Sinful Ignorance

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tzav-sinful-ignorance/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Tzav

Sinful Ignorance

ignorance

 

Ignorance breeds monsters to fill up the vacancies of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.  -Horace Mann

“I don’t know” is an honest, often acceptable and at times even an admirable response. However, in Jewish law “I don’t know” can be criminal.

The overarching command of Jewish law is the self-referential study of the Torah; becoming acquainted with the laws, traditions and customs of what we call the Jewish faith. If you don’t know the law, you can’t know how to act, what to do, when to do it, when not to do it, and in a system that comprises 248 positive commands and 365 prohibitions, that’s a lot of laws we can make mistakes on. We should become familiar with at least the basic ones.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 6:1 explains that the Kohanim, the priests of the Temple, were diligent in the fulfillment of their roles and in studying for it. He elaborates further that when there is an error in ones learning and therefore in the performance of a command it is considered in a way a purposeful sin. The person was negligent in their study and that negligence leads directly to the unavoidable mistake.

“I don’t know” is no longer an excuse. “I didn’t study those laws” does not exempt one from divine judgement. In our day and age, there is absolutely no barrier of access to the entirety of Jewish law, instantaneously, in multiple languages, on multiple sites, apps, books and a plethora of approachable Rabbis worldwide.

We should be constantly educating ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the TLV Internationals community for hosting us this Shabbat. Looking forward to a memorable event.

 

The Guilt Offering

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayikra-the-guilt-offering/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Vayikra

The Guilt Offering

guilt

Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal. -Bishop Robert South

In Temple times, there were a number of different sacrifices that one could bring. There was the sin-offering, meant as a direct expiation for particular sins. There was the thanksgiving-offering, which as the name implies was offered when we were particularly grateful for something in our lives. There were also the celebratory sacrifices meant to be shared with friends and family on joyous occasions.

One unusual sacrifice was the guilt-offering, which in essence was a very public, physical admission of guilt for a particular failing from a list of sins. We no longer have the sacrifices, but we still have the possibility, requirement and necessity to admit our guilt. In Hebrew, the term is “Vidui”. In English, the closest translation is “confession.” In Jewish law, the first requirement is to admit guilt to ourselves. Thereafter, Vidui is a regular fixture in our prayers to God. The Rabbis conveniently gave us an alphabetical menu of possible sins that are said daily. On Yom Kippur we have a much more extensive and detailed list of transgressions we confess to and request forgiveness for. Admission of guilt does not necessarily bestow forgiveness, but it is a necessary first step to any possible amends and healing.

While we don’t have the Christian tradition of the confessional, there is probably something healthy in admitting our failings to another trusted and understanding soul. The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 4:12 states that no one should be embarrassed to confess their sins, as even the High Priest himself is instructed to publicly bring his own guilt-offering. If that most holy man is capable of sinning and has the obligation to confess and repent, despite the shame, so too the rest of us mortals must have the courage to face our darker side and bring it to the light, in intelligent, healing and productive ways.

May we thereby dispel the demons of guilt that may haunt us and remove that weight from our shoulders, that cancer from our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend, the Archbishop of Montevideo, Daniel Sturla, on his recent appointment as Cardinal.

 

 

Wise Wives

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayakel-wise-wives/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Vayakel

Wise Wives

Marriage is the best state for man in general, and every man is a worse man in proportion to the level he is unfit for marriage.  -Samuel Johnson

Voluntary single-hood is at a historic high. People in countries all over the world, of their own free will are making the decision that they do not wish to marry, they do not wish to be joined in matrimony, to share their lives with a significant other. I am not talking about people who have been searching for a spouse for years. I am not talking about people who due to various constraints would have difficulty finding or keeping a mate. I am talking about healthy, well-adjusted, capable people, who seem to think that the best course of action for them and for the world is to remain single for the rest of their lives.

This is probably one of the worst decisions they will make for themselves and for humanity in general. The very first command of God to humanity is to marry and bear children. The Talmud states that a man that is not married is considered dead in some respects. The Baal Haturim on Exodus 35:25 goes a step further and states that one who is married to a wise woman, that woman is credited for giving life to her husband.

May we find, keep and cherish the wise wives we need and may our womenfolk always be the sagacious spouses we rely on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Tamara

 

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Elderly are the Future

March 10, 2015

The Elderly are the Future

torah scribe

A conventional wisdom that has been repeated to me during my work is that “the youth are our future.” Some advised me to focus my time and efforts on the young members of the community. There was no hope for the elderly. They are too set in their ways to introduce a greater appreciation for Jewish tradition into their lives. You get more mileage out of teaching a fifteen year-old than a seventy year-old.

This philosophy is not uncommon to Jewish organizations worldwide. Almost all the Jewish organizations I ever worked with had a ponderous preoccupation with inculcating the young. There is a logic to it. I understand well the selectivity in the use of limited communal resources. However, I found myself instinctively and strongly (though quietly and respectfully) very much against and even upset by this wholesale discrimination against the elderly. And though it may be counter-intuitive and goes against the common wisdom of major Jewish organizations around the globe, I think that by ignoring or dismissing the elderly we are missing out on a huge resource and power for the continuation of the Jewish people.

In Uruguay, the most often quoted estimation of the Jewish population is of 15,000 souls. I would estimate that less than 1% are observant of the spectrum of Jewish laws. The Jewish population is highly integrated, assimilated and intermarried into the secular world. Despite the existence of Jewish schools and Zionist youth movements, the people who have the greatest nostalgia for their Jewish roots are the elderly. Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of the elderly of this community did not grow up observant or in observant homes. Their grandparents were generally the last observant generation.

Now it is true that there are some people who are so set in their ways that even if Moses himself showed up and gave them direct guidance, it wouldn’t change one iota in their Jewish awareness or behavior. However, what I keep discovering, that for some of the older generation, some exposure to Jewish sources and traditions awakens something long dormant in their psyches, and once the sleeping giant is awakened it stirs in wonderful and powerful ways.

I was given fresh evidence of this tonight. At a meeting with an elderly group I spoke about Pesach. One of the members was so moved that she stated that though she had never kept Pesach her entire life, now she would start. What I have seen on multiple occasions is that when an elder member of a family connects or reconnects with our tradition, it has a multiplying and perhaps even an exponential effect – and that is the great power that institutions are missing.

When a grandmother decides she wishes to observe more Jewish laws, she either directly or indirectly brings the rest of the family along. Another factor that organizations may be forgetting (except for those caring for the elderly) is that the lifespan of the elderly is significantly longer than in the past. These grandmothers and grandfathers are around for much longer and their influence can be measured in decades and generations. They have greater access and influence to their grandchildren who are ignoring their teachers and lessons in the Jewish schools. They are an untapped resource.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:25) compares teaching a young child to writing on a clean piece of parchment, while teaching the elderly is like writing on a used erased one. But a scary realization is that the children of our generation are not parchment any more. They are smartphones, already pre-installed with factory-equipped software, accessorized, entertained, distracted and addicted. But such an existence is untenable and will eventually run out of battery. It will become obsolete and they will be seeking the next new shiny bauble only to be disappointment again by the superficial mirage of plastic and silicon that has nothing beneath it but cold bytes and heartless electrons. In the end they will reach to the old, rewritten parchment for guidance and hope.

We need to prepare a generation of elderly to assure our future.

The Labor of Thinking

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tisa-the-labor-of-thinking/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Ki Tisa

The Labor of Thinking

It is the power of thought that gives man power over nature. -Hans Christian Andersen

There is a common misconception of Jewish Law that on the Sabbath one needs to refrain from manual labor. The legal biblical term is “melacha” which would be more appropriately translated as any “creative action.” Hence, such mundane and non-taxing actions such as tying a knot, dividing materials, writing and much more are prohibited on the Sabbath, though there is little or no exertion.

The Baal Haturim highlights another aspect of “melacha” that should be refrained from. He claims on Exodus 31:4 that even “thinking” is a form of “melacha.” Now he does not mean the natural brain processes that occur whenever we are conscious and perform any action or have any thought. He is referring to the thinking that is behind any constructive, creative, work-related thought that we are usually busy with throughout the work week.

On the Sabbath, he is telling us to refrain from even “thinking” about our work. There is something against the laws and especially the spirit of the Sabbath, to be preoccupied, to consider, to review, to plan or to have anything to do, even in the solitude of our own minds with “melacha.” Our brains, our emotions and our spirits will thank you for the weekly, enriching, invigorating, rejuvenating and healing respite.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

p.s. For anyone interested in more details on what is and isn’t “melacha” don’t hesitate to contact me.

Dedication

To the new President of Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez. May he give much thought to his leadership of the country.

 

 

Purim for Non-Alcoholics

Purim for Non-Alcoholics

In order to understand the challenges of the Jewish celebration of Purim for non-Alcoholics, we first need to define the current religious/social/cultural phenomena of drunkenness on this particular holiday and we may be served by a contrast to the Alcoholic’s experience.

An alcoholic is a person, for whatever reason, that has an addiction to alcohol. Their addiction is such that they cannot control themselves or refrain from drinking even when it is clear and obvious that negative repercussions will ensue. Alcoholism is a disease, at times fatal. According to most professionals, it cannot be cured, only treated and managed. Alcoholics benefit from therapy, medical treatment and the famed 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would not be difficult to imagine that the culture of drinking on Purim would be a living hell to an alcoholic that is refraining from drinking. He knows that one drink could very well mean his death. It could lead him to that spiral of intoxication that often seems like it will be the last. But first, let us understand and for those unfamiliar, introduce the Purim drinking phenomena.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, the Persian Empire, at that time the world power on Earth, had decreed to exterminate all of its Jewish citizens. As an aside, this is the first point in history where the Nation of Israel is labeled “Jewish” (Yehudim in Hebrew, of the tribe of Judah, the most representative tribe of Israel at that time). As per the story documented in Megillat Esther, the Jews are saved and set the date of Purim (the 14th/15th day of the Hebrew month of Adar) as an eternal celebration. The Rabbis instituted a number of commandments: reading of Megillat Esther, charity, giving food parcels to people and a joyous feast on the day of Purim. The Rabbis state that it is a positive precept to drink at this meal.

One should drink at the festive meal of Purim. However, according to the Rabbis one is prohibited from getting drunk. In more than one source the Rabbis consider getting drunk forbidden and even as one of the worst acts, as a “Chilul Hashem”, a desecration of God’s Name for which only death absolves.

The question then becomes how does one draw the line between drinking and getting drunk? How do we define drunkenness?

Returning to the alcoholic, the question for him is very simple. He cannot afford even one drink. One drink to him means death. An alcoholic is exempt from the command to drink, whether it is the weekly Sabbath “Kiddush” (consecration of the day), the Four Cups that we are mandated to drink during the Pesach Seder, or the drinking during the festive meal of Purim.

As difficult and tragic as an Alcoholic may have it vis-à-vis the directive to drink wine according to Jewish law, there is a large percentage of humanity that does not suffer from this ailment and can drink alcohol without danger or fear of addiction.

However, it is worthwhile to note, that just as people have different tolerances to the amount of alcohol they can consume and the progression of incapacitation, so to, there is a spectrum of addiction to alcohol. There are people with mild addictions who suffer infrequently. At the end of the spectrum are the perpetual drunks at death’s door. Also, to bear in mind, there are a growing number of reports of young Jews whose first encounter with heavy use of alcohol and the beginnings of their own alcoholism commences with Purim. That should give every celebrant pause. You may be witnessing, at your own festive meal, the beginning, or for some, the continuation of an addiction nightmare that destroys lives and families.

But now let us return to the happy non-alcoholic. He can drink with impunity. He wakes up the next day and thereafter with no desire whatsoever for alcohol. He is blessed. He can safely drink. However, the prohibition against getting drunk remains.

What is underneath the drinking in Jewish law? First of all, the biblical drink of choice is always wine (according to Maimonides, red is superior to white wine). There is never an obligation to drink beer, liquor, vodka or any other beverage. The juice of the grape has an inherent sanctity that it brings to an occasion.

We consecrate the Sabbath day every week on a cup of wine. It elevates the day and us. On Pesach our drinking of ample wine highlights our freedom and majestic status. On Purim, it is an aid, a lubricant to ease our daily concerns and assist in our joy and celebration on this festive holiday. We are meant to be happier and more relaxed than usual. We are meant to lower some of our inhibitions, be friendlier, more outgoing, but never crossing any limits of propriety. All laws and standards of behavior remain in force. The permission to imbibe more than usual is not permission to be rude, disrespectful, or gross.

Many seem to believe that permission to drink equals permission to be wild. There was an experiment that was done with college students where half of the students were given large quantities of beer and the other half was given water with the flavor of beer. After a few drinks, the water-drinkers behaved as wildly and rowdily as the beer drinkers. There is a social play-acting involved in any group-drinking.

In a crowd, the first barrier to fall is usually the sexual one. Whether it is verbally, visually, or physically, both men and women become more daring, more adventurous, in giving expression to their fantasies. Conversations become louder and more rambunctious. The line between happy and inappropriate becomes thin indeed.

It seems to me that the line at which one becomes drunk is very hazy. By the time someone is close to that line it is often too late and he or she will lack the judgment to refrain from another drink. Then without realizing it, they have crossed into that territory of inappropriate or offensive talk or behavior, lack of coherence or coordination and progressive mental incapacitation, all of which are repulsive to those not in a similar state of inebriation.

What is the point until one should drink? The one clue the Rabbis give to this subjective question is the mysterious line that one should not be able to distinguish between “cursed is Haman (the villain of the Esther story) to blessed is Mordechai (the co-hero with Esther)”. This line has been a source of great controversy with people interpreting it as per their drinking preferences.

When the Rabbis want to describe that someone is really drunk, they called it the “drunkenness of Lot” that under the influence of alcohol allowed himself to have incestual relations with his two daughters. According to various Rabbinic interpretations of the Purim drinking directive, we are directed to only reach a relatively mild level of intoxication.

Nonetheless, the question remains. The simplest answer given by the Rabbis is: you should drink just a little bit more than what you are accustomed to. Therefore, a person who barely drinks wine would satisfy the requirement to drink with just a sip. A person who is accustomed to having a glass of wine with his meals might be required to drink another glass. A person who is accustomed to heavy drinking during his meals may have other issues to worry about than the requirement of Jewish law as to how much he should drink.

Another curiosity the drinking on Purim reveals is the level of hypocrisy that exists in Jewish observance. People who pay little attention to other Jewish laws, all of a sudden become highly observant of this particular command. As is stated in the vernacular, “they are full of it.” Their drinking binge may merely masquerade a closet alcoholic or a repressed soul seeking an excuse to bring his fantasies, delusions, turmoil and demons to the fore. I council such disturbed people to seek therapy and not subject the public to their private ailments. The Talmud states that “when wine enters, secrets come out.” Well, some secrets should remain that way. If one is a holy saint, then please, get so intoxicated that you reveal the metaphysical mysteries of creation. But for the rest of us – put a lid on it. Please, spare us.

For many, many people, Purim has become the most horrible holiday of the year. To see their friends, parents, children, spouses and even Rabbis get drunk and behave in offensive ways is just disgusting. Where there is fear or danger of people drinking too much, they are much better off not drinking at all.

So how do you know how much to drink? If there is a chance you may drink too much – then you shouldn’t drink at all. If you can limit yourself and drink just a little bit more than is your weekly custom, then go ahead, fulfill the command and get a little lift in the enjoyment of the holiday.

If you suspect you may overdo it, if someone has hinted or told you that you drank too much in the past, do yourself and especially those around you a big favor. Don’t drink. You may be surprised that you and those around you may actually enjoy the holiday more.

 

Useless Superstition

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tetzave-useless-superstition/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Tetzave

Useless Superstition

Superstition is only the fear of belief, while religion is the confidence. -Marguerite Blessington

There is a common belief in Judaism that the religious article known as a Mezuza, a scroll of parchment with two paragraphs of the Torah written on it, placed on ones doorpost, affords some type of divine protection. A superstitious corollary to that belief is that if something wrong or unfortunate occurs in the home or the family, there may be something faulty with the Mezuza. Indeed, there are startling stories of people who have checked their Mezuza and found an eerie relationship between the fault in the text of their Mezuza and the event that prompted its checking. Going down this road leads to the conclusion that correcting the text of the Mezuza will correct one’s life.

I am often approached by people with various mishaps in their lives who ask me to check their Mezuzas. It somehow eludes them that perhaps their leading a life separated from God, separated from morality, separated from the laws and traditions of the Jewish people, may be the more direct cause of divine retribution than any parchment’s error.

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 28:32 states that the High Priest had a special garment that somehow did afford protection for punishment for the severe sin of gossiping. But he elaborates that the protection only worked after the offender would stop his gossiping ways and repent. Then and only then would the metaphysical properties of the garment provide protection from punishment.

The cause of our mishaps are usually internal. We don’t need to look to Mezuzas, red strings or other mystical solutions to fix the problems inside.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the venerated Chofetz Chaim who made some news this week with the discovery of an old film from 1923 showing him for a few seconds (0:57 to be precise).