Monday, April 26, 2010

Emor 5770-2010

"Striving For Perfection"

Much of parashat Emor speaks of holiness, faultlessness, striving for perfection and the proper observance of the holy days. In fact, the entire introductory portion of the parasha deals with the purity of the priesthood and the holiness of the sacrifices. Consequently, all gifts that are brought to G-d are expected to be faultless and specifically set apart for sacred purposes. Whether the gift is to be a religious gift or a gift of charity, the donor must seek to ensure its perfection.

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that we read in Leviticus 22:21, "V'eesh kee yahk'reev zeh'vahch sh'lah'meem la'Hashem," Anyone who brings a sacrifice of peace-offerings to G-d in fulfillment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a free-will offering of the herd or of the flock, "Ta'meem yee'yeh l'rah'tzohn, kol moom lo yee'yeh bo," It must be perfect to be accepted, there shall be no blemish upon it.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) points out that even those sacrifices that are of a lesser degree of holiness there must not be blemished.

The fact that sacrifices must be of the most select stock was taught cogently in Genesis 4:4, where the Torah relates that both Cain and Abel brought offerings to G-d. In acknowledgment of the bountiful crop, Cain brought "of the fruit of the ground," while Abel brought "the firstlings of his flock and their choicest." The Al-mighty accepted Abel and his offering, but not the offering of Cain. From this, our rabbis deduced that Cain's offering was of the inferior portions of the crop, while Abel chose only the finest of his flock. Hence, the well-known rabbinic aphorism (Berachot 5b), stating that it makes no difference whether one gives more or less, as long as it is done with full devotion of the heart.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), in his Yad Ha'chazaka, Mishne Torah, Issurei Mizbe'ah, (Laws of things that are Prohibited for the Altar) 7:11, writes as follows:

The same principle applies to everything done for the sake of G-d: It must be of the finest and best. If one builds a house of prayer it should be finer than his private dwelling. If he feeds the hungry, he should give them the best and sweetest of his table. If he clothes the naked, he should give him the finest of his garments.

In their book, Maimonides and His Heritage, the authors, Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, Lenn Evan Goodman and James Allen Grady point to a fascinating contrast of the Jewish attitude regarding munificence, with those of Aristotle (384–322 BCE). They note that according to the ancient Greek philosophers one must seek out the best when it comes to public buildings, temples, and the like, but not when it comes to charity. Apparently, the ancients were of the opinion that the valuing of charitable acts by others is based on the erroneous assumption on the part of the "free-riders." The poor obviously believed that there will always be generous persons who will want to help them, who will have the means to do so, and the will to provide for their care. In fact, the ancient philosophers felt that such behavior is destructive of both the means of those who had the ability to give and their will to support them.

One disconcerting outcome of the attitudes fostered by the burgeoning "service economy" that has gained traction in the United States recently, is the notion that if one wants something done properly it is always advisable to call an expert. Many have forsaken all aspiration of becoming proficient in so many important areas of their lives. Instead, they rely more and more on others to do those tasks, since money has been relatively abundant and such efforts are often energy depleting. So while many Americans increasingly search for the path of least resistance and least effort, they have, at the same time, become much less skilled people.

It's not only that many of us no longer know how to iron, sew or polish silver properly, we have even lost such fundamental skills as cutting our own nails and our hair, and even cleaning our face and skin. All of these roles have been farmed out to professionals. Often, when confronted with basic medical and emotional issues, we feel compelled to run straight to the doctor, at the slightest sign of a sniffle.

This lesson was driven home to me recently as I witness the increasing takeover of the "shiva home" by professionals who deliver luxurious shiva seats, extra folding chairs for visitors, prayer books, even water coolers, which of course make the shiva experience much more pleasant and easier to manage. But, we must ask ourselves, at what cost? Does it mean that our Chevra Kadisha, burial society members composed of community volunteers, have been relieved of the "burden" of caring for the mourners? Isn't there great satisfaction, not to mention a great mitzvah, that one gets when caring for mourners? But now the professionals have moved in, obviating the need for the community to be there for those in mourning.

It seems as if the citizens of our country are rapidly becoming a nation of would-be deadbeats. They are losing the passion and the will to seek perfection, to be wholehearted, and ultimately to be compassionate. How often do we now rationalize by saying that professionals can do it better, so why not let them take care of things? Is it perhaps a smokescreen, because we have become too lazy or no longer care?

Striving for perfection should not become a lost art, not only in our relationship with G-d, but also in our relationships with other human beings. The Bible reminds us that we should do things wholeheartedly, so that it may find favor in G-d's eyes and in human eyes.

If we follow that advice, how can we go wrong?

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Lag Ba'Omer (literally the 33 rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start Saturday night, May 1, and continue all day Sunday, May 2, 2010. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before Shavuot. The 33 rd day is considered a festival because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770-2010

"Loving Thy Neighbor" --

In parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot -- Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we read the famous, indeed, revolutionary verse from Leviticus 19:18: “V’ah’havta l’ray’ah’cha kah’mocha, ah’nee Hashem,” You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.

This statement is universally regarded as one of the greatest pronouncements of human morality. In fact, Rabbi Akiva (Talmudic sage, 50-135 CE), is cited in the Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4, as saying that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is one of the greatest principles, if not the greatest, in the entire Torah.

It is fascinating to note that the earlier Talmudic sage, Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE), also regarded this verse as a fundamental principle. However, when he was asked by a potential proselyte to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he chose to restructure the statement in the negative. In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat 31a, Hillel told the candidate for conversion, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor--that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go study.”

Apparently, Rabbi Akiva agreed with Hillel’s sentiment, which is based on the assumption that it is virtually impossible for anyone to love another person as much as one loves oneself, and certainly not more than one loves oneself. Furthermore, Rabbi Akiva in Baba Metziah 62a, determines, in the case of two people who are in the desert with a single flask of water, that if there is only enough water for a single person to survive, the owner of the flask may drink the water. He does not have to share the water with his traveling companion, because who is to say that the companion’s life is more valuable than his own.

Many regard this verse as the basic pillar upon which the entire Torah is based. It is from this verse of loving one’s neighbor that Jewish law derives the performance of good deeds, such as visiting the sick, arranging for the burial of the dead, comforting the bereaved, providing dowries for poor brides and protecting the possessions of others as if they were their own.

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator)learns from this verse that there should be no difference between what a person wishes for himself and the benefit that he wishes for his fellow human being. After all, every human being was created by G-d. Maimonidies (the Rambam, 1135-1204, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) posits that this is the reason that a person who assumes the responsibility of protecting the possessions of others is to think and feel as if he is guarding his own property.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) and the Hizzekuni (Hezkiah ben Manoah, French exegete of the 13th century) suggest that the best way to observe this commandment is to put oneself in the next person’s position. When thinking of a friend who is ill, one must say, “If I were ill myself, what would be the greatest blessing I could seek from G-d?”, and then must pray for the ill person to receive that exact blessing.

The Ba’al HaTurim (c.1275-1340, Jacob ben Asher, Germany and Spain, famed halakhist and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah) suggests that this verse teaches that one must always be sensitive to the feelings of others. For example, he states that when one is intimate with one’s wife, one should not think of another woman. One of my teachers in high school advised his “hormone-challenged” teenage male students to treat their girlfriends as they would like others to treat their sisters. (Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’m not sure that this advice would work very well today!)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Kopitchinitz (1888-1967, prominent Hassidic rabbi in Europe and New York) concluded that loving one’s neighbor is not intended to apply to saintly and righteous people, since it is almost impossible not to love them. To the contrary, this verse bids all to especially love those people whom it is hard to love. The Alter of Slabodka (Nosson Zvi Finkel, 1849-1927, famed Rosh Yeshiva in Europe and Israel and one of the leaders of the Mussar movement) used to say that the commandment to love others as oneself implies that just as a person loves himself instinctively, without the need to justify that love, one should love others as well without looking for reasons, but simply because they are fellow human beings.

There is an age-old debate regarding the so-called “parochial” nature of the Hebrew bible’s statement of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There are those who maintain that the words “V’ah’havtah l’ray’acha”, love your neighbor, limit a Jew’s love only to other Jews, as opposed to the Christian bible, which seems to expand this love to apply to all humanity.

Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire) takes strong exception to this Christian assertion. He points to the verse in Exodus 11:2, where the Jews in Egypt are instructed to ask their neighbors for jewels of gold and silver. Clearly the word “ray’ah” in that context cannot possibly mean a fellow Israelite, but must refer to Egyptians. Bernard J. Bamberger, in his commentary on the book of Leviticus, astutely points out that in ancient times few people had the opportunity to express their love to neighbors beyond those in their immediate vicinity. “Only in recent centuries, has the average person had the knowledge, or the opportunity and the obligation to apply the ‘Golden Rule’ on a global scale” (p. 893).

Rabbi Hertz argues further, that even those who do interpret “ray’ah” to refer exclusively to Jews, could not possibly deny the universal application for caring for all people that is found in Leviticus 19:34. The verse there teaches that the stranger who sojourns with you shall be unto you as a homeborn, and you shall love him as yourself. Rabbi Hertz argues that the word for stranger, “ger,” applies to all humanity, and that there is no question that every Jew is obligated to love all human beings.

The Rebbe of Sadigor (Sadagora), (Rabbi Abraham Jacob Friedman, son of the Hassidic Rebbe of Rizhin, 1819-1883), explains that the verse of loving one’s neighbor concludes with the words “Ah’nee Hashem”–-I am the L-rd, to teach that the way we treat our neighbors will be the way that we will ultimately be treated by the Al-mighty!

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Israel’s Memorial Day, April 19th) is observed this year on the 6th of Iyar, Monday evening, April 19th, and all day Tuesday, April 20th. (In the diaspora, some observe it one day earlier).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tazria-Metzorah 5770-2010

"The Human Animal" --

On three of the next four Shabbatot, the Torah readings will consist of combined parashiot. The main reason for the doubling up is to make certain that the reading of the entire five books of the Torah will be completed by Simchat Torah.

In parashat Tazria, the first of this week’s double parashiot Tazria-Metzorah, we read of the laws that govern the ritual status of women following the birth of a child, whether male or female. G-d speaks to Moses, instructing him to speak to the children of Israel and say to them (Leviticus 12:2): “Ee’sha kee tazria v’yalda zachar,” When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child....

The rabbis are perplexed as to why these laws of childbirth immediately follow the laws of kosher and non-kosher animals that are found at the end of the previous parasha, Shemini.

The Midrash Tanchuma explains the juxtaposition by stating that G-d created the human being both “before and after” the creation of the sixth day. The Midrash goes on to explain that of the six things that were created on Friday (the sixth day of the week), the exalted human soul was created first. Adam and Eve, however, were created last, after the animals, due to the fact that the “human animal” is often no better, and, at times, far worse, than other animals. Therefore, the laws pertaining to human animals appear in the Torah after the laws of all the other animals.

Rabbi Nissen Telushkin(1881-1970, Russian born Chassidic scholar, who was a leading expert in Jewish law in Brooklyn, NY) in his book, HaTorah v’haOlam, Torah and the World,explains that human beings have the capability of expressing all the worst qualities that are found among animals. The human being can be gluttonous and promiscuous. A human being can anger easily, be vengeful, bear a grudge, be blood thirsty and covet the possessions of others. The primary advantage of human beings over beasts of the field is the Divine soul--the spirit and intelligence with which they are endowed. These spiritual endowments make it possible for humans to conquer their evil inclinations, to choose to do good and eschew evil.

It was the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche(1844-1900),who expounded on the greatness of the physical human being and denigrated the spiritual human being. To Nietzsche and his followers, power was the most exalted human endowment. Righteousness, justice and compassion are the concern of slaves and lower human beings. The “Ubermensch” has no need for justice, righteousness or compassion, only strength and power.

According to the Torah, however, the spiritually exalted human being can even use his so-called “evil” endowments to do much good.

Although pridefulness is normally considered a negative human characteristic, it may at times promote good. For example, a person living in a thoroughly wicked environment would normally not know to do good. Being exposed to constant wickedness, such a person would inevitably be greatly influenced by the perpetual evil, were it not for the fact that he may wish to stand out from the crowd and be different. In such a case, hubris may actually encourage such a person to act differently than others.

One who lusts after the possessions of others is generally considered evil, but not one who lusts for, or is jealous of, the greatness of a neighbor’s wisdom, or good deeds with man and G-d. This is precisely what our rabbis allude to in Baba Batra 21a, “Kin’aht sofreem tar’beh chochmah,” Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom.

Similarly, anger may at times be properly utilized to guide and teach children and young adults. Even the ethical masters, the Baalei Mussar, who loathed anger, would allow their adherents to occasionally display anger, as long as it was intended to achieve a positive end. Teachers and parents were thus advised to set fixed times to show anger, in order to properly discipline children and students. But, only on the condition that as soon as the “anger-time” was up, they would return to their required calm demeanor.

A story is told of a particular Chassidic master, who, when overcome with feelings of anger, would quickly run to his study to look through his entire library to search for a source in a religious text that would permit him to express his anger. He explained that normally when a follower would come to ask whether something was kosher or not, he would enter his library to search for the proper answer in the holy books. He would never rely on his memory to determine a law, for he wanted to make certain that his answer was correct. While in the library, he felt like a student before his rabbi. “Why,” he said, “should it be any different with anger? I need to consult with my rabbis, the masters [meaning the books], to find out whether I am entitled to be angry?” Obviously, while looking for a justification for his anger in the holy tomes, in most instances his anger dissipated.

Rabbi Telushkin cites a play on words found in the biblical verse(Numbers 19:14): “Adam kee ya’moot b’ohel,” If a person dies in a tent, by emphasizing that one should not allow the “Adam” -- the moral element in each human being, to die. Otherwise, we are left with only our animalistic tendencies.

We humans, created in the Divine image, must appreciate that we are endowed with holy souls that are primarily intended to be utilized to encourage positive growth and the performance of good and noble deeds. Even the physical, animalistic qualities in us, such as anger and jealousy may be used for good. After all, despite the fact that animals were created before Adam and Eve, the human soul was created before the human body, and it is the human soul that distinguishes us from animals.

May you be blessed.

Follwing the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, the 62nd year of Israel’s independence will be celebrated on Monday evening, April 19th and all day Tuesday, April 20th, the 6th of Iyar.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Shemini 5770-2010

"The Show Must Go On" --

In this coming week's parasha, parashat Shemini, the first day of Nissan, the day about which Aaron had been dreaming, finally arrived. The Tabernacle, which had been completed on the 25th day of Kislev, was now ready to be erected. At the same time that the Tabernacle would be erected, Aaron and his four sons were to be invested as Kohanim, priests of Israel.

All the suffering that Aaron had endured in Egypt, the personal mortification that Aaron experienced when the people complained that Moses and Aaron were only making things more difficult for them with Pharaoh, the sin of the Golden Calf for which he was blamed–-all this was behind him, and now what was expected to be the most glorious day of Aaron's life was at hand.

Unfortunately, this most glorious day was to turn into the most tragic day of Aaron's life. Wittingly or unwittingly, his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, bring fire pans with a "strange fire" before G-d. A great flame comes down from heaven, consumes them and they die. Moses tries to console his grief-stricken brother by saying that G-d is sanctified by those who are closest to Him, so it must be that G-d really wanted Nadab and Abihu in His presence. Aaron's reaction was total silence.

We then read in Leviticus 10:12, that Moses calls out to Aaron, and to Elazar and Itamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and instructs them: "K'choo et ha'Mincha ha'no'teret may'eeshay Hashem, v'ich'loo'hah matzot, aytzel ha'mizbay'ach, kee kodesh kodashim hee," Take the meal offering that is left from the fire offerings of G-d, and eat it unleavened near the altar; for it is the most holy.

Three he goats were to be offered by the priests as sin offerings on that day: 1)one as a gift of the Prince of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, as part of the series of offerings that were brought by each of the twelve tribal princes 2) a second sin offering was to commemorate the inauguration of the Tabernacle 3) the third sin offering was to mark Rosh Chodesh, the new moon of Nissan.

In a baffling development, Aaron and his sons offer the first two sacrifices, those for the Prince of the tribe of Judah and for the inauguration of the Tabernacle. However, when Moses inquires about the sin offering for Rosh Chodesh he discovers that it had been completely burned without the priests partaking of it, as is usually done. Scripture tells us that Moses demands of Elazar and Itamar to know why they did not eat of the sin offering in a holy place. It is Aaron, however, who responds, telling Moses that they did bring the other two sin offerings and burnt offerings. However, after the tragedy struck, would G-d have approved of the priests eating the sin offering on this day? The Torah then tells us, (Leviticus 10:20) "Va'yishma Moshe, va'yeetav b'aynav", Moses heard Aaron's response and accepted it.

It's hard to believe that after witnessing his two sons die because they failed to follow the precise instructions of G-d, that Aaron had the temerity, together with his two sons, to once again defy G-d's instructions, and refuse to offer or to eat of the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh!

Several commentators attempt to explain Aaron's actions. Some suggest that Aaron concluded that the two sacrifices that had to be brought were the ones that were Horaat Sha'ah, one-time offerings that were to be sacrificed this time only and never again. Therefore the sin offerings of Nachson the Prince and the inauguration of the Tabernacle were offered. However, the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh, which comes every month, does not have to be done in this hour of mourning, since it would nevertheless be observed monthly in the future. Moses accepts Aaron's explanation.

Moses on the other hand, at least initially, felt that in the service of G-d, "The show must go on!" Leaders must put aside their personal considerations, even heartbreak and mourning, and ensure that the worship of G-d by the people continues properly and meaningfully.

The fact that Moses accepted Aaron's explanation indicates that there is truth to both sides of the argument. Aaron also understood that there are times that the show must go on, but only when there is no alternative, when there is no possibility for make-up offerings. However, it is entirely justified to cancel or postpone an action, even a public action, when there will surely be other opportunities for the "show to go on."

Moses however, felt compelled by the other side of the argument. He surely understood that there are times when the show can't go on, but those occasions should be far and few between. After all, much of life is made up of choices that are often beyond our personal control. Moses was, in effect, emphasizing the need for everyone to master the "art" of making difficult decisions, and to be able to forge ahead no matter the impediments and challenges. In fact, those difficult choices in life are frequently the ones that become the most meaningful when they are finally made and come to fruition.

Many choices in life are not easy, but ultimately prove to be rewarding. I have chosen the path of outreach, devoting my life to teach Jews who unfortunately never had a chance to learn, to try to expose our un-affiliated brothers and sisters to the beauty and joy of Judaism. It may sound glorious, but it is tough. Rejection is frequent.

It is not easy to conduct a weekly Beginners Service, repeating the same basic explanations again and again, trying to make them not sound repetitious. It is most challenging to make a Torah portion interesting for an audience of inchoate Jews, when the Torah speaks in the excruciating detail of the building of the Tabernacle and of animal sacrifices. But the reward is great.

It is challenging as well for well-meaning, practicing Jews to have non-observant guests over their homes on Shabbat once a month, to try to positively inspire them. Unfortunately, many practicing Jews want to quickly finish the meal and get to their Shabbat naps, but their guests continue to ask questions, and the hosts often do not know the answers. It's uncomfortable! And if we have guests at our home on a regular basis, what toll does it take on our children, who are often shunted to the sidelines?

Aaron said, there are limits, and we must stop. Moses said, there obviously are limits, but this is not the time for limits, we must forge ahead, and redeem every possible Jew.

My vote is with Moses. What is yours?

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday evening, April 4th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 5th and 6th.

Chag Kasher V'samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

Yom Hashoah is observed this year on Saturday night, April 10th and all day Sunday, April 11, 2010.