Positive Discrimination (Behar)
It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home. -Carl Rowan
Judaism is tribal. Its prime concern is for members of the tribe. Its laws, restrictions, concerns and benefits almost exclusively deal with Jews. Throughout history, Jews, the Torah and the Talmud have been accused of unfair discrimination and racism. Many Rabbis and commentators have explained the rationale for the preferential treatment by Jews of other Jews above gentiles. One explanation is that it is more of a spectrum of responsibilities.
Jewish law codifies that one’s responsibility is first and foremost for oneself. “If I’m not for me, who will be?” is the famous dictum from the Mishna of Pirkei Avot, followed immediately by the phrase “if I am just for myself, what am I?” My father would often explain: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anybody else?”
The next circles of responsibility are for one’s immediate family, followed progressively by other family, friends, neighbors, community, the Jewish people, and then the rest of the world. One cannot and should not have the same measure of responsibility for every single person on the planet. However, within this hierarchy the Torah repeatedly stresses certain individuals for whom we should take additional responsibility, for whom we should have extra concern. Those are “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” the more disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:50 (Behar) adds a nuance from the Talmud which demonstrates a type of reverse discrimination. He states that while it is an abominable sin to steal from a fellow Jew, it is actually even worse to steal from a non-Jew.
He explains that stealing from a non-Jew is not just criminal but actually what is called in Hebrew a “Chilul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, one of the worst offences possible. The perpetrator of a “Chilul Hashem” is in a sense “embarrassing” God, and God will want to have nothing to do with such a person.
One of the primary missions of a Jew is to be a beacon of light to the world. When we betray that mission by demonstrating to the non-Jew that we feel comfortable stealing from them, it is a catastrophic failure of our mission on Earth, which in a sense negates our very purpose of being.
May we always be careful and honest in our dealings and even more so with those outside the tribe.
To our very distant cousins, the Samaritans, on their fascinating reenactment of the Pesach sacrifice.
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.
To Akiva Schwartz on his Bar-Mitzvah.
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.
To my beloved State of Israel on the 70th anniversary of its re-establishment.
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.
To Devorah and David Katz on the opening of their new bakery location of Pat BaMelach in Efrat. Check it out!
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,
To Alcoholics Anonymous.
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,
To the members of The Westside Shul in LA for a warm welcome and a meaningful prayer service.