Smart Diet

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/acharei-mot-smart-diet/

Netziv Leviticus: Acharei Mot

Smart Diet

“Their kitchen is their shrine, the cook their priest, the table their altar, and their belly their god.” -Charles Buck

There is a now-apocryphal story making the rounds of a gentile mother in a supermarket telling her nagging child that he can’t have something because it’s “not kosher.” A curious Jew inquires as to the family’s identity. The mother readily admits she is not Jewish, but says she picked up the term watching a Jewish mother in a supermarket in a similar circumstance of a nagging child, and then magically, the words “it’s not kosher” immediately stopped all annoying requests. The gentile mother was impressed and now uses the sorcerous word for any situation where she will brook no argument. More TV? “Not kosher”, a new toy? “Not kosher”. The child may grow up with a skewed understanding of what the term “kosher” means, but there is one underlying meaning that they got. It involves a statement that the item or action is out of bounds. There is a higher authority that has deemed that whatever it is you want, you need to control yourself and accept that not all your desires can be fulfilled.

In the business of eating there is a wide spectrum of practices in regards to observing the laws of eating Kosher. They range from being directly involved in slaughtering, processing and eating only foods where one personally supervised the production, to the other extreme of eating anything that crawls, is grown, found or manufactured on our planet. Within that range there are people who rely only on very specific supervision groups; those that will rely on any Jewish supervision; those that will purchase and prepare Kosher products for the home, but be more lax on what they eat outside; those that are particular that their meat and chicken are kosher but are less concerned about any other products; and an infinite variety of other standards, preferences and personal quirks when it comes to determining what we ingest.

There are also a variety of reasons that are proposed as to why one should eat Kosher. A popular one that receives sporadic scientific support is that it’s healthier. A Kabbalistic reason is that it helps the soul. The Netziv on Leviticus on 17:16 gives a reason I hadn’t heard before: eating Kosher makes you smarter. He phrases it in the negative. Eating non-kosher makes you dumb. Giving in to ones cravings and baser emotions makes one dumb and can lead a person to other sins. Therefore the reverse must also be true. By eating a kosher diet, it must somehow improve ones intelligence, ones mental capacity and agility. It leads one to restrain oneself, to exhibit self-control. Such mastery can be a strong developer of character and of a sense of boundaries. And it may also be healthier for body and soul.

May all who choose to, enjoy a happy and kosher Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To my friend and colleague, Moshe Silberberg, for his unending efforts to provide Kosher food to the Jewish community of Uruguay.

Pesach and Genetic Memory

Pesach and Genetic Memory

As a child, I would sometimes have nightmares. The nightmares were filled with emaciated, starving people, crowded into dark wooden barracks. And they were filled with fear. Fear of an unknown, unspoken, imminent, gruesome death. There was no hope. It was no longer a question of “if”; it was only a question of “when”.

My grandmother survived the extermination camp of Auschwitz. My grandfather survived both the German and then the Russian labor camps. They never spoke of their experiences. My father also never spoke of what little he knows of their Holocaust travails. Yet somehow, without a spoken transmission, I have always had a strong visceral aversion to all things relating to that dark period of our history.

I might have been influenced by a Jewish education that remembered and commemorated the Holocaust in somber annual ceremonies and educational activities. It might have been the few pictures and accounts we saw and heard from others. It might just be a heightened sensitivity to such a horrid past or just a hyperactive imagination. But for whatever reason, I have a strong irrational loathing of Holocaust matters.

Where do these feelings come from? Have I unconsciously inherited some of the trauma of my grandparents? Or can memories be passed on genetically? There are some scientists that now believe it is possible.

In December of 2013, Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, published a tantalizing discovery in the scientific journal, Nature Neuroscience, (link to scientific article: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n1/full/nn.3594.html and link to the less technical version: http://www.nature.com/news/fearful-memories-haunt-mouse-descendants-1.14272#/b1).

They describe experiments where a mouse is exposed to a smell while simultaneously receiving an electric shock to its body. The mouse learns to fear that smell. What is surprising is that both the child and the grandchild of the mouse also exhibit fear of the smell, despite no previous encounter with the smell. This seems to prove some type of inherited memory, or at the very least sensitivity to an ancestor’s experience.

If in fact, humans also have the capacity to inherit memories from their ancestors, or at least some sensitivities, it may help us better understand some of the rituals in Judaism.

In Jewish custom and tradition, there is perhaps no ritual that aims to transmit some experiential memory as strongly as the Pesach Seder.

Pesach celebrates and commemorates the exodus of our newborn nation from the enslavement of the Egyptian empire more than 3,300 years ago. It was a momentous, transformative event in the history of the world, when one people was separated and removed from the midst of another, with accompanying miracles, plagues, terror, and destruction, including the divine annihilation of the Egyptian military, the strongest fighting force in the world at the time.

To remember our exit from the bondage of Egypt and the formation of our people, the Torah itself, in its recounting of the event, mandates a variety of actions that are meant to be repeated for generations and are critical components of membership in the nation of Israel. This is so much so, that one who does not fulfill some of the specific commandments of Pesach is considered as if they are “cut off” from the people of Israel.

The most famous commandment is the eating of the Matzah, the unleavened bread. We also have the eating of the Maror, the bitter herbs, the drinking of four cups of wine (or grape juice); the abstention from and removal of Hametz (leavened products) from our diet and our possession; the recounting and elaboration of the Exodus event at the family table. There is the explicit demand of the Hagada (the text we use at the Pesach Seder) to feel as if we ourselves escaped Egypt.

Can you imagine the taskmaster’s whip brutally lashing into your scarred back, reopening barely healed wounds, forcing you to inhuman feats of strength, though part of you is ready to die? Can you imagine the relief and the wonder when plagues start to hit your Egyptian oppressors, giving you, finally, the much prayed for break from the arduous enslavement? Can you imagine the sight of all your brothers and sisters, all your cousins and uncles, your entire tribe, the entire people of Israel getting ready to leave the cursed land of Egypt? Can you imagine the fear, the awe, the amazement, as you, together with your fellow escapees of the people of Israel have your back against the sea, with the entire Egyptian army bearing down on you, only to have the sea miraculously split, for you to walk on dry land within the sea and then to see the Egyptian army drowning at your feet? Can you imagine all of this? Can you talk about it? Can you convey this to your children? That is what the Pesach Seder is about.

If we say that on the Seder night we are reliving the events of the Exodus, then it hints at the possibility that we may, in some fashion, have lived through those events. What if memories somehow can be transmitted biologically? What if there is some momentous memory that our ancestors have passed down to us that is nestled deep within our subconscious? There would at the very least be some comfort, some familiarity, perhaps even a sense of déjà vu at certain reenactments. The Seder would serve to reinforce those memories. Those memories would continue to breed true in future generations.

At the Seder, our senses are exposed to a variety of memory triggers. We have the unusual but memory-stirring food, the strange but familiar aromas, the ancient time-worn liturgy, the ancestral songs, the Biblical rituals and all in the presence of family. If there is any holiday that demands the presence of generations together, of parents, children, grandchildren, it is the Seder.

There is something unique in the power of the Seder. It is perhaps our strongest anchor to our memories and connection to our past. It is the perhaps our strongest anchor for the demands, tasks and challenges of the future. Let us prepare ourselves well for our role as physical, spiritual and educational conduits of this great chain of our history.

Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Some people never learn…

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/metzora-some-people-never-learn/ 

Netziv Leviticus: Metzora

Some people never learn…

“Obstinacy is will asserting itself without being able to justify itself. It is persistence without a reasonable motive. It is the tenacity of self-love substituted for that of reason and conscience.” -Henri Frederic Amiel

It is said that experience is the best teacher, but sometimes even that is not enough. There are times when actions and their consequences are so clear that it is only by a great force of will or delusion that the correct lessons are ignored.

The Torah dedicates a lot of ink to the malady known as tzaraat. There are three categories of tzaraat: afflictions upon the structure of ones house, afflictions upon ones clothing and affliction upon ones body. Tzaraat is generally attributed to gossip. Rabbinic commentators explain that if one gossips, God sends an initial warning by affecting ones house. The damage, minor as it may be, is meant to be an opportunity to deliberate as to the spiritual ills that lead to the physical harm.

If one gets the message, they clean up their act, fix their house and life goes on. However, the Netziv on Leviticus 14:44 explains, if one doesn’t get the message, if one doesn’t excise the spiritual illness from themselves, the tzaraat will return and with more force.

The second level that is affected, is ones clothing, ones personal possessions – much closer. The final level that is affected is ones body.

May we use the opportunities that damage and afflictions give us to contemplate our lives and areas for repair and improvement, especially regarding the great evil of gossip.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who are both careful with what they put in their mouths over Pesach as well as with what comes out of their mouths the whole year.

 

A Secret of Jewish Marriage

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tazria-a-secret-of-jewish-marriage/

Netziv Leviticus: Tazria

A Secret of Jewish Marriage

“Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature.” -Charles Dickens

There is a commandment that is not spoken about frequently or openly due to its sensitive nature and as a result is also not well known amongst many people. It is the law of Family Purity (taharat ha’mishpacha).

In essence, what it legislates, is that a married couple cannot have any physical contact the days during which the woman experiences her monthly period of menstruation. The couple can only touch again after a suitable period of waiting and after the woman has gone to the ritual bath (mikveh).

This monthly cycle of separation and reunion can have a transformative effect on the couple’s relationship and marriage. The Netziv on Leviticus 12:2 explains that this is purposeful. By having a brief period of enforced separation from intimacy each spouse may become more attracted to the other. Besides increasing the physical attraction, it also frames the relationship as not just a physical one but also a spiritual one. It encourages the couple to talk to each other. It inspires the couple to find and do activities together beyond just the physical. Instead of focusing just on our bodies, we also focus on our souls.

Anyone wanting to know more about this important aspect of married Jewish life is invited to contact your local Rabbi or Rebbetzin.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Mikveh ladies who selflessly assist in this vital commandment.

 

 

Scheduling Joy

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shmini-scheduling-joy/

Netziv Leviticus: Shmini

Scheduling Joy

“Tranquil pleasures last the longest; we are not fitted to bear the burden of great joys.” - Nevell Bovee

Weddings are generally happy events. The bride, groom and their families prepare for months, investing great time and money to ensure that every garment, dish, flower, tablecloth and picture will be to their and their guests’ liking.

There is joy, dancing and merriment. It is thought to be among the happiest moments of the couple’s life. The Netziv on Leviticus 9:1 throws cold water on that concept. He comes to his conclusion from the Jewish experience upon receiving God’s law.

When the Jewish people receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, there is fire, lightning, trumpet blasts – a bright and loud show. Only when the Tablets that Moses brought from Sinai are placed in their permanent home, in the Tabernacle, do we see the Jewish nation celebrating and feasting.

The Netziv compares the event at Mount Sinai to the wedding night. There is excitement, perhaps even giddiness, but the bride and groom are too nervous, too anxious to truly experience joy. When the Tablets are placed in the Tabernacle is when the bride and groom come home. Only at home can they truly celebrate. Only at home can they truly experience a serious, tranquil, long-lasting joy.

May joy always be a part of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To those that invest time and money in after the wedding.

Unholy Leftovers

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

Netziv Leviticus: Tzav

Unholy Leftovers

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow”. -Melody Beattie

Disclaimer: I truly enjoy leftovers and look forward to eating as much as I can get of my wife’s cooking. The above title is not meant in any way as a negative reflection of her culinary abilities, as our many guests can attest to.

However, in the list of animal sacrifices that were offered at the Sanctuary/Temple there are curious guidelines as to the time span within which the meat can be eaten. For the sacrifice of thanksgiving (Toda) there is an interesting combination of a relatively short period to eat and a lot of bread that is meant to accompany the sacrifice.

The Toda sacrifice is brought when a person wishes to give thanks to God for a particularly significant event, salvation, or overt manifestation of God in ones life.

The Netziv on Leviticus 7:13 explains that the constrained time to eat plentiful food for the thanksgiving offering is deliberate. Its purpose is to force the person to publicize the sacrifice he’s offering and the cause, and to invite as many people as possible to partake in the feast of thanks thereby spreading the word far and wide as to God’s direct involvement in our lives. Hence, by prohibiting leftovers, one is obliged to invite more people than he might have otherwise.

May we always have reasons to celebrate together and thank God for the goodness and the miraculous in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who know how to have fun without getting drunk.

Selfless Self-prayer

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayikra-selfless-self-prayer/

Netziv Leviticus: Vayikra

Selfless Self-prayer

“Let everyone try and find that as a result of daily prayer he adds something new to his life, something with which nothing can be compared.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Jewish liturgy is often written in the plural form. We should have others in mind in our prayers. Therefore, one might develop feelings of guilt if one were to pray for oneself. How selfish would that be?

The Book of Leviticus presents us with a variety of sacrifices that are brought in the Tabernacle and were subsequently offered in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The Netziv on Leviticus 1:2 explains, as do most Rabbinic commentators, that prayer is a substitute for the sacrifices that were offered. However, he adds, that just as the penitent brings his own sacrifice, so it is with prayer. It is always most effective and appropriate when the person seeking divine assistance prays for himself.

However, there are sacrifices that the spiritual leadership brings on behalf of the people. According to the Netziv, this parallels the ability of a person who doesn’t know how to pray to ask the community leadership to pray on his behalf.

We should develop our prayer abilities, and for those of us feeling deficient in that area – find someone who can help us in that department.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the beginning of the Uruguayan school and work year. Feel free to join us at the synagogue for community prayer.

To Betty and Wolf Gruenberg on their wonderful hosting. May all their prayers be answered.