Public Vindication (Emor)

Public Vindication (Emor)

Innocence is like polished armor; it adorns and defends. -Bishop Robert South

It is not uncommon for the media to accuse a person or group of some misdeed, splash it in bold type on the front page of the newspaper, and then when innocence has been discovered, will print a retraction in small type buried in the back of the paper, if at all. By then the damage has been done, the reputation of the accused has been tarnished, even ruined beyond repair.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 22:27 (Emor) highlights the fact that God has the contrary approach to vindication. He gives an analogy to a woman from a royal household of whom rumors of some misdeed are spread about by members of the royal court. The king himself investigates and finds the rumors to be baseless. The king then proceeds to throw a royal banquet, inviting the entire royal court, and places this innocent woman at the head table next to him, thereby declaring in the clearest possible way that the king has found her to be innocent and favorable in his eyes.

Thus Rabbeinu Bechaye explains the question as to why the bull is mentioned in the Torah as the most important animal to be sacrificed. He states that the elevated importance of the bull comes to publicly vindicate the grave sin which was committed with its likeness, namely the sin of the golden calf. By giving such honor to the adult version of the calf, God is in a sense stating that the Children of Israel weren’t truly to blame for that egregious sin. God “researched” the matter and discovered that it was not the Israelites that initiated the turn to idol worship, but rather the “Erev Rav,” the mixed multitude of people who had joined the Jewish nation during its exodus from the slavery of Egypt. It was this multitude of peoples, of idolatrous background, who called for and incited the impressionable Jewish people to worship the golden calf.

God does forgive the nation of Israel, and the importance of the bull in the sacrificial order demonstrates the public vindication for that sin.

May we always be found innocent of misdeeds and may we be vindicated of any misattributed wrongs, sooner or later.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Akiva Schwartz on his Bar-Mitzvah.

Don’t Curse the Deaf (Acharei-Kedoshim)

Don’t Curse the Deaf (Acharei-Kedoshim)

Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life… is a monster for which the corruption of society forever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret. -Percy Bysshe Shelley

There is an unusual command in the Torah not to curse a deaf person. On the surface it doesn’t make sense. What’s the big deal? They don’t hear it. It doesn’t hurt or offend them. Why is the Torah hyper-sensitive as to what we say, especially when the subject of our cursing can’t even hear it?

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 19:14 (Kedoshim) gives two answers.

The first answer is that if God is so concerned about what we say to or about someone who is incapable of hearing our words, how much more so must we be careful when speaking to or about someone who can hear our words. If the Torah explicitly commands us not to curse someone who won’t be impacted, hurt, offended or embarrassed by our cursing them, then we clearly need to refrain from doing so to someone who will be hurt by our words.

The second answer is that God’s concern in this case is not actually for the deaf person. The deaf person due to his inability to hear is indeed protected from hearing foul language or anything derogatory directed towards him. God is concerned for the one cursing, even if nobody else hears them. There is something contaminating, spiritually corrosive, about cursing, that chips away at a person’s soul. That is the reason for God’s strange warning. It’s not to protect the one being cursed, but rather to protect the one cursing.

God is always listening. God never forgets. There is a divine eternal record of all of our actions, of all of our words and even of all of our thoughts. God here is commanding that our words should be clean. Our words should not harm or offend. Our words are what make us human. They are a divine gift which enables us to live together, to work together, to love, to share, to show tenderness, compassion, friendship. God is warning us not to abuse that gift. God will judge us by the words we choose to use, even if nobody else hears them.

May we think before we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my beloved State of Israel on the 70th anniversary of its re-establishment.

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them. -Alice Sebold

The Torah spends several chapters on the ritual treatment of a biblical spiritual malady called “Tzaraat” popularly mistranslated as leprosy. The person who suffered from the Tzaraat, called a “Metzora”, while not a leper, did suffer from an unusual skin condition that was cured in biblical times by exile from the camp and then a ritual purification and sacrifice process.

Most rabbinic commentators explain that the malady of Tzaraat affected primarily those guilty of gossiping. Gossiping was so onerous a crime that God Himself would alter the laws of nature and personally intervene to strike the offending gossiper with this strange and unusual malady.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 14:2 (Metzora) quotes the Talmud that states that gossiping is so horrendous that it is actually worse than murder, illicit relations and idolatry COMBINED.

I always thought this Talmudic dictum somewhat of an exaggeration, until I had the misfortune to witness first-hand the destruction caused by gossip. It has to do with cutting bonds.

Murder is the cutting of the bond of life; cutting off or destroying the connection between a body and a soul.

Illicit relations is the cutting of the bond of family. Adulterers destroy the bond between a husband and wife, sabotaging that basic unit of society.

Idolatry is the cutting of the bond with God. Idolaters sever the connection between man and the divine.

Then why is gossiping worse than all three of the cardinal sins put together? Because a gossiper destroys all of these bonds, and more. Gossip destroys the bonds of self, of family, of faith, and of community. It is a betrayal of the trust that is inherent in any group, destroying all the bonds that make us who we are. There are few murders that are worse than that.

Rabbeinu Bechaye adds another Talmudic dictum that gossip kills three people. It kills the gossiper, it kills the listener and it kills the person being gossiped about.

So the next time you want to share a juicy or even innocuous tidbit about someone you know, think again. You may be committing murder.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Devorah and David Katz on the opening of their new bakery location of Pat BaMelach in Efrat. Check it out!

Fatal Alcohol (Shmini)

Fatal Alcohol (Shmini)

All excess is ill, but drunkenness is of the worst sort. It spoils health, dismounts the mind, and unmans men. It reveals secrets, is quarrelsome, lascivious, impudent, dangerous and bad. -William Penn

Two sons of Aaron the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, die in a consecration ritual gone awry. They offer unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle and are instantly killed by a fire sent by God. Immediately after this horrific scene of death the Torah commands Aaron and his remaining sons to refrain from drinking wine or strong drink while serving in the Tabernacle, lest they die. Many commentators point at this command as the unspoken reason why Nadav and Avihu were killed. They had entered the Tabernacle drunk.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 10:9 (Shmini) expands on the dangers of alcohol. The first danger that directly affects the priestly service is that drunkenness prevents a person from distinguishing between what is holy and what is mundane. A drunk cannot differentiate between the sacred and the profane – a vital skill in any holy work.

Additionally, he states three other outcomes of drinking too much alcohol that are alluded to in the verse: drowsiness, arrogance and confusion. Alcohol causes “warm and humid vapors” to rise to the brain, causing sleep, which one is expressly forbidden to do in the Tabernacle.

Alcohol also “heats the forces of the heart,” leading to an inflated ego, namely arrogance, erasing any distinction between holy and mundane, making everything equal in his eyes, including the pure and the defiled.

Finally, the “vapors” that rise to the brain create a division between the brain and the other forces of the body, creating confusion and literally “mixing up of the brain.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his discussion of the dangers of drinking by quoting King Solomon’s Proverbs that a drinker’s end is like a snake’s bite. The snake from the Garden of Eden was an enticer, who led humanity to death. It is the same with alcohol. It is seductive, but it is a poison that if mishandled can ultimately lead to ruin and death.

May we always drink responsibly and if we can’t, avoid it altogether.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

Useful, Thoughtful, Meaningful Prayers (Tzav)

Useful, Thoughtful, Meaningful Prayers (Tzav)

 Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

There is a not-uncommon phenomenon in Hebrew prayer, of people not understanding what they are saying. This goes so far as to the trend of some people, trying to be particularly devout, of reciting Psalms throughout the day, though they may not understand the words. Some go so far as to recite the entire Book of Psalms in one sitting or even multiple times a day, leaving time for little else in their days.

The source for the power of prayer in general and Psalms in particular is an ancient tradition. The Talmud affirms that “whoever says the Praise of David (referring to Psalm 145) every day is guaranteed the World to Come.”

However, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 7:37 (Tzav) adds a caveat to the above. The prayers are mainly effective when we understand what we’re saying. While there is some value to saying it even if we don’t fully understand, the power of the prayers is when we are able to internalize the concepts we’re saying, when we are able to delve into the meaning within our communications with God.

There is a related principle from this week’s Torah reading regarding the sacrifices. The Sages explain that even just reading about the sacrifices, especially in our day and age, while the Temple is yet to be rebuilt, is akin to actually bringing the real flesh-and-blood sacrifices. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that here too, it’s not just reading the words, but really contemplating the significance of the words, the profound messages and the divine imperative which underlines the holy texts.

A related challenge is that for those who pray on a daily basis, and recite the same text all the time, the act of praying can become monotonous. It can become a burden. People may speed through the text just to get it over with. Their mouths may be saying the words, but their hearts and minds are most likely elsewhere. The truth however, and a response to the challenge, is that the words of the prayer are rich and complex. They are filled with nuance and significance which can take a lifetime to discover. They can lead to greater insights as to our history and our tradition. That is part of Rabbeinu Bechaye’s suggestion. He guides us to delve into the interpretations of prayer. There are mystical hints. One can find the keyhole to wonders. It should lead to a growing faith in God and indeed the World to Come.

May we rediscover the meaning, usefulness, sublimity and power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the members of The Westside Shul in LA for a warm welcome and a meaningful prayer service.

Vital Clear Communication (Vayikra)

Vital Clear Communication (Vayikra)

It is still not enough for language to have clarity and content… it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion. -Rene Daumal

There is a great biblical mystery, that for thousands of years Rabbinic commentators have been unable to agree as to its solution. It has to do with the sudden, Divinely-enacted execution of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses.

To recap, at the consecration ceremony for the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu, of their own initiative, decide to offer what the Torah describes as a “strange” fire. The response is instant and fatal. The verse is short and cryptic: “And a fire came from God and consumed them and they died in front of God.”

The commentators have a spectrum of opinions as to why they were killed. It ranges from them having been drunk, to choosing not to marry, to wishing Aaron and Moses dead already so they can take charge, to the arrogance of bringing an offering nobody commanded.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 1:7 brings a simple yet chilling opinion. He says they were killed because they misunderstood the instructions. God instructs: “And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar.” Nadav and Avihu interpreted that they should bring fire from outside. They didn’t think or bother to ask Moses for clarification (perhaps out of arrogance). That mistake proved fatal.

Based on this Rabbeinu Bechaye elaborates on the Talmudic dictum of being punctiliously careful with the words we say and especially when repeating the words of our sages. If Nadav and Avihu, whom after Moses there was nobody of their stature, could make such a grave error of misunderstanding with such dire consequences, how much more so must we, simple mortals, be careful in the clear transmission of information? He further warns that whoever changes or alters holy words, even one letter or the order of the words, is changing the very intention of God and will be cast off.

Hence, the Talmudic practice of the Rabbis repeating what they heard from their own teachers verbatim and getting into major debates if there were even minute differences in their traditions.

May we bear messages worth transmitting and may we do so clearly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the participants and organizers of the Jerusalem Marathon. It was a special treat to join runners, joggers, walkers and strollers from all over the country and the world in this amazing event.

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.