Self Preservation

In this week’s Torah reading, the double portion of Tazria-Metzorah, most of our attention is directed to the phenomenon of Tzara’as, a spiritual blemish. People erroneously compare it to leprosy… but clothing and buildings don’t become leprous. The Talmud (Ehrchin 15b) tells us that the cause of Tzara’as is Loshon Hara, speaking evil of others — Reish Lakish teaches that Metzorah, the word for one who has Tzara’as, should be read as an acronym for “Motzei Shem Ra,” one who defames another.

Why should it be that when a person gossiped about someone else, that his skin would turn white, as if it were dying, and he would have to leave the community until he healed? [Our Sages teach that today we are not on the spiritual level necessary to receive such a miraculous punishment, but nonetheless the concept remains the same.]

The ability to speak, to communicate intelligently, is what separates us from animals. It is our human soul that gives us the ability to think and reason, and then to communicate those thoughts to others. We can use that gift for the greatest and highest of purposes, to teach and learn Torah, and we can use that gift to tear down and destroy. We choose how to use this gift.

And every person is susceptible to making the wrong choice. The two examples of people who were punished with Tzara’as in the Torah are none other than Moshe and Miriam — the recipient of the Torah and his sister. [In reality, Moshe did not truly speak Lashon Hora, as he merely told G-d that the Jewish Nation would not believe him (Ex. 4:1). And concerning Miriam (Num. 12:1) Rashi says that it is clear that she did not say anything to disparage Moshe — Rashi warns: “all the more so one who speaks about another to disparage him!”]

Every person, on his or her level, must be extremely careful to only speak appropriately about others. Tehillim (Psalm) 34 says: “Who is the man who desires life, loves days to see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from trickery, turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”

Today there is an organization named for Rabbi Israel Mayer Kagan, who became known by the name of his work on avoiding Lashon Hora, which he entitled “Chofetz Chaim,” “desires life” from the Psalm. The organization pointed out that today we are tested in this area in a way that earlier generations were not:

The anonymity of social media makes matters worse. In Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, author Dr. Elias Aboujaoude cites a study revealing that on-line users convince themselves that their on-line behavior is “not me,” and therefore, they do not feel responsible for the consequences of their posts. Thus, a person who would feel constrained to say loshon hora out loud feels far less inhibited about posting and sharing it.

Language gives us the ability to do greater deeds than animals. Whether they are marvelous or terrible deeds, that is our choice — and language is the most powerful expression of our choices. Let us choose the path of life in every conversation!

Always New

For seven days and nights, Aharon and his sons sat at the entrance to the Tabernacle, as they were commanded to do. Then the eighth day arrived, the first day of Nissan, a year after leaving Egypt, and it was time to bring the first offerings to G-d.

Aharon first brought sin and elevation offerings for himself, and then the sin offering on behalf of the nation. The verse reads [9:15]: “And Aharon brought the offering of the nation, he took the goat of the sin offering of the nation, and he slaughtered it and offered it like the first one.”

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky zt”l (o.b.m.) is struck by that last expression, “like the first one.” Why does the Torah emphasize this point? Yes, the Torah describes the process in more detail the first time, in the previous verses. But we have a model for how a sin offering is to be done, as there is a (different) process for an elevation offering. It is unnecessary to tell us that Aharon did it the same way — and indeed, in the very next verse it says, “And he brought the elevation offering, and he prepared it according to its laws.” So what was the point of underscoring that Aharon brought the sin offering “like the first one?”

Rabbi Galinsky explains: the Torah is telling us that Aharon prepared the sin offering on behalf of the nation, the third offering which he brought in the Tabernacle, with precisely the same excitement that he had the first time, exactly as if this were the first sin offering he had ever brought! That is what it means, “like the first one.”

It is simply human nature that when we do a particular action repetitively, or even see a particular site often, that the impact naturally diminishes. The tour guide leading people down to the Grand Canyon does not gasp along with the tourists. Even those who pray at the holy Western Wall every day may no longer feel as they did the first time they touched its stones — but we know that we all should.

When I was a student in Lakewood, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, a tremendous scholar and teacher of Mussar (spiritual and ethical improvement) came from Israel, and spoke in the yeshiva during his visit. People came from everywhere for the special privilege of hearing him, including people who were no longer in the school or who studied elsewhere. Needless to say, most every student was sure to attend.

To me, this was the biggest lesson of his address that day.

The reason is that I had previously studied in “Lakewood East,” the branch of the yeshiva located in Jerusalem. Rav Wolbe was the father-in-law of the Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of the Jerusalem branch, (ylctv”a) Rabbi Yaakov Schwartzman shlit”a, and Rav Wolbe spoke in that yeshiva once every two weeks.

While I would hardly say the room was empty, people naturally try to postpone other tasks until they are done studying with their partners (which is how most learning is done in a yeshiva). People are much less particular about staying for “mussar seder” when other things arise. So the room was much emptier than earlier in the afternoon. They didn’t “pack in,” they “packed out.” It’s that same element of human nature: people specifically came to hear him when they knew they might only be able to do so once, but those who could hear from him biweekly willingly gave up the opportunity.

The Haggadah tells us that every person is obligated to see him or herself “as if he left Egypt,” personally experiencing the miracle of the Exodus, and the gratitude to G-d for bringing us out of slavery. We are told that every Jewish soul was at Mount Sinai, that we ourselves experienced the Revelation. And we say in our prayers that G-d “renews the work of Creation, every day, constantly.”

It is a similarly great challenge to renew ourselves that same way, to experience each day as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the same way G-d constantly renews His Creation around us. But it is the truth: every day is our one and only opportunity to experience that day. We will only experience Parshas Shmini 5778 once in our lives. We will only pray tomorrow morning once in our lives.

Like Aharon, we must learn to take advantage of each once-in-a-lifetime spiritual opportunity!

Egyptian Amnesia

As we concluded Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, last week, the nascent Jewish People found themselves in very good circumstances. Yosef was second only to Pharoah himself, having saved the entire country from famine. There was no reason to expect what actually transpired.

The verses themselves suggest what happened. “Yosef passed away, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel multiplied and spread, grew and were very strong, and the land was full of them. And a new King rose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.” [Ex. 1:6-8]

The generation to whom the Egyptians owed gratitude passed away. As long as Yosef was alive, no Egyptian King would imagine that the Jews would be disloyal, but now Yosef is gone. And the Jews were successful, so much so that “the land was full of them.” In other words, “there were too many Jews.” And that is when a new king arose who forgot all that Yosef had done, all that the Jewish people had done to benefit Egypt.

There is an argument in the Talmud about what it means that the king “did not know Yosef,” as Rashi tells us. One school of thought is that there was truly a new king, but the other says that the same Pharoah stopped thinking of the Jews as a benefit to the country, as if he had never known Yosef.

In truth, these opinions are not as different as they might seem to be. The Egyptians wrote and depicted what happened in their country. There were records of what Yosef had done. They presumably did not knock down the storehouses. Certainly Egyptians were telling the story of how they had famously saved themselves and even fed neighboring countries during the years of famine. Even common people knew this, much less the successor to the throne. He did not need to have known Yosef to know what he accomplished on behalf of all Egypt.

Fundamentally, the new Pharoah expressed a lack of gratitude to the Jewish People, and demonstrated the familiar pattern of anti-Semitism. The reality was that the Jews had only benefited the Egyptians and the entire region. The myth was that the Jews were disloyal, and would exploit the Egyptians and the resources of the country. And the myth won.

Look at what is happening in the Middle East today. The reality is that Jews built a flourishing country on their ancestral homeland, inventing new technologies to make it fertile, advancing medicine, and bringing democracy, limiting the power of government, to that portion of the world — not just for themselves, but for everyone. Arab citizens of Israel have rights and opportunities found in none of the dozens of Arab countries. The myth is that the Jews are occupiers, exploiting the resources of the country, creating problems throughout the region. And before the United Nations of the world, the myth wins.

Our obligation is always to do better. We must model gratitude. When someone does a kindness for us, we have an obligation to recognize the generosity of that person, express our thanks, and above all not reciprocate good deeds with bad ones. That is the Egyptian model, the one we help eradicate every time we thank those who help us!

The Misunderstood Maccabees and Miketz Miracles

There is a lot of misinformation about the Chanukah holiday. People teach that the Greeks took over Israel, the Jews fought back, the Jews won the battle, and then there was the miracle of the oil — enough oil to explain the Menorah, Latkes, and Sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). That one small flask of oil certainly went a long way.

But if there is one phenomenon that exemplifies the confusion, it would have to be the Maccabiah Games. It offers young Jewish athletes from around the world the opportunity to participate in… a pale imitation of the Olympics, which are, of course, modeled after the original Greek games. We, too, can be just like the ancient Greeks!

And that is exactly the wrong message. Because the victory of Chanukah came from being as unlike the Greeks as one could imagine.

The war that gave us Chanukah was not fought between Jewish Maccabees and the Greeks alone, but the Jewish Maccabees versus Hellenized Jews as well. There were many Jews who fell for the Greek ways, and their glorification of the human body — the reason behind the original Olympic Games. Jews competed in those games, and worshiped Greek idols.

The Maccabees were the very opposite of the Greeks. They neither celebrated nor possessed physical or military prowess; it made no sense that they won the war. The Medrash says that with prayers alone they felled thousands of Greek officers, leaving the military in disarray. The miracle of the oil was only one of many miracles that happened at that time, but showed Divine favor towards the Maccabees. The war did not end before Chanukah; it continued for several years after the miracle of the oil. But at that point to the Maccabees knew that they would emerge victorious.

In this week’s Torah reading, which is always read during Chanukah, we find a similar sequence of miracles happening to Yosef. He was sitting in an Egyptian prison, jailed because of a false accusation. Thus he could have despaired — but instead knew that everything came from G-d. And when it was time for him to leave that prison, he went from prisoner to viceroy, second only to Pharoah, in just a few hours. Another person could have lost his mind from this sudden, bizarre change of circumstances, but Yosef knew that it was all in accordance with a Divine plan.

Yosef knew that the dreams he had as a young man were prophetic revelation: he would eventually rule over his brothers. And it was the plot of those same brothers, their selling him to be a slave in Egypt, which led to the fulfillment of that prophecy! It makes no more sense than the idea that a single prayer could kill Greek military officers, but there it was.

The lesson of Chanukah is that, just as with Yosef, things are not as they seem. Everything is happening according to a Divine plan, though it may be beyond our comprehension. The Jewish obligation Is to recognize that “many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the prescription of G-d which will be fulfilled” [Proverbs 19:21]. Chanukah tells us that our path is not one of physical, intellectual or business prowess, but Divine Intervention. And in the end, victory is preordained: the Jews survive against all odds.

War & Peace… Together

Our reading begins with Yaakov returning to the land of Cana’an, re-encountering his brother Esav after several decades of separation. This was, however, no ordinary family reunion.

After Yaakov received his father’s blessing intended for Esav, Esav decided to kill Yaakov. It was for this reason that Rivka, their mother, advised Yaakov to run to the house of her brother Lavan [27:41-43] Rivka told Yitzchak that she wanted Yaakov to marry a non-Canaanite woman, and thus Yitzchak sent Yaakov there to marry Lavan’s daughter [27:46-28:2] — but this was engineered by Rivka to save Yaakov’s life.

Now, Yaakov is returning. Will 34 years of separation have placated Esav, or will he greet Yaakov with murderous intent? Yaakov was afraid, and sent messengers ahead with gifts for his brother “to find favor in your eyes” [32:6]. To which Rashi adds, “for I am at peace with you, and request your love.” Yaakov did not want to fight, he wanted peace.

Yet we also learn that Yaakov divided his caravan into two camps — so that at least half would escape if they were attacked. Rashi quotes the Medrash which says that Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways: with gifts, with prayers, and with preparation for war.

Modern day pacifists would claim that two of these things were contradictory, that one cannot simultaneously claim to want peace while arming for battle. Our Sages say, “the stories of the fathers are signposts for the children.” On the contrary, sometimes being well prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace!

First, Choose a Direction

This week’s reading begins with Rivka’s pregnancy, which came about only after many years and many prayers. And then we read a verse which, according to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki himself, begs further explanation: “And the children struggled within her, and she said ‘if so, why am I here?’ And she went to inquire of G-d” [25:22].

First of all, what’s the problem? Different children behave differently in utero. Some move around a great deal, while others are more placid. Women can often tell how their children will behave before giving birth.

So Rivka’s baby moved around a lot. Admittedly, a child like that is likely to be somewhat more taxing (and that may be an understatement). But this is not, to use the expression, “the end of the world!” So why does she say “if so, why a why am I here?”

Second question: where did she go? G-d fills the world, yet the verse says “she went to inquire” of Him.

And what is the answer she receives? “And G-d said to her, ‘there are two nations in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you; and the one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger'” [25:23]. They are two brothers, and they will not get along. One will bully the other, she is told. And she is reassured and goes home, and indeed eventually gives birth to twins.

This, then, is the reassuring answer, that they are brothers who won’t get along?

Our Sages explain that what Rivka perceived was not “conventional” movement of a baby. There was a House of Study, dedicated to understanding G-d, led by Shem the son of Noach, and his great-grandson Eyver. And any time that Rivka went by this House of Study, she felt her baby (not knowing that there were, in fact, two babies) trying to get out to go study with them.

But by this time, there was also a great deal of idolatry in the world. And every time she walked by a house of idolatry, she also felt her baby trying to get out, to go worship the idols!

It was to the House of Study of Shem and Eyver to which she went to seek guidance. And that is where she learned that she was going to have twins.

Our Rabbis say that what bothered her so much was that her baby appeared to be pulled in every direction. He or she wanted to simultaneously serve G-d and serve idols. And the consolation was, these are two different children, each of whom is naturally drawn in one direction but not the other.

This was a consolation, they say, because then one could hope that the child naturally drawn to idolatry would nonetheless defeat this inclination and serve G-d. But if he didn’t perceive that idolatry and service of G-d were different and mutually exclusive, then he was lost at a much more fundamental level.

Unlike babies in the womb, we have within us both good and evil inclinations. We are all, in our lifetimes, drawn to both sides — and every person, on his or her level, sometimes makes the wrong choice. But our very first task is to know that there is indeed a choice to be made, that some actions are superior than others. The Torah tells us how to discern between them. And then, we must take stock. We must know in what direction we are going, rather than allow ourselves to be lost in our daily affairs. That will enable us to change for the better.

Our goal is to grow. We must attempt to become more G-dly, and bring more G-dliness into the world through our actions. If we are “all over the place,” lost in a cloud of good and bad behaviors, then indeed “why are we here?” We must take stock of our actions, choose our direction, and pursue the good. Then the bad will be subjugated to the good, even if the bad appears to be “greater,” dragged to the House of Study to be elevated and purified.

Daunting or Doable?

It is not in Heaven, such that one could say ‘who will go up to Heaven and take it for us’… For this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” [30:12, 14].

At first glance Torah observance can seem daunting, filled with myriad rules and regulations governing every aspect of life. It seems impossible for a person to know everything! And in reality, this is true: Rabbi Tarfon says in the Chapters of the Fathers that “it is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate yourself from it.” A person will never know and understand the entire Torah, but rather has a lifelong obligation to study, learn and grow.

This is only true, however, because there is unlimited depth and breadth to the Torah. That which we need to know in the daily course of our lives is well within our limits.

We find a similar concept in secular law: we follow complex legal regulations every day without a second thought, simply because we learn patterns of correct behavior. All of us learn to operate turn signals while we learn to drive a car, and from then on use those turn signals even when turning right at an empty intersection. At least, most of us use our turn signals! When you come across a complex situation that requires greater knowledge (think taxes), then we consult experts and try to follow their advice.

Once you learn to put on the right shoe first and tie the left shoe first, it becomes daily practice, even without learning the deeper meaning behind this behavior that elevates it to the status of a religious act. The Torah enables every person to perform the basic, correct behaviors, but all of the Torah that we learn continues to add depth and refinement to those same acts.

In discussing the Commandment to love G-d (as found in the daily recitation of Shema Yisrael from the Torah), Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim (whose Yahrtzeit is today, Erev Shabbos), cautions against simply reading the words without putting them into action. He compares this to a factory foreman who carefully writes the instructions given by the owner into a manual, and then each day gathers the workers and reads through the manual from beginning to end while the machines sit idle the entire day.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is not only the Day of Judgment, but the beginning of a 10 day process of self-reflection, which should spark within us the desire to refine our behaviors during this coming year, to correct what we are doing incorrectly, and further perfect even what we are already doing correctly at more basic levels. There is always room for improvement that always room for growth, yet it is never so intimidating that we can’t get started.

May the coming holidays lead us to greater growth and commitment, to better behaviors that will manifest themselves throughout the coming year. May it be a new year of success, growth, and happiness for us and our families!

Transfer of Leadership

In this week’s reading, Moshe begins the transfer of Jewish leadership to his closest disciple, Yehoshua (Joshua). He “stands him before Elazar the High Priest and the entire congregation” [27:22], in accordance with G-d’s Commandment that he do so, and “you shall give from your glory upon him, in order that all the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen [to him]” [27:20].

People often ask why it is that the initial observant congregations in America were in such disarray. There were several factors, of course. Besides the abandonment of Jewish practice on the boat to Ellis Island, there were many who fell away from Jewish observance when they learned that if you didn’t show up for work on Saturday, you didn’t have a job on Monday.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l (1848-1910) of Kovno taught us a different reason, when he declined an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. He said that the way things classically happened was that a group of Jews organized in a city, and then sought out a Rabbi to guide the community and preserve Jewish practice, that it not be disturbed. He said that to go organize a new community, to establish a new order with newly-arrived Jews in a new location — that, he said, required a Rabbi like Moshe!

As we see, what eventually grew Jewish communities was not the Rabbi of the synagogue, but those who built day schools to educate the next Jewish generation, as Moshe taught Yehoshua, and in the same way that Yehudah preceded his father Yaakov to Goshen, in Egypt, to (according to the Medrash) build a Beis Medrash, a House of Study (Breishis Rabbah to Gen. 46:28, see Rashi).

And so it remains. Giving our children a strong Jewish education is the singular way that we preserve a Jewish future for generations to come!

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do the Impossible

Someone shared with me a fascinating story this morning (from the sefer “MiShulchan Gavohah”). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, served as Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk (Brest, Belarus) prior to the Holocaust, under the hostile Communist regime.

The Communists wanted to “tamper” with Jewish education, with their Jewish comrades (of course) leading the effort. At a meeting, one of these communists stood up and declared that although it was in their power to close the Jewish schools, they would not do so due to their reverence for the rabbis.

Some of the listeners were impressed by this. Clearly, they thought, this secular Jew (who, like all Jews of that era, had had at least a basic Jewish education himself) understood the importance to the rabbis of their unique Jewish schools. He saw “where they were coming from” and would help them maintain Jewish education under the communists.

The Brisker Rav didn’t see it that way. He stood up and said back to the communist: you are like the evil Bila’am!

What did he mean?

Balak, King of Moav, sent emissaries to Bila’am in order that he come and curse the Jews. Bilaam told the king’s representatives, “if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of G-d” [22:18].

At first glance, it seems Bila’am is simply explaining the reality to them. But Bila’am was entertaining the idea! The Brisker Rav compared him to an assassin being asked if he could murder the king, and the man responding, “I couldn’t do that for $1,000,000.” If he loved the king he would say, “why would I do such a ridiculous thing?” Instead, the assassin says that the financial incentive isn’t worth the threat to his life — but otherwise he’d be willing to do it.

Bila’am similarly says that going against the Divine Will isn’t worth the money. He is choosing not to do it, but otherwise might want to go against what G-d Wants. This is what eventually transpires: Bila’am goes with the king’s ambassadors, attempts to curse the Jews, and is forced to bless them instead.

“You imagine,” said the Brisker Rav to the Jewish communists, “that you have the power to stop Torah learning if you simply wish to do so. But you are making the same mistake as the evil Bila’am. If it is not Hashem’s Will that it be done, it cannot be done, and you will be no more successful than he was!

The Limits of Human Comprehension

This week’s reading begins with the Commandment to prepare a red heifer for a special purification ritual. The calf was slaughtered and burned and its ashes mixed with water. Any person who came into contact with a dead person had to undergo a seven-day purification process, including having this water sprinkled upon him or her on the third and seventh day. Without this process, one could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple — this is why we may not go up onto the Temple Mount today, because we do not have the waters of the red heifer and thus cannot go through the purification process.

Here, though, we find what is considered the most perplexing rule in the entire Torah: the person who sprinkles the water must immerse himself and his clothing afterward, returning to a pure state only in the evening. In the course of purifying the impure person, he himself becomes impure; we know from our Sages that even King Solomon himself was unable to understand why this is true.

Yet this famous law offers a paradigm for the meaning of “faith” in Judaism. Our belief in G-d and the accuracy of the Torah is not simply something taken on faith; we have the eyewitness account of our own ancestors. The Torah itself asserts that no one else will make this claim, because the idea that our own ancestors, all of them, collectively, experienced a Divine Revelation is so outlandish that such a claim cannot be made unless it is true. As we know (and as Maimonides says), history has borne this out.

What, then, is the place of faith? To us, faith is trusting G-d. The Torah tells us that He is taking care of us — but sometimes this defies our attempts to understand how this could be true. How can it be good for people to undergo sadness and tragedy? Does He really care and watch over us? The answer is an emphatic yes, and we rely upon His guarantee that this is true, whether or not we understand why the situation is in any way good for us.

The perplexing law of the red heifer teaches us that despite our very best efforts, we are not always going to understand why everything makes sense, including how we can reconcile the idea that “everything is for the best” with circumstances around us. This conflict is itself part of the human condition, as surely as the rule of the red heifer is part of the Torah!