting of the Omer, as an act linking Pesach to Shavuot. In this light, Shavuot is best understood, not as a totally autonomous festival, but as something of a “hybrid” – a continuation of Pesach, yet also a commemoration with its own unique identity and message. Shavuot stands as Pesach’s goal, a reminder that the physical freedom achieved with the Exodus is incomplete without the spiritual freedom granted at Sinai.

B

Unexpected precedent for this approach is found in the form of another two-tiered biblical festival, distant on the calendar from but in many ways similar to the festival of Shavuot.

Immediately after the holiday of Succot, the Torah mandates a one-day festival known as Shmini Atzeret. While this celebration is clearly connected to Succot, the rabbis are nonetheless emphatic in their contention that Shmini Atzeret is a “festival unto itself,” with its own identity and message. We are thus again confronted with a “hybrid holiday,” a celebration which, like Shavuot, is at once a continuation of what comes before (even the title Shmini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, references the connection to the seven days of Succot) and at the same time a separate occasion.

Furthermore, while Shmini Atzeret and Shavuot stand at opposite ends of the calendar, rabbinic thought connects them closely. Shavuot is referred to within Talmudic literature simply as Atzeret, the Day of Assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi even maintains that Shmini Atzeret should rightfully be as distant from Succot as Shavuot is from Pesach. Mercifully, however, God places Shmini Atzeret immediately following Succot so that the people will not have to make an additional pilgrimage back to Jerusalem during the winter season.

The implied equation is clear: Shavuot is to Pesach as Shmini Atzeret is to Succot.

The parallel between these two festivals, however, runs even deeper. Like Shavuot, Shmini Atzeret has no unique mitzva of its own. The silence of this festival, coming on the heels of the ritually richest time in the Jewish year (the month of Tishrei, containing Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot), is, in fact, deafening. And yet, according to rabbinic tradition, Shmini Atzeret is the culmination of all that comes before: a day marking the intimate, personal relationship between God and his people.

Neither Shavuot nor Shmini Atzeret need be marked by a mitzva specific to the day because each of these festivals celebrates, in its own way and at the close of a holiday period, the complete relationship between God and His people.

Shmini Atzeret caps the personal passage through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot, culminating each year’s tshuva cycle with a celebration of our renewed bond with our Creator. Shavuot concludes the national passage from bondage to freedom, marking the day on which God’s relationship with His chosen people begins in earnest.

C

Another distinct message is conveyed through the Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer period: the value of a goal reached is directly dependent upon the quality of the journey that takes you there.

Every life milestone derives its significance, in large measure, from what comes before: the days of study leading to the bar/bat mitzvah; the personal maturation that sets the stage for courtship and marriage; the years of shared love that give rise to an anniversary…

Life’s special occasions would be much emptier without the struggle, growth and rich experience leading to them.

Each year, therefore, we do not return to Sinai without first passing through the Omer. To arrive at the anniversary of Matan Torah without a prior journey would have little meaning. Each year, forty-nine days of preparation, replicating the original forty-nine days of anticipation that led from the Exodus to Revelation precede our arrival. By defining the festival of Shavuot specifically in relationship to those preceding days, the Torah informs us that the most significant moment of Jewish history, like all milestones, draws its significance from the prior journey.

D

While the approaches outlined above address some of the mysteries surrounding the festival of Shavuot, the Torah’s obfuscation concerning the date of Revelation itself remains a puzzle. Why does the text deliberately avoid pinpointing the most significant moment of Jewish history, to the extent that its date remains the subject of dispute to this day? Why, as well, does the Torah fail to associate this event with its apparent anniversary, the festival of Shavuot?

A fascinating, far-reaching answer is hinted at in a well-known Midrashic observation and elaborated upon by later authorities.

The Midrash focuses on the previously mentioned Torah passage, describing the arrival of the Israelites at the site of Revelation: “In the third month from the Exodus of the children of Israel from the Land of Egypt, on this day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”

This text, maintain the rabbis, is even more puzzling than it first seems to be. Not only is the Torah ambiguous concerning the nation’s arrival at Sinai, but the terminology actually used by the text is inherently problematic. The Torah does not say, as we would expect: “on that day (bayom hahu), they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.” Instead, the text reads: “on this day (bayom hazeh), they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”

Why does the Torah refer to a millennia-old moment as “this day”?

Because, suggest the rabbis, the text means to convey an overarching message: “As you study Torah, [its words] should not be ancient in your eyes, but as if they were given to you ‘this day.’”

Or as Rashi puts it: “At all times the Torah’s words should seem as new to you [variant: as dear to you] as if they were given to you today.”

E

There is, I believe, much more to these rabbinic observations than meets the eye. In essence, the rabbis are emphasizing that Revelation is not a historic event.

The Patriarchal Era, the Exodus, the wandering in the wilderness, the entry into the land of Canaan and so much more, are periods and incidents rooted in the past. They are meant to be learned from, reexamined, re-experienced, even seen as prototypes for the present; but they are all past events.

Revelation is different. Matan Torah is a process that continues to this day and beyond. Every time we study a text, ask a halachic question or share a Torah thought, we stand again at Sinai receiving the Torah. Every time the rabbis apply the law to changing circumstance, suggest new in­sight into an age-old text or enact new legislation to protect the community, we participate in Revelation. When concerns ranging from in vitro fertilization to stem cell research to the definition of death and its impact on organ donation are actively addressed and debated within Jewish law, Matan Torah unfolds.

F

We can now understand the Torah’s reluctance to pinpoint both the date and the holiday marking Revelation. Either of these two acts would root Matan Torah in the past. Like so many other historical events, Revelation would become an event to celebrate and commemorate, rather than a process in which to participate.

The Torah, therefore, leaves it to the rabbis to determine the date on which the Israelites actually stood at Sinai and to draw the inevitable conclusion that the Shavuot festival marks that date. The text itself remains silent concerning these issues in order to remind us that we stand at Sinai today.

 

Points to Ponder

To the uninitiated, the allure of Torah study is often difficult to comprehend. What is this fascination with age-old, seemingly archaic text? What satisfaction can be found in poring over rabbinic observations authored centuries ago?

The following story begins to answer these questions.

Many years ago I made the acquaintance of a young man who came to Talmud study late in his educational development. One day, he turned to me and said: “You know why I love the Talmud? Because when I begin to study Talmud, the boundaries of time disappear. Suddenly I am sitting at a table, present at a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael, dating back to the beginning of the Common Era.

“As the conversation continues, Rav Huna [third century] offers a thought; Abbaye [fourth century] makes a comment, only to be countered by Rava [fourth century], as Rav Ashi [fifth century] joins in.

“Then Rashi [1040–1105] makes an observation and is immediately challenged by his descendents, the Tosafists [twelfth–thirteenth centuries]. Others soon join the discussion, including the Rambam [1135–1204] and Rabbi Yosef Karo [1488–1575], all making their positions known…

“And I, I am there too, at the table, asking my questions and adding my thoughts to a dialogue that will continue long after I am gone, as well.”

To be part of an eternal conversation; to connect both with God’s will and with generations long gone; to stand at Sinai in our day: that, in essence, is the adventure that Torah provides.

Posted on

Kedoshim- When Prohibitions Collide

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 

Two sentences after the Torah’s mandate of Lifnei iveir lo titein michshol (which includes the prohibition of misleading another, even through the passive withholding of vital information; [Talmud Bavli Moed Katan 5a] see previous study), the text delineates an equally powerful, far-reaching directive: Lo telech rachil b’amecha, “Do not travel as a gossipmonger among your people.”

From this commandment and other sources in the Torah the rabbis identify three levels of prohibited interpersonal speech as falling under the general prohibition of rechilut (gossip).

1. Motzi shem ra, slander: The most severe form of prohibited interpersonal speech: the intentional spreading of damaging untruths about another individual.

2. Lashon hara, evil speech: The spreading of damaging information about another individual, even if the information is true.

3. Rechilut, gossip: The sharing of any personal information about another individual outside of that individual’s presence, if there is the slightest chance that the information shared will result in the creation of ill will.

Rabbinic literature is replete with references concerning the tragic effects of unfettered speech (see Tazria-Metzora 3, Approaches D, E). The prevalence of this phenomenon (we are almost all guilty of the transgressions of prohibited speech) combines with the terrible damage that can be wrought upon the lives of others to make the ongoing effect of these sins particularly devastating.

What should our posture be, however, when the prohibition against rechilut conflicts with the prohibition of lifnei iveir; when information is requested of us, the sharing of which might be damaging to one individual while the withholding of which might be damaging to another?

What if, for example, I am requested to give a job reference concerning an acquaintance and the information to which I am privy will be harmful to the candidate? What if I am asked by a friend concerning a budding romantic relationship and, again, the information that I would share would be less than flattering?

The responses of halacha to these commonly occurring dilemmas are complex and vary on a case–by-case basis, as the law struggles to reconcile the conflicting demands of these two significant mitzvot.

Four commonsense rules, however, can be helpful as a guide in all cases.

1. Explore the motivations: What is the impetus behind our intent to share this information? Are we motivated in any way by jealousy or personal animus? Are we fully aware of the underlying forces that drive us to speak?

2. Study the facts: Are we certain of the veracity of information that we intend to share? What is the nature of our sources? Too often, damaging hearsay is repeated as fact, with devastating consequences.

3. Examine the relevance: Is the information we plan to share relevant to the situation at hand? Are we limiting our response to the necessary information or are we adding and embellishing beyond the essential facts?

4. Seek halachic counsel: Many of us tend to request halachic guidance only in areas of ritual concern such as kashrut and Shabbat. Jewish law, however, is meant to serve as a guide in all arenas of life, particularly when it comes to our ethical and moral behavior.

Seeking appropriate halachic counsel before we speak about others is a sensible, often necessary step. Words, once spoken, can never be fully retracted.

On the other hand, the failure to share warranted information can cause irreparable damage to the unsuspecting. The burden of our intended action or inaction should, therefore, weigh heavily upon us. Decisions should not be made in haste, but only after due deliberation. Consultation with the proper halachic advisor can help grant perspective, allowing the wide-ranging experience of Jewish law to inform those decisions.

Great caution must be exercised when the prohibitions of lifnei iveir and rechilut collide. The welfare of others hangs in the balance.

Posted on

Parshat Tazria- Metzora: Simcha or Sin

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Context
Parshat Tazria opens with one of the strangest examples of biblical ritual “impurity”: tumat yoledet, tuma resulting from childbirth.

The Torah relates that, following the birth of a male child, a childbearing mother enters a seven-day period of tuma, while following the birth of a female child, a fourteen-day period of tuma is mandated. In each case, these days of tuma are then followed by much lengthier periods (thirty-three days after the birth of a male child and sixty-six days after the birth of a female child) of modified separation from sanctified objects.

Finally, at the close of each extended period, the mother brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the Temple to mark her full reentry into society

Questions

Bearing a child is clearly one of the most highly sanctified acts possible; the first divine blessing/commandment given to man while still in the Garden of Eden; (Bereishit 1:28) the clearest demonstration of man’s partnership with God. Why, then, does a woman automatically incur a state of tuma as a result of childbirth?

Approaches

The most basic, and in some ways the most problematic, approach to the perplexing issues surrounding the tumat yoledet is offered by a group of scholars including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Kli Yakar. These commentaries view both the tuma resulting from childbirth and the sin offering in its aftermath as a reflection of the primal sin of Chava, the first woman. (Rabbeinu Bachya, Vayikra 12:7; Kli Yakar, Vayikra 12:8) In response to Chava’s role in the consumption of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God condemns her and her female progeny to the travails of childbirth. (Bereishit 3:16)

While giving birth to a child is, therefore, a glorious mitzva, the pain and difficulty associated with the process is the product of sin.

This approach, however, gives rise to serious issues concerning the nature of divine reward and punishment. As we have noted before, Judaism clearly rejects the Christian notion of “original sin” (see Bereishit: Lech Lecha 4, ApproachesA). We are not guilty, in perpetuity, of the sin committed by Adam and Chava. On this issue the Torah is clear: “Fathers shall not die because of their children, nor shall children die because of their fathers. Each individual will die in his own sin.” (Devarim 24:16) We are each held culpable only for our own failings and not for the failings of others, past, present or future. (See Bereishit: Lech Lecha 4, Approaches A for discussion concerning reconciliation of this concept with a seemingly contradictory biblical text) How, then, can these scholars suggest that each childbearing woman across history must somehow atone for a crime committed by her ancestor, at the beginning of time?

The key to understanding this approach may well lie in a distinction that we have noted previously (see ibid.). While Judaism absolutely rejects the Christian concept of “original sin,” we cannot deny the reality of “intergenerational reverberation.”

We are not responsible, in any way, for the transgression committed by Adam and Chava at the beginning of time. We are, however, affected by that sin’s ramifications. This is not a punishment, but a reality of life. Had Adam and Chava not sinned, we would now be living a very different existence in the Garden of Eden.

Similarly, we are all concretely connected to each other across the generations.

Such overarching life issues as where we are born, to whom, into what environment – and, in fact, whether or not we are born at all – are determined not only by God, but also by our parents and by those who came before them as well. Even more importantly, our decisions and actions today will critically affect the lives of our children and their progeny tomorrow.

At the decisive moment of childbirth, therefore, the Torah graphically reminds the new parents, through a series of rituals, of the phenomenon of “intergenerational reverberation.” The mother’s state of tuma, her consequent period of physical separation from her husband, the offerings she brings in the aftermath of these events, all result from actions committed by her primal ancestor, millennia earlier. The Torah’s message could not be clearer: We are each partially a product of what came before. How careful, then, must new parents be with their own continuing decisions and actions – for those very decisions and actions will help shape the lives of generations to come.