Moving From a Casual to an Intimate Relationship With Hashem

A significant portion of Parshat Bechukosai consists of the “tochacha” – Hashem’s warning of the trials and tribulations that will be visited upon the Jewish nation if they abandon Hashem and the Torah. In multiple verses, the Jewish nation’s betrayal is described as having “walked” with Hashem “b’keri.”

What is the nature of the transgression signified by “b’keri?” In Hilchot Ta’anit (1:3), Rambam states that “b’keri” refers to “mikreh,” or chance. That is, when suffering befalls the Jewish people they should realize that such suffering is not by chance, but rather a signal to repent (i.e., to do “teshuvah”). However, if they regard the suffering as mere chance and coincidence that has no connection with their behavior, then the sufferings will continue. In short, the sin of “b’keri” is denying that Hashem plays a guiding role in our lives, and that obstacles and failures are His veiled way of encouraging us to repent (see ArtScroll explanation of “Al chet s’chatanu b’kasyut oref”).

In a footnote in The Living Torah, Rav Aryeh Kaplan references additional interpretations of the phrase “b’keri, and ultimately settles on “indifference” in the English translation.

R’ Kaplan’s choice raises the question as to why “indifference” should trigger such harsh punishments. Synonyms for “indifference” include, “apathetic,” “unresponsive”, and “casual.” While hardly praiseworthy, these attitudes – which might find expression in such passive violations as failing to pray or forgetting to make berachos - still seem less problematic than aggressive, passionate sins such as murder and robbery.

Let’s see if we can develop a better understanding of why indifference triggers such severe consequences. In doing so, we may also find a connection with Rambam’s translation as “mikreh,” or chance.

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The Virtues of Moderation

Kedoshim t’hiyu – You shall be holy. How does achieve kedusha?” Rashi explains:

“Separate yourself from the “arayos” (i.e., prohibited sexual relationships) and from sin. Because wherever one finds the Torah establishing a restriction (“geder”) against sexual immorality, one also finds [reference to] holiness.”

The arayos to which Rashi appears to be referring are the prohibited relationships delineated in chapter 18 at the end of Parshat Acharei Mot (which immediately precedes Parshat Kedoshim). As proof for his interpretation that kedoshim t’hiyu refers to separation from arayos, Rashi cites two verses. First, Parshat Emor (21:14-15) where the Torah prohibits the Kohen Gadol from marrying any woman other than a virgin on pain of his children becoming “chalalim” (defiled) – “Ki ani Hashem mekadesho – For I am Hashem who sanctifies him.”  Second, Parshat Emor (21:7) where the Torah prohibits regular kohahim from marrying certain women (e.g., divorcees) – “Ki kadosh hu l’elokav – for each one [i.e., kohen] is holy to Hashem.

What is perplexing is why Rashi cites marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim, and the Kohen Gadol, as proof that the average Israelite achieves “kedusha” by avoiding prohibited sexual relationships.  Specifically, it would appear that the priestly marriage restrictions have nothing to do with immorality (indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with marrying a divorcee or widow – such marriages are permitted to non-kohanim). Instead, the marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim appear to be unique prohibitions designed to highlight the special status of kohanim.

In contrast, the rationale repeatedly cited by the Torah for avoiding the prohibited sexual relationships specified in Parshat Acharei Mot is to raise the morality of the Jewish nation above the debased cultures of Mitzrayim and Canaan (see Achrei Mot 18:3, 24-30). Indeed, the Jewish nation is warned that engaging in such prohibited relationships will cause the Land of Israel to “vomit” them out as it did the prior inhabitants.

Does someone achieve kedusha simply by refraining from sexual immorality? Certainly not, and therefore achieving holiness clearly requires much more than simply avoiding Biblically prohibited relationships. Significantly, there is no reference to “kedusha” in any form in Chapter 18 of Acharei Mos.

It is perhaps for this reason that Ramban rejects Rashi’s interpretation, and explains “kedoshim t’hiyu” as a more general command to practice moderation and self-restraint even in areas that are permitted. That is, avoid becoming what Ramban famously calls a “naval b’reshut haTorah – a hedonist within the confines of the Torah.” As Ramban explains, while the Torah permits the relationship of husband and wife, specific types of meats and wine, and other forms of physical pleasure, there’s a risk that individuals might abuse what the Torah permits and pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. As such, to protect against excessive self-indulgence, the Torah instructs its adherents to practice moderation – limiting physical pleasures as needed, for example, to fulfill a mitzvah.

But does Ramban’s interpretation truly differ from that of Rashi? Perhaps it is possible to explain Rashi in a manner that makes his interpretation consistent with that of Ramban.

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Sa'ir La'Azazel: Chesed as an Antidote to Sinat Chinam

Parshat Acharei Mot discusses the Yom Kippur service performed by the Kohen Gadol.  One of the more enigmatic rituals was the “sa’ir la’Azazel” – the so-called “scapegoat” sent into the desert by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

In fact, there were two male goats featured in the Yom Kippur service – ideally, they were similar in appearance, height and value, and purchased together in a single transaction (Mishnah Yoma 6:1). The first goat is sacrificed as a “chatas” – a national sin-offering. The Kohen Gadol then performs a “vidui” (confession) of all of the sins of the Jewish people on the second goat, which is then escorted out to the desert by a designated individual (the “ish iti”) who pushes it off a cliff to its death.

The entire ritual defies easy explanation, and many commentators explore its meaning and significance.

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Aiming for Divinity: Harnessing Physical Drives for Spiritual Purposes

The end of parshat Shemini addresses the “tumah” (spiritual contamination) conveyed by various dead creatures, while parshat Tazria begins by discussing the “tumah” of a woman who has given birth to a boy. Many commentators seek to explain the Torah's purpose in juxtaposing the “tumah”of creatures and the “tumah” of humans.

Citing the Chatam Sofer, Rav Beker in Parperot L’Torah makes the following observation. While creatures only contaminate after death, humans may contaminate while still alive. Additionally, while the carcass of a dead animal only contaminates through touch and carrying (maga u’masa), a human corpse contaminates through the medium of “ohel” (a roofed enclosure) (see also mishna in Masechet Yadayim (4:6), which observes that the bones of humans contaminate, unlike the bones of a dead animal). Indeed, a human corpse is considered “avi avot ha’tuma” – the highest possible level of impurity.

What is the message?

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Achieving Purity of Thought

At the beginning of parshat Tzav, the Torah relates Hashem’s command to the Kohanim concerning the laws of the korban “olah” (a sacrifice that was fully consumed on the altar): “Tzav et Aharon v’et banav laymor – zot torat ha’olah…relate the following instructions to Aaron and his descendants – this is the law of the burnt offering.” (Vayikra, 6:1-2).

Rashi picks up on the use of the word “tzav” rather than the more common “emor” or “daber,” and states that “tzav” connotes “zeruz,” or diligence. Why must the Kohanim be particularly diligent about the korban olah? Rashi explains that, according to the Tanna Rabbi Shimon, the korban olah represents a greater loss of income – “chisaron kis” – to kohanim than other korbanot since, with the korban olah, the kohanim only receive the hides, while with other korbanot, they receive both the hides and the meat (incidentally, the source for our modern day phrase “out-of-pocket” comes from the phrase “chisaron kis”).

As brought down in Parperei Torah, the Chiddushei Harim - Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty – seeks to interpret the phrase “chisaron kis” metaphorically.

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Food - Path to Glory or Road to Perdition?

A significant portion of parshat Shemini is devoted to the laws of kashrut (i.e,. Jewish dietary laws). In considerable detail, the Torah elucidates how to identify what animals, birds and fish are kosher, and which are not.

Parshat Shemini concludes its identification of kosher species with the following verse: “Because I am Hashem who brought you out of Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore, since I am holy, you must also remain holy.” (Vayikra 11:45).

What is the practical connection between observing the laws of kashrut and holiness? Is it some mystical nexus that is beyond our comprehension? Perhaps, but if one equates holiness with striving for righteous behavior, I would submit there is also a very practical link between the Torah’s emphasis on watching what we eat and developing proper middot – i.e., good character traits.

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The Power of Dan L'Kaf Zechut - Judging Favorably

Parshat Metzora famously begins, “Zot Torat Hametzora – this is the law of the individual who contracts ‘tzara’at’” (the modern translation of “tzara’at” is leprosy, but Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, among others, convincingly demonstrates from the laws of “tzara’at” that the afflication of tzara'at is not synonymous with leprosy or any other disease for that matter; as such, we will avoid use of the word “leprosy”).

The gemara (Arachin 15b) explains that “torat hametzora” is a contraction of “torat hamotzi shem ra” – the laws governing someone who slanders others.  This “Notarikon” reinforces the common understanding that contracting “tzara’at” is a punishment for speaking “loshon hara” (which includes slander that is false, as well as character assassination that is true – in other words, under Jewish law, the fact that a negative statement about another person is true does not exempt the speaker).

In his sefer Chafetz Chaim, the Chafetz Chaim provides a lengthy list of negative and positive commandments violated when a person speaks lashon hara. Indeed, the sheer length of the list helps explain the meaning of the statement in the gemara (Arachin 15b) that one who speaks lashon hara has sins that “reach to the sky.”

One of the positive mitzvos in the Torah violated by those who speak loshon hara, according to the Chafetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim 3:11), is “b’tzedek tishpot et amitecha.” This verse is the source of the obligation to judge people favorably – i.e., to be “dan l’kaf zechut.” In this vein, the Chofetz Chaim claims that all the episodes in the Torah concerning “lashon hara” – such as the spies and Miriam – were caused by a failure to observe the mitzvah of dan l’kaf zechut.

As it turns out, the trait of dan l’kaf zechut is not merely about avoiding premature judgment of others.  It is much more than that. In a positive sense, the trait of dan l’kaf zechut holds the key to success in many spheres of life, including choosing the right shidduch (i.e., marriage partner), earning a parnassa (i.e., a living), and having bitachon (faith) in Hashem.

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Kriat Shema - Foundation of Emuna

Masechta Brachos famously begins, "Me'eimasai Korin es Shema be'Arvis" - when do we read Shema in the evening? It's been said that this opening line of the very first masechta of Shas should be read hashkafically: "When do we read the Shema? In the evening" - that is, Shema being the most fundamental statement of a Jew's faith in Hashem - when should that be read? In the "evening;" that is, in times of darkness and despair when we must fall back on our faith to persevere through troubling times.

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The Power of Chesed

One of the prominent karbanot discussed in parshat Vayikra is the korban mincha, which consists of wheat and olive oil mixed together, and then cooked or fried in various ways.

The gemara in Menachot (104b) comments on the Vayikra pasuk 2:1 – “V’nefesh ki takriv korban mincha” – why does the word “nefesh” appear in this pasuk in connection with the korban mincha? The gemara answers that the korban mincha is usually brought by a poor person and so Hashem considers it as if the poor person has offered his very soul – his nefesh - up to Hashem because it is so difficult for a desitute person to afford the korban. Indeed, we see in connection with the korban "oleh v'yored" (5:1-13), where the type of korban brought depends upon the individual's financial status, that the poor man may bring a simple flour offering.

Thus, the mincha offering is associated with destitute individuals. Yet, interestingly, we see that the mincha offering also appears among the offerings that each of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisroel – the princes of Israel – brought when the Mishkan was completed. As described in parshat Naso (7:12-83), we see that each Nasi brought wheat mixed with olive oil as a mincha offering – solet belulah b’shemen l'mincha.

What can we learn from the fact that the simple mincha typically brought by poor people was also part of the offerings brought by the most prominent, famous and richest princes of Israel?

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Nurturing the Human Soul - From Cradle to Grave

The pasuk in Bereshit 2:7 relates the process by which Hashem created Man: “V’yitzer Hashem Elokim et ha’adam afar mi ha’adama, v’yipach b’apav nishmat chayim, va’yehi ha’adam l’nefesh chaya – Then G-d formed Man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and so Man became a living creature.”

What’s striking is that by referring to Man as “nefesh chaya,” the pasuk is suggesting that there is nothing different about Man than the creatures that preceded him, which are also referred to repeatedly as “nefesh chaya;” see Bereshit 1:20, 1:21, 1:24, 1:30. Rashi was clearly bothered by the use of “nefesh chaya” to refer to both Man and all of the other creatures, and addresses the issue. Whereas Rashi tersely interprets “nefesh chaya” in earlier pesukim as “a life force, ” (1:20, 1:21, 1:24), in the context of the creation of Man, Rashi elaborates that while all the other creatures are also referred to as “nefesh chaya,” Man has a stronger “life force” by virtue of the “dey’ah” and “dibur” (reasoning and speech) instilled in him by Hashem.

The distinction of Man as a “thinking” and “speaking” creature is echoed by the Targum Onkelos, which translates “nefesh chaya” in earlier pesukim as “nafsha chaita” (a living spirit), whereas “nefesh chaya” in connection with the creation of Man is translated as “ruach memalelah” – a speaking spirit.

What’s interesting about Onkelos’ translation in connection with Man is his use of an entirely differently word – “ruach” – as opposed to “nefesh” in connection with the other creatures. The word “ruach” does not appear in the pasuk itelf. However, there is a reference to “nishmat chayim” – i.e., neshama.

So we now have three different words referring to the “soul” of Man – nefesh, neshama and ruach. How do these each differ, and what does each contribute in distinguishing Man from all of the other creatures?

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Standing the Test of Time: The Lessons of the Mishkan

Parshat Pekudei begins by naming the individuals involved in constructing the mishkan (38:21). On this pasuk, the commentator Seforno remarks that in constrast to the two batei mikdash, which were conquered and destroyed by our enemies, the mishkan was never conquered and destroyed. Seforno claims the reason is that the shechinah of Hashem rested more securely within the mishkan than within the first Beit Hamikdash, and did not rest at all within the second Beit Hamikdash (see Yoma 9b and 21b). What was so special about the construction of the mishkan that it merited to never be destroyed and what lessons can we learn?

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The Naming of Binyamin: Communication, Forgiveness and Shared Values in the Marital Relationship of Yaakov and Rachel

The most emotionally wrenching episode in parshat Vayishlach is the death of Rachel during the birth of Binyamin. Yaakov had left Shechem and moved to Beit El at Hashem’s direction. In Beit El, Yaakov built a matzeva (pillar), and then departed towards Efrat. On the way, Rachel went into childbirth, and the midwife indicated that it was a son. Rachel’s labor was extremely difficult, and ultimately proved fatal. Pasuk 35:18 records that in her last dying breath, Rachel named her son “Ben Oni,” but that “his father” (i.e., Yaakov) called him “Binyamin.”

The narrative is somewhat difficult. We know that Yaakov loved Rachel the most of any of his wives. It must have been terrible for him to watch her die. Yet, after Rachel selects a name for her son in her last dying moments, Yaakov changes the name to something else. What was Yaakov’s intent in changing the name? If we look back at the pesukim recording the naming of Yaakov’s eleven sons, we see that – with the sole exception of Levi - Rachel and Leah selected the names (and even with respect to Levi, it was Leah who supplied the explanation) (see: 29:32; 29:33; 29:34; 29:35; 30:6; 30:8; 30:11; 30:12; 30:18; 30:20; and 30:24).

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The Centrality of Shabbos to Spiritual Growth

Parshat Vayakhel primarily discusses the contribution of the materials used to construct the Mishkan, and the actual construction itself. However, before delving into these matters, the parsha starts off with the command to observe the Shabbos (verses 2 and 3). From the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbos and the Mishkan, the rabbis learn that the labors required in the construction of the Mishkan are those labors which are prohibited on the Shabbos. Further, from the phrase "ay'leh hadevarim" (35:1), the gemara determines that there are 39 such labors.

What is the significance of the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbos?

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Worship of Hashem vs. Worship of Self: Why the Torah Considers Idolatry Such a Severe Sin

The seminal event in parshat Ki Tisa is, of course, the egel. It seems quite astounding that so soon after matan Torah at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisroel violated one of the fundamental prohibitions in the Torah - indeed, the second commandment - not to worship a graven image.

To be sure, the consensus of the commentators (Ramban, Ibn Ezra) is that Bnei Yisroel did not view the egel as a deity. Rather, concerned that Moshe had died, they sought an alternative intermediary to worship Hashem. Yet, Moshe repeatedly refers to the cheit ha'egel as "chata'ah gedola"  - a grave sin (Shemos 32:21, 32:30, 32:31). 

In other contexts, the Torah makes clear that the worship of graven images is a more severe sin than any other. In the sefer Parperaot LaTorah, Menachem Baker makes an interesting observation about the language in Ki Savo 27:15: "Arur ha'ish asher ya'aseh pesel u'masecha - Cursed is the man who will make an idol." He questions why the pasuk is phrased in the future tense (asher ya'aseh - who will make), instead of the present tense - "arur oseh pesel u'masecha - cursed is the man who makes an idol." The use of the future tense makes the pasuk inconsistent with the rest of the curses, which are all phrased in the present tense - e.g., "arur makleh aviv v'imo - cursed is one who strikes his father and mother," or "arur masig gevul ray'ayhu - cursed is one who invades the boundaries of his friend." Why the different tense for idol worship?

The answer is that with all other transgressions, Hashem punishes the actual sinful act, but not thoughts to commit the sinful act. As per Kiddushin 40a: "machashava ra'ah ein hakadosh baruch hu metzarfa la'ma'aseh - Hashem does not deem the sinful thought an action."

However, when it comes to avoda zara, the mere thought to commit such a sin is deemed equivalent to action, and warrants punishment. Hence the language in the pasuk - "asher ya'aseh" in the future tense, and not "asah" in present tense - i.e., once the thought to commit avoda zara is formed, it's equated with action and culpability attaches.

So to frame the question: why does the Torah consider avoda zara such a severe sin to the extent that sinful thought is equated with sinful deed? Answering this inquiry will, in turn, help us understand why the creation of the egel - a tangible intermediary to Hashem - was such a dangerous development.

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Personality Types as a Path to Self-Improvement

The majority of parshat Tetzaveh focuses on the garments of the Kohanim. The first pasuk of this section (28:1) starts with Hashem commanding Moshe: "V'atah hakreiv elecha et Aharon achicha - Bring close to you Aharon your brother." The peshat is that Hashem instructs Moshe to separate Aharon and his sons from Bnei Yisroel and bring them close to him to annoint them as the "kohanim."

Is there a deeper message here?

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