Thursday, April 28, 2011

Parshat Kedoshim - פרשת קדושים

" לא תקם ולא תטר את בני עמך ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני יהוה. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am Hashem."
(Vayikra 19:18)

This week's Parsha includes one of the most well known passages in the entire Torah: the command to love one's fellow as oneself. This is not without reason - Rashi records that Rabbi Akiva called this a "Klal Gadol b'Torah", an important rule in Torah law.

So important, in fact, that when we read in the Talmud about the famous incident in which a would-be convert comes before Hillel and Shamai to ask them to teach him the Torah while standing on one leg, Hillel's response is that "That which is hateful to yourself, don't do to others. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn." (Masechet Shabbat 31a) Hillel goes so far as to call this mitzvah the central one in all of Torah, and seemingly relegates all others to the status of mere commentary on this one arch-mitzvah.

In Sefer Divrei Shir, a question is posed with respect to this response. How is it possible that all the other mitzvot in the Torah are to be understood as "commentary", interpretations of the mitzvah to love one's fellow? After all, while many mitzvot relate to our relationships with one another, there remain many others that are ostensibly to do with our relationship with Hashem. How are these mitzvot then to be understood as commentary of the mitzvah above?

The answer is given that one who truly loves others will do their best to protect them from all types of evil. Each and every action we make in this life has an effect; often without our knowing so. Implicit in Hillel's words was the recognition that whenever we act in a certain way, we affect others around us. By keeping away from sin, we not only affect our own lives, but the lives of others. Therefore, Hillel told the man that "this" is the whole Torah - all the other mitzvot must be expressed through the understanding that our actions can affect the entire world for the better.

At the same time, Hillel's answer also hints at the need to understand this mitzvah properly - if the rest of the Torah serves as commentary to this one mitzvah, then we need to study the rest of Torah properly in order to understand it fully. Only by taking a look at the entire text can we understand the real meaning of the details found within.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Back to Down to Earth With a Bump

They say that the best way to compliment a pilot is to congratulate them on a smooth landing. From what I understand, it appears that one of pilots' pet peeves is when passengers complain about turbulence - "it's not as if we are jolting the controls or intentionally going through air pockets" - but landings, however, are far more within a pilot's domain and as such are seen as a good barometer of their skill.

Today, I came back home to Israel after a brief excursion in London to be with my family for Pesach. Upon arriving, I made my way to the airport shul (synagogue). There were only two or three other people about. Before I commenced my prayers, I noticed someone else coming in. From his position at the entrance, he was unable to see how many people were inside and so asked me whether there would be a minyan (group of 10 males) so that he may recite the traditional Kadish prayer for the deceased. I explained that there was not.

Realising that time was running out before the end of the time in which it is permissible to pray (until dusk), we eventually decided to pray by ourselves. In line with Jewish custom, the gentleman took a few steps backward as he was about to start, but before he started, I quickly interrupted his thoughts.

"Tfilati tihiyeh l'aliyat haneshamah shel?" I asked. (Loosely: "My prayer should be in the memory of who, exactly...?)
"Daniel Arieh ben Tamar".
And then he continued, "MeHapigua... Ani Ha'Aba Shelo." ([The boy] "From the terror attack. I'm his father.")

We exchanged weak, clichéd smiles. I nodded my head in recognition, and he nodded to thank me for my gesture. Wordlessly, we both turned forward to resume our prayers.

The second blessing of the "Shmona Esre", the central Jewish prayer that we then recited, reads thus:

"You are mighty forever, Hashem, Reviver of the dead; You are great[ly able] to save, Sustainer of the living with kindness, Reviver of the dead with abundant mercy, Supporter of the fallen, Healer of the sick, and Freer of the bound, and Maintainer of faith with those who sleep in the dust: who is like You, O Master of mighty deeds and who compares to You, O King who causes life death and death and causes salvation to flourish; and faithful are you to revive the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, He who revives the dead."

As I said these words, I felt a deep, painful connection with the bereft father to my right. I'd landed back in Israel with bump, and it hurt.

Terrorism has many effects. It causes polarisation, and we must be wary of holding overly-extreme postions and believing unwise and often plain untrue things. No, not everyone is out to get Israel. No, not all Arabs hate Israel or support terrorism. Terrorism often causes people to adopt fundamentalist views. It has the double-effect of not only causing real damage, but also in making people cynical and less willing to deal with their enemies peacefully. Victims of terrorism are susceptible to making extreme responses, retaliating rashly and permitting many forms of behaviour that are otherwise deemed inadmissible. But I am glad that it seems that most Israelis refuse to. Israelis recognise, for the most part, that our enemy is not an entire people.

Nevertheless, I am reminded of just how differently the present conflict is perceived from abroad and from within Israel. People outside cannot possibly understand just how profoundly people here are affected by a conflict that has been going on for the best part of 100 years. This is not something which will be easily resolved. Sometimes I think it may not ever be solved at all, the way we are going.

For once, I won't make a political point other than to say that people can never understand us truly without spending a significant amount of time here. Of the many Jews I know and have met who live outisde of Israel, most think that they grasp the situation. But in reality, only very few people do see things as Israelis do. I am not pointing my finger or blaming anyone, but when Israel is described as more right wing than other Western societies, it is important to understand that this is not the result of latent hatred but of fear and pain.

Liberal values are all well and good, but in a scenario as explosive and volatile as ours, such values are open to exploitation. In order to safeguard them, Israel turns to the right. Again, I am not talking normatively, but it is important that we can identify this pattern of cause and effect. Judging, or better still, helping Israel can only be done effectively after this. We have a real enemy here, after all. It can't simply be ignored.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pesach - פסח

Tonight, Jews around the world will read at the Seder the command: "בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים." (In each and every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.)

The words above form the basis for the Seder night experience; all that we do is meant to remind us of the events of that dramatic period. But for all the props, texts and ceremonies, all our efforts are worthless unless we actively try to imagine ourselves as being part of the miraculous liberation from Egypt. Note that we are all *obligated* to see ourselves leaving Egypt. It's not just good practice; this is an outright command. While we can certainly appreciate that the events of the time were hugely important to the Jewish nation, what on earth is so crucial about our seeing ourselves as part of the generation that left Egypt?

This question is answered in part by the Sfat Emet, who notes that this phrase makes use of two different levels; one of the generation and one of the individual. The point is that there were two different aspects to the miracle of Pesach; one of a social scale and one on an individual scale. Whereas the social miracle was clearly evident on a physical level, the individual miracle was somewhat more discreet. Unfortunately for us, we seem to think that the command is for us to remember the physical exodus of the Jews from Egypt, but actually the command also exists on another, somewhat more neglected, level. It is often noted that the Hebrew word Mitzrayim (Egypt in English,) is related to the word Maytzar, which means constraints.

The Sfat Emet also tenders that every generation experiences its own version of the Redemption from Egypt. As each successive generation sinks to successively lower levels, we can claim with some justification that it is only by the mercy of God that we are permitted to continue our existence, even though we live our lives in opposition to the way we are instructed. With that belief under our belts, the Sfat Emet teaches us, we can then go on to relive the original and prototypical redemption as a private experience.

The two strands connect deeply. The constraints spoken about above were the spiritual constraints of the land of Egypt. In the text of Birkat Hamazon, we declare the land of Israel to be "Eretz Chemdah, Tovah ur'chava," a land that is delightful, good and wide." Now, it might seem reasonable to use the first two terms to describe Israel, but anyone who has looked at a map of Israel will tell you that it is anything but wide. The land of Israel is a narrow strip of land, even at it's widest section, and it's range from top to bottom is far more than it's range from side to side. The word Mitzrayim, Egypt, suffers from a similar poser; the root letters צ and ר make up the word Tzar, which means thin. Once again, anyone who recognises Egypt on a map will tell you that this it odds with Egypt's physical nature. What can this all mean?

I have learned that the way to reconcile these two problems is to understand that the width and the narrowness we learn of are not descriptions of the physical aspects of these two countries. Israel's "width" exists in it's spiritual richness. The narrowness of Egypt referred to it's limited connection to the spiritual. Returning to the point above, we may understand the command properly now; in each and every generation, one must see himself as not only being physically delivered from the oppression of the Egyptians, but also as having been spiritually redeemed by God. We are to imagine ourselves as having sunken to the lowest level possible and yet for Hashem to have come riding to the rescue and take us home to the land of Israel. I find this message very powerful; despite the fractures in the Jewish community (fractures that are often the most intractable when different parts of Jewry disagree on Israel and Judaism itself,) and despite the terrible sense of alienation and feeling of being different and alone in this world, we know that all will be alright in the end.

Wishing you a chag kasher v'sameach!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Parshat Acharei -Mot - פרשת אחרי מות

"ולקח מלא המחתה גחלי אש מעל המזבח מלפני יהוה, ומלא חפניו קטרת סמים דקה; והביא מבית לפרכת - He shall take a shovelful of fiery coals from atop the Altar that is before Hashem, and his cupped handful of finely ground incense-spices, and bring it within the curtain."
(וירקא ט"ז:י"ב)

If we take a careful look at this pasuk quoted above, we see that the word "מלא - full," is used twice. The repetition of this word is deliberate and teaches us many things, but I particularly like the answer put forward by R' Zalman Sorotzkin.

Rav Sorotzkin points out that the word full is used in two contexts in this sentence. The first time it appears, it relates to the measure of the shovel and the second time it used, it is pertaining to the amount of incense the Kohen HaGadol should take.

Interestingly, there is no measure specified for the shovel - it's proportions are not outlined in the Torah. So how could it be that the required amount is simply that the shovel, undefined as it is, be filled? This means that we can't even work out an approximate size for the shovel given the amount of incense it had to hold! What does "full" mean when we don't know how much can be filled up?!

Similarly, the human hand also is undefined - no human hand has exactly the proportions or is exactly the same size. Some people's hands are tiny and others have monstrous, hands; what kind of measures are to be taken when we don't even have a rough scale to work with?

If the purpose of this Pasuk is not to instruct us as to what amount is to be used in this Mitzvah, then a serious question is posed - why is the word מלא used at all?

The answer tendered is that the hand and the undefined shovel are used here to teach us that the task is not to simply fill a standardised amount or to fulfill a set requirement. Each person has their own unique circumstances, but that it remains essential to do one's best to perform the mitzvot commanded of them, and to perform these mitzvot well. Just because some are able and willing to perform a mitzvah to a very high level, we cannot expect anyone to perform any particular mitzvah in a way that satisfies others. Each person has their own challenges and the most important thing is to be true to oneself.

As such, Rav Sorotzkin's teaching here is brilliant. It is important that we recognise that we each have our own challenges and our own experiences that make each of us unique. At the same time, we cannot make excuses - it is not enough to do a mitzvah to the minimum required level. Neither can we make excuses. Instead, we are to try and find the right balance and attempt to do each mitzvah to our respective "filled handfuls."

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

Friday, April 08, 2011

Parshat Metzora - פרשת מצורע

This week's D'var Torah was written jointly by the Miller brothers...

“כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה; וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת, בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם. - When you come to the land of Israel which I give to you as a possession, and I will place a tzeraas affliction upon a house in the land of your possession.”
(ויקרא י"ד:ל"ד)

Picture the scene: After years in the wilderness, you have finally moved into your home in Israel, Eretz Hakodesh. You have been living in your house for a few years. And then one day the law comes to tell you that you have to destroy your house. Sound familiar? No, I am not talking about the disengagement of Gush Katif. I’m talking about the main theme of this week’s parsha.

The quote above speaks about a house in the land of Israel that has received what appears to be what’s called a “Nega Tzara’at”. An affliction or mark of some kind, on one of its bricks, that’s of a reddish or greenish colour. The Torah tells us that a Cohen has to come and check this marking to confirm our suspicions. If so, the house may eventually have to be broken and knocked down.

We know that the punishment of Tzara’at comes about due to a person speaking Lashon HaRa, badly about others. Without discussing how this seems a proportional, fair punishment, let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. What happens if the owner of the house, upon seeing the mark, would just ignore it? For those of us who aren’t completely pious and act exactly as the Torah instructs, (and that’s 99% of us), it would be very difficult to ignore this option. “Why should all my neighbours see my house being destroyed and know I have spoken Lashon HaRa? I’ll just repent quietly; perhaps it will go away then” we would likely tell ourselves. We’re all human, after all. We like to rationalise the uncomfortable things.

In his commentary on this verse, Rashi reveals one of his most famous insights, commenting that the “Amorites hid treasures of gold in the walls of their houses all forty years that Israel were in the desert and through the affliction he [the Cohen] breaks down the house and [as a result] finds” the hidden treasure.

Read that again - “the Amorites hid treasures... all forty years”. This seemingly sudden moment of fortune was in the works for four decades! God was planning this good for 40 years! Given that we are told that the generation that came into Israel is a different one than the one that left Egypt, this means God was actually planning this even before the generation that would find the gold was born!

Before reading Birchat HaMazon on Shabbat, we read the following verse in Shir HaMa’alot: “הזורעים בדימה, ברינה יקצרו – They who sow with tears will reap with joy”. We don’t always see the good in this world immediately. But if we only wait a while, we may see how everything really does work out for the best.

But to get there, we have to take the first step. It is up to us to make an effort. Nothing in this world comes by itself; this is a world in which work is necessary. Whatever God asks us to do, we have to do it, no matter how hard it seems. If we just take the very first step, if we make the initial effort, God will do the rest and take care of everything else. God will not just match our effort, but carry on and help us many times over. We don’t need to worry about anything else. As the Gemara says in Masechet Megillah: “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים”. Everything is in God’s hands except from fear of God himself. All we need to do is demonstrate our love and reverence of Hashem.

It is important to realise that out of every situation comes good. Even from bad situations that we make for ourselves, can come good. Returning to my opening thought, sometimes we make bad decisions for ourselves. The disengagement should never have happened. We should never have given our enemies the capabilities to (more easily) target and attack a school bus. We should never speak Lashon HaRa. It is hard right now to see how good will come of our present situation. But it is out of these very situations that much good can be found. All we have to do is listen to what Hashem tells us and follow his commandments. God will take care of the rest.

Shabbat Shalom