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Yom Kippur – Unconditional Love

It is amazing how when thinking about what to say, there always seems to be someone on the internet who says it better.  In this case, when thinking of what to say on Yom Kippur, I came across a podcast in which Yossik Klein HaLevi was in conversation with Rabbi Doniel Hartman.  We’ve discussed Yossi Klein HaLevi before.  He is an American born author and journalist living in Israel.   His two books Like Dreamers and Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor are required reading.  In the podcast he identifies the most pressing issue that the Jewish people, as a whole, should focus on as part of our collective teshuvah. (For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. No. 31 Can Nations Repent.  https://www.hartman.org.il/no-31-can-nations-repent-transcript/):

I think this has been an especially brutal year for internal Jewish discourse. The way we relate to each other the way we think about each other. But…rather than begin by pointing fingers outward about what’s wrong with the way other Jews speak about their fellow Jews, I’d like to start with myself: what I feel I need to do to teshuva for in the context of this increasingly acrimonious and even dysfunctional Jewish discourse – is the way I’ve thought about entire communities of Jews over the last year. And specifically about the Haredim.
So I really want to stop and look at myself and look at where this anger comes from. I think it comes from disappointment. I think maybe in its deeper and pure root, that comes from love, from a feeling of unrequited love. But it also comes from an inability to accept other Jews as they are

There is a remarkable story told in the Gemara Yoma 39b:

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אוֹתָהּ שָׁנָה שֶׁמֵּת בָּהּ שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק, אָמַר לָהֶם: בְּשָׁנָה זוֹ הוּא מֵת. אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מִנַּיִין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ? אָמַר לָהֶם: בְּכׇל יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים הָיָה מִזְדַּמֵּן לִי זָקֵן אֶחָד לָבוּשׁ לְבָנִים וְעָטוּף לְבָנִים, נִכְנַס עִמִּי וְיָצָא עִמִּי, וְהַיּוֹם נִזְדַּמֵּן לִי זָקֵן אֶחָד לָבוּשׁ שְׁחוֹרִים וְעָטוּף שְׁחוֹרִים, נִכְנַס עִמִּי וְלֹא יָצָא עִמִּי. אַחַר הָרֶגֶל חָלָה שִׁבְעָה יָמִים וָמֵת.

The Sages taught: During the year in which Shimon HaTzaddik died, he said to them, his associates: In this year, he will die, euphemistically referring to himself. They said to him: How do you know? He said to them: In previous years, on every Yom Kippur, upon entering the Holy of Holies, I was met, in a prophetic vision, by an old man who was dressed in white, and his head was wrapped up in white, and he would enter the Holy of Holies with me, and he would leave with me. But today, I was met by an old man who was dressed in black, and his head was wrapped up in black, and he entered the Holy of Holies with me, but he did not leave with me. Indeed, after the festival of Sukkot, he was ill for seven days and died.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has a beautiful interpretation of this story:

The man who accompanied him into the kodesh kodashim represents the Jewish people.  As long as Shimon’s vision was of the congregation dressed in white—optimistic, ambitious, and open to opportunity—he knew he still had a future as a leader of these people. However, once his representation of the Jewish people was dressed in all black—pessimistic, cynical, and negative—he knew his time as a leader was expiring. (As quoted by David Bashevkin in Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought).

When we think of the Jewish people, כנסת ישראל, we do so on two levels.  Rabbi Soloveitchik and others write of the metaphysical entity the Jewish people comprise:

The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality; I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity endowed with a life of its own.  (“The Community” Tradition 17:2, 1978)

Or as Rav Yehuda Amital writes:

The mission of our people is to a light unto the nations, not as exceptional individuals, but as an exceptional people.  (Yehuda Amital “The Jewish People Come Before the Land of Israel” quoted in By Faith Alone p. 360)

But we have to dig deeper.  One of my favorite Jewish books of all time, A Letter in the Scroll by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is based on the idea of the Ba’al Shem Tov that the Jewish people is a Sefer Torah and each and every Jew is one of the letters of the Torah.

“A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined together to others, they make a word. Words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter, every family a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story, in the annals of mankind.”

If we take this this beautiful metaphor to its logical conclusion, then we must contend with the halachic ruling that a Torah scroll that is missing one letter renders the Torah פסול (unfit).  Same for a letter that is cracked or otherwise defective.  So while we must be able to see the beauty in the collective Jewish people as a whole, we must also appreciate the beauty and infinite value of each individual Jew.  We run the risk of rendering the Torah scroll of the Jewish people פסול when we disparage others and focus only on the flaws of individuals or even large swaths of the community with whom we disagree.

The most apt model for thinking of our relationship to כלל ישראל is as a family.  No matter how strongly we may disagree with members of our family, our love for family must be unconditional.  I’ve become quite a fan of Dovid Lichtenstein and his podcast and books Headlines.  David’s Wikipedia page begins “David Lichtenstein is an American billionaire entrepreneur and real estate investor.”  He is יודע ספר (thoroughly knowledgeable in Jewish learning).  He is firmly entrenched in the Yeshivish world.  He tackles many difficult and controversial topics and does not shy away from asking hard questions.  He has a beautiful idea that relates to this topic.

The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh De’ah 246:7)

(ז) אין מלמדין תורה לתלמיד שאינו הגון אלא מחזירין אותו למוטב ומנהיגין אותו בדרך ישרה ובודקין אותו ואח”כ מכניסין אותו לבית המדרש ומלמדין אותו:

We do not teach Torah to a student who is not fit [to learn].  Rather we first reform him to do and set him on the proper path, and then we bring him to the Beit Midrash to teach him.

If this is the case, then we have a serious problem at the Pesach Seder.  Because we know that we include the 4 sons at the Seder and in response to the  בן הרשע, (wicked son) the Haggadah instructs us

 ְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם”. לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:

you will blunt his teeth and say to him, “‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).” ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.

The question is how can the father teach Torah to his son who is a רשע.  R. Lichtenstein answers that even if the child is objectively a רשע, the father sees only good in his son.  A parent’s love does not allow the parent to see their child as a Rasha. 

I don’t think this means that shouldn’t expect a parent to see the flaws in their child or to be able to identify areas of improvement.  But even when we know our children have shortcomings or have made mistakes, our love for them overshadows everything else.

This is how we must see and relate to our fellow Jews. 

I’d like to conclude with a beautiful story.

It is told that one year, on the night of Yom Kippur Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirer Rosh Yeshiva, spoke to the Yeshiva and described his experiences during the day of Erev Yom Kippur.  He first went to pray at the Western Wall, and he senses that a voice was telling him that his prayers were ineffective.  He then went to Rachel’s Tomb, figuring that there his prayers would be accepted, but there too, he heard a voice telling him that his prayers were not helping.

He then went to the tomb of Avshalom, the son of King David, and he prayed citing David’s lament for Avshalom after he was killed in his failed attempt to overthrow and murder his father (II Shmuel 19:1):

בְּנִ֤י אַבְשָׁלוֹם֙ בְּנִ֣י בְנִ֣י אַבְשָׁל֔וֹם מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן מוּתִי֙ אֲנִ֣י תַחְתֶּ֔יךָ אַבְשָׁל֖וֹם בְּנִ֥י בְנִֽי׃

“My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” 

Rashi, citing Chazal, writes that David cried the words “Avshalom” and “B’ni” eight times in order to elevate his son’s soul from the seven domains of the underworld and then lift it to the eternal world.

“No matter what evil a son commits against his father,” Rav Chaim shouted, “the father still has compassion for his son!  And so, Master of the world, You said בנים אתם לה’ אלקיכם (Devarim 14:1).  A father always has compassion for his children!”

He then heard a voice that exclaimed, “Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva!  Very good.  Have a good year!  (Dovid Lichtenstein.  Headlines 3: Halachic Debates of Current Events Is Our Teshuva Worth Anything?  P. 361)

We are all God’s children, and as such we must see each and every Jew as a treasured member of the family.  It is very dangerous to make predictions or guarantees for the next year.  But one thing I feel fairly confident about is that we will continue to have serious differences and disagreements with various factions of the Jewish community.  I can also pretty much guarantee that there will passionate debate on both sides of the issues.  I can only pray that the debate will be done in the loving manner of a family that has serious disagreements but deep love for each other.  May it be a good year for us and for אחינו כל בית ישראל. 

Rosh Hashanah – Gratitude and Teshuvah

Over the summer Toby shared a remarkable book with me.  It was actually assigned to all the teachers at KSDS to read – yes, teachers get summer reading assignments too!  When she was done with it she told “This book is a Rosh Hashanah drasha.”  Well, as I hope to show in the next ten minutes or so, she wasn’t wrong. 

The book is called A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.  It is written by John Kralik, a Judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

At the time the book was written Kralik had hit rock bottom.  The law firm that he had started was failing.  He was in the middle of painful divorce – his second divorce; and his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  He was living in a miserable apartment and was 40 pounds overweight.  He had grown distant from his two sons from his first marriage and was afraid that the same thing would happen to his daughter from his second marriage.  He felt as though he had not met any of his professional goals and life was quickly getting away from home. 

In one of the first scenes of the book, Kralik decided to go on a New Year’s Day hike that he had planned to do with his girlfriend before she broke up with him.  Soon he found himself lost in the woods.  As panic starts to settle, he suddenly hears a voice:

Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have,” it said, “you will not receive the things you want.”  I do not know who spoke to me.  I could not explain this voice, or the words it said, which seemed to have no logical relation to the thoughts in my head…

I sat down for a minute.  The voice was loud.  For me, the voice was loud enough that I thought it might be important, and that it might have an important message.  I should not throw it away. (14)

And then Kralik has a memory of his grandfather:

When I was about five, my grandfather gave me a silver dollar…It was about 1960, and if you really wanted to wow a child in those days, you gave him or her a silver dollar.  It seemed an impossibly large sum of money in a shiny, mysterious package.  I didn’t know how to spend it, and don’t believe I ever did.  Silver dollars doled out by my grandfather and other relatives in those days were confiscated by my parents who did not trust us with them.  Eventually, my mother put them in a bank account, and I believe they are still there today.  Though the money would have made no difference to me, I should have paid more attention to the message that my grandfather deliver with it.  He promised that if I wrote him a letter thanking him for this silver dollar, he would send me another one.  That was the way thank-you letters worked he told me.
I have only a few memories of my grandfather from this period of my childhood, but I remember well that on this occasion he was true to his word, and soon I had two silver dollars.  Having experience the truth of this principle, however I failed to learn it.  I never sent a second thank-you note for the second silver dollar.  For some reason I left it at that.
(15)

Inspired by the voice and the memory of his grandfather, the author resolves to write one thank-you note a day for the next year.

At the beginning of his project Kralik gives a poignant example of how gratitude was lacking in his life: 

In the course of writing and tracking these initial notes with a list, I typed some of the text of the notes into my computer, where it encountered spell check.  As a result, I discovered that I had been misspelling the word grateful – as greatful – for my entire life.  Because I used the word so infrequently, no one had ever pointed this out.  Yes, that’s right:  I had so seldom been grateful in my life that I didn’t even know how to spell the word.  I had been spelling it as if a grateful person a person full of greatness, rather than a person full of gratitude. 

As inevitably happens, the thank-you note project hits some bumps over the course of the year.  The first day he misses writing a note is when he finds out that his application to be a judge had been rejected.  Feeling lousy about himself, he was unable to find anything to be grateful for on that day.  The next morning, on his way to work he stopped at Starbucks, where he was greeted by a clerk with a big smile who said “Good morning John, the usual venti?”  And he decided to write a thank you note to the Starbucks guy:

Scott,

Thank you for taking the time each morning to greet me in a friendly way.  It is also so wonderful to me that you took the time and trouble to remember my name.  In this day and age, few people make this effort, and fewer still do it in a way that feels sincere.  You do both.  It really make a difference to me every day.

Best,

John

I handed him the note the next morning, after he gave me my venti, and his cheery eyes fell a shade.  He put it aside.  I wondered why he did not smile.  When I went in the following day, Scott explained.  He had recently been put in a management position, he said, and his day was largely spent on customer complaints…so when I have him the note, he was wearily thinking it was yet another customer complaint, and from someone who had seemed like a nice customer, no less.  Scott had been taken aback to discover my envelop had only a simple statement of gratitude…

This interaction reawakened my sense that unpredictable good would happen if I wrote 365 thank-you notes and that I needed to follow through.  (82)

There are many lessons that John Kralik learns during his thank-you note project.  Some we could anticipate and others are a bit more surprising. 

We can all agree that gratitude is an important Jewish value.  I am sure I am not alone in saying that I can certainly use some improvement in expressing my gratitude to the many people who enrich my life and for the countless blessings that I receive.  This message is especially true during the age of COVID in which we are living, where it is so easy to focus on the negative and the disappointment that has become a familiar part of the past year-and -a-half.  The davening of Rosh Hashanah points us to gratitude.  In the זכרונות  section of Musaf we quote the pasuk from Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 2:2

הָלֹ֡ךְ וְֽקָרָ֩אתָ֩ בְאׇזְנֵ֨י יְרוּשָׁלַ֜͏ִם לֵאמֹ֗ר כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה’ זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַֽחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה׃

Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the LORD:I accounted to your favor The devotion/kindness of your youth, Your love as a bride—How you followed Me in the wilderness,  In a land not sown.

The Radak explains that Hashem is making a promise:

אף על פי שאני מביא עליך רעה בעבור מעשיך הרעים לא אעשה אותך כלה וגם אעניש המריעים לך כי זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך

Even though I am bringing bad upon you due to your wicked ways, I will not utterly destroy you, and I will punish those who do evil to you.  Because I remember the kindness of your youth.

We evoke this pasuk as part of the זכרונות section of the Amidah to remind God that just as He did not destroy us in the days of Jeremiah due to the kindness of our youth, we conjure up that memory as we stand before God in judgment as a reminder that this year, too, God should judge us favorably even if all we have to stand on is the חסד נעוריך – the kindness that WE did for God when we were but a young nation.  In other words, we rely on Hashem’s gratitude.

Yet we all know that the focus of Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday season is Teshuvah.  There is a remarkable connection between gratitude and Teshuvah seen in a fascinating Midrash.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 22:13) takes us all the way back to Adam ha-Rishon and  his son קין (Cain).  The Torah tells us that after קין killed his brother הבל (Abel), he is punished and must wander the earth the rest of his life.  קין protests that the punishment is too great for him to bear and he fears that whoever he encounters will kill him.  Hashem therefore promises him protection.  Comforted by Hashem’s assurance, the Torah tells us (Breishit 4:16):

וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃

Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 22:13) picks up the story here and wonders מהיכן יצא – from whence did he leave?  R. Chama maintains that he left happy.  On his way out he encounters his father who asks “what was your punishment?”

Cain responds עשיתי תשובה ונתפשרתי,  –  “I repented [and settled with God].”

At which point Adam shudders and exclaims כך היא כחה של תשובה ואני לא הייתי יודע – “So potent is repentance and I did not know it?!”.

The Midrash concludes that upon learning of the possibility and effectiveness of Teshuvah, Adam composed Psalm 92 מזמור שיר ליום השבת, טוב להודות לה’ which we normally translate as “A song for the Sabbath it is good to thank unto the Lord”  but here is being translated as טוב להודות לה’  it is good to confess to God, i.e., to do teshuvah. 

What does Teshuvah have to do with gratitude?

I heard a really interesting interview with David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who focuses on the the relationship between our emotions and moral/ethical behavior (https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/where-gratitude-gets-you/). 

He has conducted numerous experiments that confirm what we might have intuited about gratitude.  People who are grateful in their lives:

  • Are more able/willing to delay gratification for greater gains in the long-term
  • Are more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of others
  • Have better physical and mental health
  • Are more happy

Having a strong sense of gratitude can help us achieve many of the same goals we hope to achieve through the process of teshuvah. 

Dr. DeSteno likens gratitude (and other emotions) to skills that can be developed.  One of the most over-looked, but perhaps most interesting elements of emotional intelligence is “learning how to use your emotions as tolls or as skills to achieve your goals.”

Another interesting component of DeSteno’s work is what he calls the virtuous cycle.  We know that emotions are catchy – if you spend time with someone who is depressed, you are more likely to feel depressed.  One person’s anxiety can rub off on me.  This virtuous cycle is even stronger when it comes to gratitude.  We refer to it as “paying it forward.”  The idea that when someone does something kind for us we have an immediate need to do something kind for someone else.  The most often discussed example of this is when one person in the Starbucks line decides to pay for the person behind them.  There have been instances when this pattern continues for over 150 customers. 

In case it isn’t obvious by this point, I’d like for this Rosh Hashanah to be one in which we all commit to being more attentive and conscious to expressing gratitude.  While the task may seem onerous, I’d like to challenge everyone to take on their own Thank-you project.  Find the parameters that make sense for you – whether it is writing a note every day, making a phone call or sending an email on a regular basis to friends and family who are very close to us, to acquaintances and colleagues from work or to people from earlier chapters in our lives from whom we may have grown apart.  We stand to benefit as individuals and as a community when we are more focused on gratitude.  Rather than beating ourselves up by focusing on our many shortcomings,  this is the model of Teshuvah that we need this year.

Let me conclude with John Kralik’s conclusion from his book.

 I did not view writing thank-you notes as a self-help system, nor did I view it as a new, positive, psychological method to delude myself into believing that my life is better than it really is or to cultivate an artificial state of well-being.  This is just an exercise in average good manners.  I was simply engaging in a custom my grandfather had attempted to teach me fifty years ago.

At the risk of making an unscientific and directly moral statement, I will say that writing thank-you notes is a good thing to do and make the world a better place.  It also made me a better man.  More than success or material achievement, this is what I sought.  (226)

Ki Tavo – Fulfilling the Torah

Every morning in the bracha preceding the Shema we say:

אָבִֽינוּ הָאָב הָרַחֲמָן הַמְ֒רַחֵם רַחֵם עָלֵֽינוּ וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל לִשְׁמֹֽעַ לִלְמֹד וּלְ֒לַמֵּד לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה

Our Father, merciful Father, Who acts with compassion, have compassion on us and put into our hearts [comprehension] to understand and to be intellectually creative, to listen, to learn, and to teach, to preserve, to practice, and to fulfill all the words of instruction in Your Torah with love.

What is the significance of this phrase to fulfill/לקיים the Torah?

It seems to have its origins in our Parsha.

The Parsha contains the Tochecha which is introduced with a shorter ceremony of blessings and curses in which we read (Devarim 27:14-26):

יד) וְעָנ֣וּ הַלְוִיִּ֗ם וְאָ֥מְר֛וּ אֶל־כׇּל־אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל ק֥וֹל רָֽם׃ {ס}         (טו) אָר֣וּר הָאִ֡ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַעֲשֶׂה֩ פֶ֨סֶל וּמַסֵּכָ֜ה תּוֹעֲבַ֣ת ה’ מַעֲשֵׂ֛ה יְדֵ֥י חָרָ֖שׁ וְשָׂ֣ם בַּסָּ֑תֶר וְעָנ֧וּ כׇל־הָעָ֛ם וְאָמְר֖וּ אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (טז) אָר֕וּר מַקְלֶ֥ה אָבִ֖יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (יז) אָר֕וּר מַסִּ֖יג גְּב֣וּל רֵעֵ֑הוּ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (יח) אָר֕וּר מַשְׁגֶּ֥ה עִוֵּ֖ר בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (יט) אָר֗וּר מַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט גֵּר־יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ (כ) אָר֗וּר שֹׁכֵב֙ עִם־אֵ֣שֶׁת אָבִ֔יו כִּ֥י גִלָּ֖ה כְּנַ֣ף אָבִ֑יו וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כא) אָר֕וּר שֹׁכֵ֖ב עִם־כׇּל־בְּהֵמָ֑ה וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כב) אָר֗וּר שֹׁכֵב֙ עִם־אֲחֹת֔וֹ בַּת־אָבִ֖יו א֣וֹ בַת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כג) אָר֕וּר שֹׁכֵ֖ב עִם־חֹֽתַנְתּ֑וֹ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כד)אָר֕וּר מַכֵּ֥ה רֵעֵ֖הוּ בַּסָּ֑תֶר וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כה) אָרוּר֙ לֹקֵ֣חַ שֹׁ֔חַד לְהַכּ֥וֹת נֶ֖פֶשׁ דָּ֣ם נָקִ֑י וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}  (כו) אָר֗וּר אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹא־יָקִ֛ים אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֑ם וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {פ}

(14) The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel: (15) Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by the LORD, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen.(16) Cursed be he who insults his father or mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (17) Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (18) Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (19) Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (20) Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife, for he has removed his father’s garment.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (21) Cursed be he who lies with any beast.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (22) Cursed be he who lies with his sister, whether daughter of his father or of his mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (23) Cursed be he who lies with his mother-in-law.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (24) Cursed be he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret.—And all the people shall say, Amen.(25) Cursed be he who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (26) Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them.—And all the people shall say, Amen.

One theme that comes up several times in this passage – committing sins in private or secret.  This is certainly true with the verses bolded above that talk about setting up an idol in secret or striking someone in secret.  We can also apply it to the admonition against misleading the blind and the various sexual improprieties described.

Rav S.R. Hirsch explains:

All blessing is denied to him who outwardly plays the pious man devoted to God but in secret denies the exclusive existence of One God and His ruling.

We certainly understand that the true test of someone’s commitment is how they act when no one else is watching.  There are many who observe Torah and mitzvot when they are being watched.  Or because of “peer pressure.”  But once they are out of the view of others their commitment to Torah is thrust aside.

R. Chaim Sofer, a leading rabbi in Hungary in the 19th century takes this from the other side of the coin.  Commenting on the corresponding blessings found a few pesukim later (Devarim 28:1-3):

(א) וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע֙ בְּקוֹל֙ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם וּנְתָ֨נְךָ֜ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֙יךָ֙ עֶלְי֔וֹן עַ֖ל כׇּל־גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ב) וּבָ֧אוּ עָלֶ֛יךָ כׇּל־הַבְּרָכ֥וֹת הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֻ֑ךָ כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֔ע בְּק֖וֹל ה’ אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃ (ג) בָּר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בָּעִ֑יר וּבָר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶֽה׃

(1) Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. (2) All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the LORD your God: (3) Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.

R. Sofer asks why the need for different blessings in the city and the field.  He answers:

בשכר המצות שאתה עושה בעיר] הכוונה יש שעושים מצות בבתים בחדר מלפנים מהחדר אבל בעיר לפני כל רואי שמש הם בושים להיות יהודי’.  אבל ברוך לעשות המצות בעיר ולא יבוש מפני המלעיגים ואז יקבל שכר גדול והבן.  

In reward for for the mitzvot that you do in the city – this means that there are those who do mitzvot in their inner room but in the city in front of others, they are ashamed to be a Jewish.  One who is blessed to do mitzot in the city without shame of those who scorn, will receive great reward.

For R. Sofer, being alone, in private provides comfort and security that many are lacking when out in public.  He says that the Torah’s message is that we must be comfortable and confident to perform mitzvot when out and about.

In this understanding, קיום התורה means to be proud of our connection to Torah and our observance of Torah.  Not to be ashamed or try to hide it.

A second explanation of קיום התורה is brought by the Ramban.  He maintains that our verse is not referring to someone who transgresses one of the mitzvot

אבל אם עבר על אחת מהן כגון שאכל החזיר והשקץ לתאותו או שלא עשה סוכה ולולב לעצלה איננו בחרם הזה כי לא אמר הכתוב אשר לא יעשה את דברי התורה הזאת אלא אמר אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת

However, if one transgressed any commandment, such as eating swine or some abominable thing because of his desire, or he did not make a Booth or take the palm-branch [on the Festival of Tabernacles] because of laziness, he is not included within this ban, for Scripture did not say “who does not perform the words of this Law” but it states that ‘confirmeth’

Someone who succumbs to their desire to eat non-kosher or transgress any other prohibition of the Torah, or someone who is lazy and neglects to build a Sukkah or fulfill any other mitzvah is not guilty for having failed to “fufill” לקיים the Torah.  Rather the Ramban writes:

(ולפי דעתי כי הקבלה הזאת שיודה במצות בלבו ויהיו בעיניו אמת ויאמין שהעושה אותן יהיה לו שכר וטובה והעובר עליהן יענש ואם יכפור באחת מהן או תהיה בעיניו בטלה לעולם הנה הוא ארור

In my opinion this “acceptance” requires that one avow the commandments in his heart and consider them as the truth, believe that he who observes them will be requited with the best of rewards and he who transgresses them will be punished, and if someone denies any of them, or considers it annulled forever he will be cursed.

He quotes the Yerushalmi Sotah 31a and focuses in on the final explanation:

כתיב (דברים כ״ז:כ״ו) ארור אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת. וכי יש תורה נופלת. שמעון בן יקים אומר זה החזן שהוא עומד. רבי שמעון בן חלפתא אומר זה הבית שלמטן דאמר רב חונה רב יהודה בשם שמואל על הדבר הזה קרע יאשיהו ואמר עלי להקים. ר’ אחא בשם רבי תנחום ברבי חייה למד ולימד ושמר ועשה והיתה ספיקה בידו להחזיק ולא החזיק הרי זה בכלל ארור.

“‘[Cursed is] he who does not uphold [the words of this Torah]’ – Is there then a Torah that falls [if a person does not ‘uphold’ it]?
Rabbi Shimon ben Yakim said, This refers to the prayer leader [who must stand].Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said, This refers to an earthly court.
Mar Rav Yehuda and Rav Huna taught in the name of Shmuel: Concerning this thing Yoshiyahu tore his garment and said, ‘I must uphold [the Torah].’
Rav Assi said in the name of Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiya: Even if one studied and taught, and observed and performed; if he had the opportunity to support [others in doing so] and did not support them, then he is included in this category of those who are cursed.”

The Ramban concludes:

ידרשו בהקמה הזאת בית המלך והנשיאות שבידם להקים את התורה ביד המבטלים אותה ואפילו היה הוא צדיק גמור במעשיו והיה יכול להחזיק התורה ביד הרשעים המבטלים אותה הרי זו ארור

Thus the Rabbis [in the above Yerushalmi] interpretated this “standing up” [of the Torah] as referring to the royal house and that of the Nasi [the Prince of the Sanhedrin] who have the power to uphold [the authority of] the Torah over those who annul it. And even if he was a perfectly righteous man in his own deeds, but he could have strengthened the Torah against the power of the wicked ones who annul it [but failed to do so], he is accursed. This is close to the subject that we have explained.

In other words, for the Ramban it is not enough for a person to be diligent in their personal observance.  We must take responsibility for the broader community.  Our connection to Torah and mitzot is lacking if there are other Jews who neglect Torah and Mitzvot. 

As we reflect on what it means to מקיים (fulfill the Torah), I think that all of these elements ring true. 

On the one hand we must be sincere and authentic in our observance as evidenced by whether we observe in private when no one else is watching.

We must be proud of our Judaism and our observance as evidenced by the blessing of observing Torah in the city/out in public when it might be uncomfortable.

Finally, we must take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the broader community.  It is not enough to meet our personal responsibilities.  We must take an interest and concern for those around as well. 

In this way we can be true מקיימי התורה/fulfillers of the Torah.

Bamidbar and the Current Violence in Israel

Parshat Bamidbar opens with the command to take a census of B’nei Yisrael.  This is followed by the description of the Israelite camp in the desert.  We are given a description of where each tribe was stationed with the Mishkan and shevet Levi in the center:

אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Bamidbar 2:2)

It is explained that each tribe was strategically placed to highlight their strengths and unique characteristics.  If this is the case, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky asks why the camp was only organized this way in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt; wouldn’t it have made more sense to organize the camp in the desired manner from the beginning?

He answers that had the camp been set up with each tribe marching under its own banner from the get-go, then there was  a strong danger that this would lead to division of the Jewish people.  Each tribe might take pride in their own abilities and downplay the need or significance of the other tribes.  It was necessary to wait for the Torah to given and the Mishkan constructed before emphasizing the unique characteristic of each tribe.  The camp was organized with the Mishkan at its center to emphasize that the Torah unites us.  Each tribe could celebrate its own uniqueness only when there was a shared commitment to the Torah.  The Torah must be a unifying force of the Jewish people.  The Torah provides a shared purpose and mission.  It would have been counterproductive to organize the camp before the nation had committed to and united over the Torah. 

As Jews living in the 21st Century, our symbolic camp is certainly centered around the Torah.  It is also centered around Israel – no matter where we live or our political leanings, the Jewish people should be united in our commitment to and deep appreciation for the State of Israel.  Just as the camp of B’nei Yisrael in the desert was organized around the Torah, our contemporary camp must organized with Israel at the center.

We offer our deep tefilot that the current violence comes to an end and that the families of those who have been killed and injured find some comfort.  We pray that those who have been traumatized by the missile attacks and constant retreats to bomb shelters find some calm and rest this Shabbos.

Bechukotai – Tragedy at Har Meiron and the End of Sefer Vayikra

This week we read the double Parsha of Behar-Bechukotai and with it conclude the book of Vayikra.  The parsha concludes with an odd set of laws concerning arachin.  This refers to the valuation that are placed on people, animals and land for the sake of making a donation to the Beit haMikdash.  There are monetary values placed on men and women depending on their age.  When it comes to animals or real estate, there is an appraisal process in which the kohanim determine the value of the item the person wishes to pledge.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that this final chapter does not fit with the rest of Sefer Vayikra.  The mora appropriate conclusion would be the end of chapter 26 (pauk 46) –

(מו) אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֮ וְהַתּוֹרֹת֒ אֲשֶׁר֙ נָתַ֣ן ה’ בֵּינ֕וֹ וּבֵ֖ין בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ (פ)

These are the laws, rules, and instructions that the LORD established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people.

Rav Hirsch explains that the final chapter “is quite clearly by its position in the book, only to be taken as an additional supplementary concluding chapter.”  According to Rav Hirsch, the main focus of Sefer Vayikra, and of our service of Hashem is that which was referenced at the end of chapter 26 – חקים, משפטים, תורות – laws, rules and instructions.  All of the pledges in chapter 27 on the other hand are presented in the context of איש כי יפליא נדר”” “when anyone explicitly vows to the Lord.”  A נדר, or vow, is “something not demanded by the Torah, but purely an act directed by one’s own feelings and wishes.”  Thus our main focus is on fulfilling the mitzvot that we are commanded to do.  As the Talmud famously asserts (Kidushin 31a), גדול מצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה, Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it.”  We must be sure to meet and fulfill our core obligations before adding more commitments to our plates.

The Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon Luntschitz, 1550-1619, Poland) offers a different explanation for the placement of the rules of arachin at the very end of Sefer Vayikra.  Chapter 26 of Sefer Vayikra contains the tochecha or description of punishments and curses should the Jewish people not follow the Torah.   The tochecha is difficult to read as it goes to great detail describing the various tragedies that will befall the Jewish people should they fail to observe the Torah.  In fact, the minhag is that when we read this section in shul, we do so in a quiet, rushed voice to show how difficult it is.  The Kli Yakar says that because the tochecha is so difficult, we have to read of the arachin and voluntary pledges that follow.  The reason for this is:

סמך פר’ זו לקללות לומר שישראל נודרים בעת צרה… אבל לדורות זה דרכם כסל למו שנודרים בעת צרה ובעבור סופה צרה וצוקה הם מתחרטים ושבים לסורם

This passage [of arachin] comes after the curses [of the tochecha] to show that the Jewish people pledges during times of trouble…In future generations their secret is that they pledge during times of trouble to show that they regret their transgressions and wish to repent.”  In other words, according to the Kli Yakar, the Jewish response to tragedy and suffering is to donate, give and sacrifice.  By teaching these laws of arachin after the horrors of the tochecha the Torah stresses that each individual has value and the response to tragedy is to pledge our value to the continuation of the Jewish people.

We have unfortunately witnessed the Kli Yakar’s response to tragedy this past week in the aftermath of the Lag ba-Omer tragedy at Har Meiron.  There has been an outpouring of acts of kindness in response to this tragedy.  It would have been very easy to throw up our hands in despair, but the Jewish people have internalized the lesson of the conclusion of Sefer Vayikra. 

Emor – Lessons from the Kohanim

The first half of Parshat Emor (Chapters 21 and 22)begins with series of halachot directed at the Kohanim in general as well as many directed specifically at the Kohen Gadol.  We learn of the restrictions on mourning and coming in contact with the dead as well as the family members for which kohanim are required to mourn.  At the same time the Kohen Gadol cannot become tameh for anyone, even his parents.  We read of the added restrictions about whom a Kohen can and cannot marry and of the prohibition against a kohen with a blemish serving in the Beit ha-Mikdash.  And the list goes on.

Many have pointed out that the placement of our Parsha seems out of place.  These halachot should have been included in the first half of Sefer Vayikra which discusses all the aspect of the kohanim’s service in the Mishkan and subsequently in the Beit haMikdash.  In fact, many suggest that the book of Vayikra can be divided in two – Torat Kohanim which discusses the service in the Mishkan and the Kohanim’s role and Sefer ha-Kedusha beginning with Parshat Kedoshim (chapter 19) and which discusses laws of holiness addressed to the entire nation.  If this is correct, then Parshat Emor should be included in the first half of the book directed at the Kohanim.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l offers an interesting suggestion to the placement of Parshat Emor in the second half of Sefer Vayikra (https://www.etzion.org.il/en/always-kohen).  He turns to a Gemara in Zevachim 17b.  The Mishnah had ruled that if the blood of a sacrifice was collected by a priest lacking the requisite priestly vestments (מחוסר בגדים) it is disqualified.  The Gemara offers the following explanation:

מחוסר בגדים: מנלן אמר רבי אבוה אמר רבי יוחנן ומטו בה משמיה דרבי אלעזר ברבי שמעון דאמר קרא (שמות כט, ט) וחגרת אותם אבנט אהרן ובניו וחבשת להם מגבעות והיתה להם כהונה לחקת עולם בזמן שבגדיהם עליהם כהונתם עליהם אין בגדיהם עליהם אין כהונתם עליהם

From where do we derive this? Rabbi Avuh says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says, and some determined it to be stated in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: As the verse states: “And you shall gird them with belts, Aaron and his sons, and bind mitres on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute” (Exodus 29:9). The verse indicates that when their vestments are on them, their priesthood is upon them, but if their vestments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them.

In other words, according to this source, the identity of a Kohen is limited to when he is on active duty in the Beit ha-Mikdash.    Likewise, the halachot of Torat Kohanim discuss the Kohen’s service in the Temple.  The halachot of our parsha largely pertain to the Kohanim outside of the Beit haMikdash.  Unlike the Gemara in Zevachim, the Torah is telling us that the kedusha (holiness) of the Kohanim pertains in all walks of life and not just in the Beit ha-Mikdash. 

Rav Lichtenstein concludes by noting that the lesson rings true for us today.  We may think that our religious life and kedusha is limited to when we find ourselves in shul or learning in the Beit Midrash.  He powerfully explains:

We are defined by our presence within the four walls of the beit midrash, and even when we are not there, we have an obligation always to cling to and identify with a makom Torah (place of Torah). The beit midrash is our Temple, and we toil in it as the kohen does in his. However, when we leave the walls of the beit midrash behind us, our identity as a ben Torah remains unchanged.

With this explanation in mind, I would like to share a second idea that very much compliments the first.  The Kedushat Levi asks why our parsha begins with a seemingly redundant phrase (Vayikra 21:1):

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃

The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin,

We know that the Kohanim are descendant of Aaron; why then does the Torah identify them as such?  He answers that the Kohanim might think that they are better and holier than the rest of the Jewish people:

בהיות כאשר ציוה ה’ למשה לאמר לכהנים שיקדשו עצמם, אך פן ירום לבב הכהנים ויתגאו לבבם לאמר מי כמוהם אשר בהם בחר ה’ מכל ישראל להקדישם בקדושה והאכילם קדשי שמים שאסור לזרים בוודאי הם חשובים לפני המקום מאוד וחיבתו להם יותר מכל ישראל וירום לבבם על אחיהם בני ישראל.

Seeing that the subject of Moses’ address to the priests ‎concerns the priests’ sanctifying themselves by abstaining from ‎incurring ritual defilement, all the special laws addressed to them ‎may make them feel superior, or even haughty. Moses is to warn ‎them that the fact that a part of the Torah is exclusively ‎addressed to them must not make them feel that they are better ‎or holier than the remainder of their peers.

He says that Hashem used the seemingly superfluous phrase בני אהרן (the descendants of Aaron) to impress upon the Kohanim that the extra strictures and measures of kedusha come only from the fact that they are the descendants of Aaron.  They did nothing to earn an elevated status and therefore have no reason to boast or think that they are better than the rest of the Jewish people. 

This too is a lesson for us today.  It happens too frequently that those who identify as frum look down on others who are less observant or less knowledgeable.  We must learn from the Torah’s message to the Kohanim that we should never use our connection to Torah and mitzvot to look down on others.   We should be proud of our accomplishments and of the lifestyle that we choose to live, but never at the expense of putting others down.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Placement of Acharei Mot

This week we read the double portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.  Parshat Acharei Mot opens by referencing the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. It proceeds to tell of the Yom Kippur service.  However, we read of the death of Nadav and Avihu in Parshat Shemini a few weeks earlier.  Between the story of their death and the opening of our parsha the Torah elaborates on a number of laws including: the prohibition against kohanim serving in the beit ha-mikdashwhile drunk; laws of kashrut; and a series of laws of tumah (impurity) relating to bodily emissions and the disease of tzara’at.  If Acharei Mot and the details of the Yom Kippur service are meant to follow the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why do six chapters separate the two episodes? 

A number of commentators raise this very question.  Rashi explains that in performing the Yom Kippur service Aharon and future high priests run the risk of repeating the mistake made by Nadav and Avihu when they approached God in an inappropriate manner, since this is the one time during the year when they may enter the Holy of Holies.  The Torah mentions the deaths of his sons to impress on Aaron the importance and severity of the laws being discussed.  Rashi gives an analogy: a generic warning given by a doctor not to eat certain foods is much less effective than when the doctor is able to point to a specific person who made the same mistake. 

I would like to suggest that the exact timing of our parsha is not so crucial, as long as it happened after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aaron.  After the tragic loss of his sons he understood the laws of Yom Kippur differently.  As the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur, he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed.  His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own children.  Aharon is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah (repentance)of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.  The tragedy – and lessons learned from it —  remained with Aharon his entire life.  It was a transformative moment.  The Torah records that the laws of Yom Kippur were given after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to emphasize Aaron’s capacity to internalize the laws differently in light of their deaths. 

While our parsha presents an extreme example, the message is clear.  We cannot divorce our life experiences from how we relate to Judaism.  We must internalize the transformative moments in our lives in order to empathize and relate to our fellow humans. 

Tazria-Metzora Learning from Tzara’at

This Shabbos we read the double Parsha of Tazria-Metzora.  The majority of these two parshiyot discuss tzara’at – a skin disease that is often translated at leprosy.  In fact tzara’at is not limited to the skin and it can also afflict clothing and one’s home. 

The Gemara (Arachin 16a) lists seven sins that result in tzara’at:

א“ר שמואל בר נחמני א”ר יוחנן על שבעה דברים נגעים באין: על לשון הרע, ועל שפיכות דמים, ועל שבועת שוא, ועל גילוי עריות, ועל גסות הרוח, ועל הגזל, ועל צרות העין 

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  There are seven reasons why infections [of the skin] come:  For speaking maliciously about someone, bloodshed, taking a false oath, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, thievery, and narrow-eyedness [or narrow vision].   

However, it is most commonly assumed that tzara’at results form speaking lashon ha-ra.

I heard a beautiful idea about tzara’at in the name of Rabbi Nissan Alpert (1928-1986, Poland and New York), a close student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University.  He observes that the Torah introduces the topic of tzara’at by stating (Vayikra 13:2):

אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֙חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־

אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּהֲנִֽים׃

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.

The use of the word Adam (person) is unusual.  Typically the Torah would use the word איש ish.  Rabbi Alpert quotes the Zohar which notes of the four words the Torah uses for man – אדם, איש, גבר, אנוש (Adam, Ish, Gever, Enosh – the term Adam is the most exalted.  Why is this person who has committed a severe sin described as adam?

Furthermore, the use of the very והובא (vehuva) which is best translated as “shall be brought.”  The person afflicted with tzara’at is brought to the Kohen to receive a diagnosis.  Why is the verb in the passive tense rather than say that a person afflicted with tzara’at should go to to a Kohen to get a diagnosis?  The Ibn Ezra explains that the this form of the verb indicates that the person must be seen by the Kohen

ברצונו ושלא ברצונו כי הרואה בו אחד מסימנים אלו יכריחנו שיבא:

By his consent or against his will, for one who sees one of these signsOn someone’s body. will force the afflicted [to go to the kohen ].

We assume that the greatness of a person is based on their faults – the fewer faults, the greater the person.  But this assumption is wrong.  As we find in Kohelet (7:20)

כִּ֣י אָדָ֔ם אֵ֥ין צַדִּ֖יק בָּאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲשֶׂה־טּ֖וֹב וְלֹ֥א יֶחֱטָֽא

For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err.

Rather a great person is someone who recognizes that they have faults and wants to improve.  The Torah uses the term adam to indicate that the mark of a great person is that if they are afflicted with tzara’at they willingly go to a Kohen to learn what they did wrong and how they can remedy the situation.  A person willing to put themselves in the potentially embarrassing situation of pointing out their faults to a religious authority is a truly great person.  Rabbi Alpert explains that this might be why the Torah does not provide a reason that people were stricken with tzara’at.  Ultimately, we are not as concerned with what was done in the person but with a person’s desire to improve themselves.

This insight of Rabbi Alpert explains another curious detail in our parsha.  Once a person is confirmed to have tzara’at, the Torah instructs (Vayikra 13:45):

וְהַצָּר֜וּעַ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֣וֹ הַנֶּ֗גַע בְּגָדָ֞יו יִהְי֤וּ פְרֻמִים֙ וְרֹאשׁוֹ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה פָר֔וּעַ וְעַל־שָׂפָ֖ם יַעְטֶ֑ה וְטָמֵ֥א ׀ טָמֵ֖א יִקְרָֽא׃

As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!”

The gemara in Moed Katan (5a) gives two reasons why the person must call out that they are impure.  One reason is so that others others will hear of their distress and pray for mercy.  The second reason is to warn others of their status so the disease will not be transmitted to them.  The common denominator of both of these explanations is that the person with tzara’at must make his/her status known to others.  It’s as if the Torah is forcing a reconciliation with their status so that they can reflect on what they did and improve themselves.

The lesson for us is obvious.  Though we no longer experience tzara’at, we must embrace the message that it is foolish to think we are without faults.  We must be able to recognize our faults shortcomings and seek the guidance of friends and teachers who can help us to improve.

Shemini – A Curious Detail in the Story of Nadav and Avihu

Pashat Shemini describes the tragic death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.  Much has been written about this story and the lessons that it teaches.  I’d like to focus on a rather curious detail that is often overlooked in this episode.  After we are told of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths for having offered a “strange fire before God which HE had not commanded” (Vayikra 10:1), Moshe attempts to comfort his older brother:

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.  

Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Vayikra 10:3)

After which we read that Moshe seems to take the lead in burying Nadav and Avihu

 וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-מִישָׁאֵל וְאֶל אֶלְצָפָן, בְּנֵי עֻזִּיאֵל, דֹּד אַהֲרֹן; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, קִרְבוּ שְׂאוּ אֶת-אֲחֵיכֶם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, אֶל-מִחוּץ, לַמַּחֲנֶה. 

And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’ 

Moshe tasks his cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan.  But the Torah’s description of the relationship is rather strange.  Mishael and Elzaphan are not identified as Moshe’s cousins, or Aaron’s cousin but rather as the sons of Aaron’s uncle.  One question that emerges is Uzziel was Moshe’s uncle as well as Aaron’s; so why is he identified specifically as Aaron’s uncle?  Secondly, as Rashi notes, the Torah has already identified Uzziel as Amram’s brother (and by extension Aaron’s and Moshe’s uncle) in Shemot 6:18 –

וּבְנֵ֣י קְהָ֔ת עַמְרָ֣ם וְיִצְהָ֔ר וְחֶבְר֖וֹן וְעֻזִּיאֵ֑ל וּשְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י קְהָ֔ת שָׁלֹ֧שׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֛ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃

The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel; and the span of Kohath’s life was 133 years.

Why then does the Torah repeat the relationship now, in Sefer Vayikra?

One approach is that the Torah comes to teach a practical, halachic lesson.  Although kohanim are normally allowed to become tameh (impure) for the seven closest relatives for whom we sit Shiva, there are those who maintain that a Kohen who is “on duty” to perform the service in the Temple is not allowed to become impure in such situations.  Since Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, were “on duty” they could not bury Nadav and Avihu.  The task therefore fell to the closest eligible relatives.  In this approach, Uzziel is identified specifically as Aaron’s uncle rather than Moshe’s to show that Mishael and Elzaphan were acting on behalf of Aaron.  It is further understood that we are told that Uzziel is Aaron’s uncle to emphasize that while they were related, they were Levi’im and not Kohanim and thus there was no question about their ability to participate in the burial.

While the above explanation brought in the Da’at Zekeinim and elsewhere, it does not explain why it was specifically Mishael and Elzaphan as the children of Uzziel who were selected for the task.  There is a Midrashic tradition that says in addition to the familial relationship, Aaron and Uzziel shared an essential character trait.

ממשמע שנאמר ‘ובני קהת עמרם ויצהר וחברון ועוזיאל’, איני יודע שעוזיאל דוד אהרן? מה תלמוד לומר דוד אהרן? מקיש מעשה עוזיאל למעשה אהרן, מה אהרן רודף שלום בישראל אף עוזיאל רודף שלום בישראל… “.

When it says “the sons of Kohat: Amram, Yitzhar, Hebron and Uzziel” do I not know that Uzziel was Aaron’s uncle?  Why then does the Torah state “the uncle of Aaron”?  Rather the deeds of Uzziel are connected to the deeds of Aaron – Just as Aaron pursued peace among the Jewish people, so did Uzziel pursue peace among the Jewish people.

Aaron was famously known as a רודף שלום (pursuer of peace) who would seek to make peace between people who were in a fight.  Apparently, Aaron learned this from his uncle Uzziel, who according to the Midrash did the same thing.  According to this approach, the Torah emphasizes Aaron’s relationship to Uzziel because of the shared character trait.

A final explanation of our pasuk says that the word דד, which until this point we’ve translated as uncle, has a second meaning.  It can also mean “friend” or beloved as in the word ידיד, or as we read of the דד throughout Shir ha-Shirim over Pesach.  The Netziv thus writes that Aaron and Uzziel had a special relationship.  Moshe saw that because of this special relationship Mishael and Elzaphan were especially happy at the beginning of the day when Aaron and his children dedicated the Mishkan.   Moshe knew that they would certainly feel Aaron’s pain at the loss of his two sons.  According to this understanding, Aaron would be comforted knowing that people who cared deeply about him and shared his pain were the ones taking care of the burial.

The Torah’s emphasis on the relationship between Aaron and Uzziel comes to teach an important lesson for communal life.  It is vital that we be able to share the joy and celebrate the accomplishments of others and to be able to feel their pain.  This Shabbos begins the weekly study of a chaprter of Pirkei Avot leading up to Shavuot.  One reason that we study Pirkei Avot in anticipation of receiving the Torah is that Pirkei Avot emphasizes our interpersonal relationships which are a prerequisite for proper Torah observance.  The mention of Uzziel, Aaron’s uncle, in our parsha thus serves as a strong reminder of this crucial lesson.

Yizkor and Making Seder

I recently finished a remarkable book – Miriam’s Kitchen, a memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich which focuses on the author’s quest to learn the traditional recipes of her mother-in-law, Miriam.

In it she describes the Sedarim of her youth.

Gathered at her grandmother’s home in Brooklyn, Ehrlich recalls:

At the head of the table, may father, impressive in his high black skullcap, resembling an Eastern Orthodox bishop, performed the Passover recounting, the Haggadah, in rapid, rusty musical Hebrew.
We followed the English in our Haggadah pamphlets, the ones distributed gratis by Maxwell House.  I, enrolled in Hebrew school, could sing the four questions in Hebrew.  My cousins, Selina’s children, in their miniature prep school blazers and gray slacks, read them in the English, since they were being raised with no religion…
“Let’s go Edward,” spurred my grandmother.  She had been cooking, cleaning and changing dishes for days with my mother’s help, and didn’t want the roast chicken to dry up. 
My father would charge through the Haggadah, reading ahead from right to left, letting his mind become a vessel of subconscious memory to recover the Hebrew studied until his thirteenth birthday, to embrace the tune, the cadence.  He did recover it through force of mind.  His voice enfolded us like smoke.
At points, he paused, performing the rituals as his father had, or as close as could be remember.  He was transformed in the Seder to teacher or priest, to Someone Who Knew, to the keeper of mysteries, serious things.  I was transformed by the Seder, by candles and silver and ancient language ad melody, and incantatory realization that this was my birthright, this belonged to me.  (206-207).

I’m sure that we all have memories of Sedarim from our youth, gathered with the extended family and at some point among all the chaos, coming to the same realization – this is my birthright.  This belonged to me.

Pesach is defined by the Seder.  The Sefat Emet brings an amazing idea in the name of his grandfather, the Chidushei haRim (R. Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1799-1866), the first Gurer Rebbe.  The Chidushei haRim notes the translation of the word Seder is order.  He says that participating in a Seder each year helps us to make order of the miraculous events of the Exodus.  “Each year as we fulfill the mitzvos of the Seder, analyzing the Exodus and singing Hashem’s praises, we are given an opportunity to relive evnes which we were too pressed to appreciate as they occurred.  Thus, far from being a mere replay of the same rituals year after year, each successive Seder adds meaning to the original events and brings us closer to the appreciation of Hashems’ power needed to bring about the Final Redemption….

The final redemption cannot take place until the meaning of the Exodus is fully understood by the Jewish people.  By finding new meaning in the story of the Exodus each year, we given an order to our understanding of that first night of our freedom to exist as a nation, and bring the arrival of Moshiach and the final redemption that much closer”  (R. Yosef Stern, The Pesach Haggadah with Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes 15-16). 

Returning to Elizabeth Ehrlich’s Sedarim as a girl in Brooklyn, she shares one more memory that struck a chord with me.  As the family inched closer and closer Shulchan orech, the final step of course, is to eat the maror which is dipped in charoset.  The explanation of the charoset is that it symbolizes the mortar with which the slaves toiled under the cruel sun.  And in one magical moment she writes:

“’We built the pyramids!’ I breathlessly discovered.  From then on, history was personal.”

If the Pesach seder is our annual invitation to make order of the story of the Jewish master story and to forge our own connection and links in the chain, then Yizkor then Yizkor is a more personal Seder.  We recite yizkor on each Yom Tov as a way not only to remember our loved ones, but as a chance to reflect on the lessons and values that they instilled in us.  The birthright that is ours because of them. 

This Pesach marks the second one in which we are gathering for a virtual Yizkor.  Thank God, we are able to gather together at shul this year and recite Yizkor at its “proper time” but it is a mixed blessing knowing that our kehillah is not whole until everyone is able to safely and comfortably return to shul.  And so we recite yizkor tonight and remember our family and friends who are no longer with us, but whose continued presence in our lives enables us to create Seder, order and find meaning in all that we do.