VaYera – Avraham Who Loves Me

ויאמר אל תשלח ידך אל הנער ועל תעש לו מאומה, כי עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלהים אתה ולא חשכת את בנך את יחידך ממני

(בראשית כב, יב)

At the end of this week’s parasha we read about akedat Yitzchak, the incomprehensible test that God puts Avraham through, asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. When God stops Avraham at the last moment from slaughtering Yitzchak, he says to him:

And he said: lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him; for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.

(Bereshit 22, 12)

Why does God refer to Avraham as “God-fearing” and how is this related to Avraham’s deeds?

Avraham suffered much in his life. Specifically, he embodies two sufferings that the prophet Yeshayahu referred to many years later: that of the ger (the convert, the stranger) and that of the saris (the eunuch). The converts fear that, despite them wanting to be part of the Jewish people, there will always be those who reject them or make them feel unwanted. The eunuchs fear that they will never be part of that greatest of human achievements: bearing children who serve as a continuation of ourselves after we die. The prophet consoles both groups of people, promising them that they have a place within the nation.

Avraham encountered both sufferings. He is commanded by God to leave his birthplace and his family and go to an unknown place, to be a stranger. He proclaims himself to be a ger when addressing the Hittite people about buying a burial plot for his wife. After being rewarded by a son at the age of 100, he faces the prospect of that son dying at his own hands, of becoming a saris in the sense of not leaving children behind when he dies.

How does Avraham bear up to these challenges (and many others that God put him through)? The answer is in the verse quoted above: being a God-fearing man. Despite the hardships, Avraham persisted in his love of God, believed in Him and trusted the covenants that God made with him. It is this unshakeable, indeed immutable, belief that earned him the title of avi ha-ma’aminim, father of all believers. Facing the prospects of eternal barren estrangement, Avraham perseveres by latching on to the truly eternal anchor in our lives: the belief in God.

The same prophet, Yeshayahu, calls our first forefather Avraham ohavi, “Avraham who loves me” (ch. 41, verse 8). Avraham’s love of God earns him a special recognition from God. May we all be so blessed.

Sukkot – A Welcome Break

The main mitzvah of Sukkot is the Sukkah, the temporary dwelling we construct as autumn is upon us (in the northern hemisphere). Most people use the Sukkah only for meals, but many fulfill the mitzvah to its fullest and also sleep in it.

Sukkot has dozens of specific halachot (religious laws). But if we step back for a moment and observe the Sukkah and what it symbolizes, perhaps there are few things we can learn that go beyond the particular fulfillment of specific laws.

The Sukkah is typically built from cheap materials: wood and/or cloth for the walls and tree leaves or branches for the roof. It is a temporary structure, but one that is our home for a week. Most of us spend our lives striving for bigger and more lavish houses to live in, but the Sukkah teaches us that we can make do with a very basic home. What is truly important about our home is not the walls or the roof, it is what is inside the house: us and our families and what we make of our homes. The Sukkah helps us realize the value of family and forget, if only for a week, about the external aspects of our home.

The Sukkah is built outside, and its incomplete roof enables us to see the sky. We are forced to pay attention to the weather and to nature, as our well-being in the Sukkah is directly affected by them. The artificial houses we live in – with insulation, air conditioning, electricity, etc. – have distanced us from nature. The Sukkah gives us the opportunity to reconnect with nature, to truly feel the weather, to witness sunrises and sunsets and to realize that we are part of nature.

But although we live outside, the Sukkah still has walls. They are imperfect walls, typically made of cloth, but walls nonetheless. This teaches us that no matter what, we need to establish barriers between ourselves and the external world. We need to find the correct balance between openness and isolation, to take what is good from the world but also be careful about what to keep out.

Finally, one of the important features of the Sukkah roof is that it must be more covered than open (casting more shade than letting in light). This teaches us that the things that are visibly clear to us are not necessarily the entire story. There are layers and meanings that are, so to speak, in the shade. That are not visible to us. We need to strive to uncover these layers, wherever they might occur in our lives: family, friends, strangers. There are people that need help to come out from the shade, and our job is to lend a helping hand when we can.

May the festival of Sukkot help us learn these lessons and hopefully implement them in our lives, even long after the Sukkah is dismantled and we return to our brick-and-mortar houses.

(The  idea for this Thought is from Rabbi Yoni Lavi)

Tazri’a – A New Beginning

וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר. דבר אל בני ישראל לאמר: אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר, וטמאה שבעת ימים, כימי נדת דותה תטמא

(ויקרא יב, א-ב)

This week’s parasha deals mostly with the laws of the metsora, a person who suffers from a physical disease and is ritually impure. But it opens with the laws of another kind of ritual impurity, that of a woman who gave birth:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying. Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a son, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean.

(VaYikra 12, 1-2)

Both the woman giving birth and the metsora need to complete their purification process by bringing sacrifices to the temple, including an olah sacrifice. However this olah sacrifice is an exception, a special type called “rising and falling” sacrifice. The type of animal brought depends on the economic status of the person bringing the sacrifice. If wealthy – an animal; if poor – a bird. What do the woman giving birth and the metsora have in common to warrant this exception?

One explanation is that in both cases the impurity was “forced” upon them. Neither intended to become impure, so the Torah eases the rules. However, this is not a full explanation, as the woman certainly intended to get pregnant, and the metsora (at least according to most interpretations) was inflicted because he spoke in a derogatory fashion about other people.

Another way to look at the commonality between the woman giving birth and the metsora is that they are both bringing a new life into the world. In the woman’s case it is obvious. But the metsora too is brought back to life in a sense. All the time he was inflicted he was shunned from society (niduy), unable to live among other people. Our sages likened the metsora to a dead person. After his purification is over, he can come back to normal life among men. So as in both cases there is joy in bringing a new life into the world, the Torah eased the rules.

Often, our week’s parasha is read on the shabbat before the month of Nissan (or on the first day of Nissan), so we also read parashat HaChodesh. In it, we read about the first mitzvah that the people of Israel received: counting the months of the year and sanctifying the new month. Here too there is a kind of a “new life”. By counting the months we “give birth” to a new month. And in Nissan especially, the first month of the year, we also “give birth” to a new year. It is also the month in which the people of Israel were born as a nation, by gaining freedom from slavery in Egypt, and the month that they will be “born again” when the Messiah will come.

As we approach Pessach, may we be blessed with new life and new beginnings, just like the woman giving birth, the metsora and the month of Nissan.

Siyum Rambam

In 1984, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted the daily learning of the Rambam, i.e. the 14 books known as Mishneh Torah (or Yad HaHazaka) written by Maimonides more than 800 years ago.

Although this was not the first initiative to study the entire Rambam, this one caught on and the daily study of the Rambam became widespread (and not only among Chabad). There are two main study paths for the daily learners: 1 chapter per day (a study cycle of 3 years), and 3 chapters per day (a study cycle of 1 year).

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My personal 3-year journey of studying the Rambam daily came to an end this past Shabbat. Appropriately, I made the siyum (ending) at the Chabad House in Tokyo, during the Friday night Shabbat meal, with local friends and guests from around the world who are visiting Japan. I started and ended the Rambam with Sefer Nashim, the laws pertaining to women.

Although Rambam’s codification of Jewish Law is not the guiding halachah book of our times, it remains the foremost source for an all-encompassing study of halachah. Most of the topics covered by the Rambam are not of practical significance in our day and age – sacrifices, agricultural laws, ritual purity, civil law, and more. However, as the Rambam himself wrote in the foreword to his monumental work:

…a person will not need another text at all with regard to any Jewish law. Rather, this text will be a compilation of the entire Oral Law.

I studied with the Rambam Yomi edition, which I highly recommend for its clarity and conciseness.

A few years ago I finished my first cycle of the Daf Yomi (I’m now well into the second cycle). So I will end by quoting the hadran prayer accompanying a siyum of a Talmud tractate, adapted to the Rambam study:

We will return to you, Rambam, and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Rambam, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Rambam, and you will not forget us – not in this world and not in the world to come.

VaYetze – Hierarchy of Needs

וידר יעקב נדר לאמר:  אם יהיה אלהים עמדי, ושמרני בדרך הזה אשר אנכי הולך, ונתן לי לחם לאכול ובגד ללבוש. ושבתי בשלום אל בית אבי, והיה ה’ לי לאלהים. והאבן הזאת אשר שמתי מצבה, יהיה בית אלהים, וכל אשר תתן לי עשר אעשרנו לך.

(בראשית כ”ח, כ’-כ”ב)

Ya’acov leaves his home and embarks on a journey from which he will return only 21 years later, married to 4 women and father to 13 children. But right now, the future is uncertain. He dreams of the ladder and the angels, and in this dream God promises him many things: that he shall inherit the land, that he shall expand in all directions, that his offspring shall be many, that he shall be protected in his journey and that God shall be with him. Ya’acov wakes up from this dream and makes a vow:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to put on. So that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God. And this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to you. (Bereshit 28, 20-22)

In this vow, Ya’acov refers only to the promise that God shall protect him in his journey and return him home safely. He makes no reference to all the other promises from God. Why does Ya’acov refer only to the promises about his safety, and not to the grander promises of inheriting the land and of a great nation spreading upon the earth? Surely the Promised Land is no trivial thing; Ya’acov should have at least mentioned it in his vow.

One of the most famous psychological theories about humans is “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs“. According to Abraham Maslow, human needs are divided into five categories, arranged as a pyramid. At the base are physical needs: air, water, food, clothing, shelter. Then come safety needs: personal security, financial security, health. Once these are satisfied come the love and belonging needs: friendship, intimacy, family. Then come esteem needs, the needs to be respected and have a high self-esteem. At the very top of the pyramid is self-actualization, the need to fulfill one’s full potential.

These needs are hierarchical. For example, humans will seek to satisfy their physical needs before turning to safety. So long as the needs at a certain level are not satisfied, humans will not have the motivation to try and fufil a need from a higher level. But once the needs of a one level are satisfied, motivation kicks in and we focus on the higher needs.

Using this theory, we can now understand Ya’acov’s vow. God told Ya’acov what his self-actualization will be, the top of the pyramid: becoming a great nation and inheriting the land. But Ya’acov was not in a mental and psychological state permitting him to focus on this grand vision. Right now, he was running away from his brother (who wanted to kill him) and all he can think of are his most basic needs: food, water, shelter, protection. His vow refers to the fulfillment of these basic needs and a safe return to his home.

When Ya’acov says that only after returning to his father’s house safely “then shall the Lord be my God”, he is basically saying: until my basic needs are fulfilled I am not in a position to be worthy of God being my Lord, of fulfilling myself and my destiny, of becoming a grand nation. May this be a lesson to all of us. Focusing on the endgame may necessarily be the right decision at all times. Sometimes we need to focus on fulfilling other steps along the way before we can reach a level of self-actualization.

Yonah / Yom Kippur – A Shocking Message

ויאמר ה’ אתה חסת על הקיקיון אשר לא עמלת בו ולא גידלתו שבן לילה היה ובן לילה אבד. ואני לא אחוס על נינווה העיר הגדולה אשר יש בה הרבה משתיים עשרה רבוא, אדם אשר לא ידע בין ימינו לשמאלו ובהמה רבה?

(יונה ד’, י’-י”א)

Every year on Yom Kippur I am baffled by the reading of the book of Yonah. After the intensity of the seder avodah prayers during Mussaf – describing the rituals performed in the Temple during this holy day – and before the climax of the concluding prayer of Ne’ilah, the reading of Yonah during Mincha seems a bit of slump in the day’s prayers. Yonah is hardly the most inspiring of prophets. The book lacks the sweeping prophecies of redemption found in Yishayahu or the great moral admonitions found in Yirmiyahu and Amos.

If we read the book of Yonah literally, as the story of a prophet who failed to run away from his destiny, it has very little practical meaning for us. We are not prophets so we cannot understand how Yonah felt, and we cannot learn much from his tribulations. Even if we read the book of Yonah with the aid of the various interpreters, the ending of the book – with Yonah finding refuge under the kikayon (the gourd tree) – seems like an anti-climax that does have much much significance for us on Yom Kippur. Yonah performed his mission and the people of Nineveh repented, so the concluding story about the kikayon seems completely out of place. We need to find another way to understand the message of this book.

On the face of things, humility seems to be the defining characteristic of Yonah. He shies away from God’s mission, he hides away in the belly of the fish, he finds refuge under a common bush. In contrast, everything around him is characterised by the word “big”: Nineveh the big city, the big storm, the big fish. Furthermore, the book of Yonah does not offer us any historical context. We don’t know in which period in time Yonah lived or under which king he served.

Perhaps this teaches us that Yonah should be read not as a historic book, but as a universal story, one that is relevant to each and every person, always. Yonah sees the world as something with which he is in conflict. He is constantly running away. But God’s words in the concluding two verses of the book teach him that he has a direct connection to the world, that he cannot hide behind his humility:

And the Lord said: ‘You had pity on the gourd, for which you have not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?’  (Yonah 4, 10-11)

God admonishes Yonah for thinking about himself. It is not the kikayon he was sorry for. He was sorry for himself, for the shade that was gone. Like God with Nineveh, Yonah should have shed his humility and opened his eyes to the suffering of others – the people of Nineveh, the kikayon. Thinking about himself stands in contrast to Yonah’s perceived humility throughout the book, which is a shocking conclusion to the book.

This is the great message of the book of Yonah. Just before embarking on the Ne’ilah prayer of Yom Kippur, God’s admonishment of Yonah serves as a jarring wake-up call to shed our perceived humility. On the conclusion of this holy day, we should not be thinking and praying about ourselves only. We should be praying for the rest of humanity and creation as well.

VaYelekh – We Are All Sinners

הקהל את העם, האנשים הנשים והטף וגרך אשר בשעריך, למען ישמעו ולמען ילמדו ויראו את ה’ אלהיכם ושמרו לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת

(דברים, ל”א, י”ב)

The people of Israel are about to enter the promised land, and Moshe is wrapping up his great speech to them and bidding them farewell.

In this week’s parasha we read about the mitzvah of הקהל (gathering), which was performed once every seven years, during the Sukkot festival immediately following the year of shemitah (just like this year):

Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law (Devarim 31, 12)

This ritual was basically a re-enactment of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a confirmation of the covenant between God and his People. In last week’s parasha, Nitsavim, Moshe made a distinction between the righteous and the not-so-righteous, warning against straying after other gods. Yet in this week’s parasha there is no such distinction. Everybody – men, women, children, converts – gather together to hear the word of God.

In our days we do not have this mitzvah. But in a few days we will all gather in the synagogue and recite the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayers, which open with the prayer of Kol Nidrei, preceded by the following proclamation:

By the authority of the Court on High and by authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.

On the holiest day of the year, we invite also the sinners to come and pray with us. There is no distinction.

Who are these sinners? The common explanation is simple: people who have sinned, and have come to repent their sins on Yom Kippur. We invite them to join the congregation in prayer. The Talmud (Keritut 6:) says that a fast cannot be considered a proper fast unless the sinners are part of it. Just like we add the foul-smelling spice of helbonah to the incense (ketoret) in the Temple, so the People of Israel must be as one when they come to repent before their God.

But there is another way to look at this. Who are we to judge others? When we proclaim that the sinners are invited to join the prayers, we are in effect addressing everybody, including ourselves. There is no person that can stand up and say: I have not sinned. Sometimes a person who is deemed a sinner may actually do good, and vice versa. Shlomo says: “For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good and does not sin” (Kohelet, 7, 20).

All year long we can be judgemental. We can look at others and proclaim them to be righteous or sinners. But on Yom Kippur, when everybody gathers together, we proclaim that we are all sinners. By levelling the playing field we unite ourselves before God, just as Moshe commanded the people to do every seven years.

Ki Tavo – Counting Our Blessings

ולא נתן ה’ לכם לב לדעת ועינים לראות ואזניים לשמוע עד היום הזה

(דברים, כ”ט, ג’)

An oft-repeated story among rabbis and teachers talks about the student who was searching for spirituality. He fails to find it in the yeshiva so he leaves and travels the world, near and far, in search of real spirituality. Upon returning from his travels he goes to his rabbi and says he failed to find it. The rabbi then tells him that for him to find spirituality he must first understand what spirituality is, otherwise he won’t recognize it even if it hit him in the face. The student then returns to his studies and find the spirituality that was there all along.

I was reminded of this story while reading this week’s parasha. A very strange passuk appears in it. Moshe reminds the People of Israel about the miracles they witnessed in Egypt, all the great signs and wonders they experienced, and then says:

But God has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day.

(Devarim 29, 3)

What does Moshe mean “until this day”? Surely people who saw water turning to blood, fiery hail falling from the sky, the sea parting, and countless other miracles, would know what their eyes saw and ears heard. Why is it that only now, 40 years later, do the people finally get the gift of knowledge from God and understand those were true miracles?

Moshe is teaching us a very important lesson here. A person might be surrounded by miracles, and at the same time be unable to comprehend them. A person might witness miraculous happenings, and explain them away with logical reasoning. Unless he focuses his mind and his heart to comprehend these miracles, he will continue to live an uninspired life.

The same idea appears in another place in our parasha. When talking about the blessings, the Torah says: “And all these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the Lord your God” (28, 2). Why the repetition “and overtake you”? Here too, a person might be surrounded by blessings and not realize it, until he focuses his mind and his heart by listening to the voice of God. Only then will he realize how blessed he is.

There is so much truth in this. Just this week, the world stood horrified at the picture of the drowned Syrian refugee boy whose body was washed to the shore in Turkey. Even if only for a short while, we were reminded how blessed we are to have our health, our family, our comfortable existence. We take these blessings for granted, but it is not until some external force compels us to take a pause and focus, that we realize their full value.

It is not enough to see miracles. It is not enough to be blessed. We must open our hearts and minds to let their full meaning become clear to us, just like the student who failed to realize he was surrounded by spirituality all along.

Ki Tetse – You May Not Ignore

וכן תעשה לחמורו, וכן תעשה לשמלתו, וכן תעשה לכל אבדת אחיך אשר תאבד ממנו ומצאתה, לא תוכל להתעלם

(דברים, כ”ב, ג’)

Ki Tetse is famous for being the parasha with most mitzvot, 74 in total, a whopping 12% of all mitzvot in the Torah. It spans a breathtaking spectrum of human life – from war to conjugal affairs to commerce – and is a fitting illustration of how the Torah encompasses every aspect of the life of a Jewish person. As the Midrash in Devarim Raba says: “Anywhere you go, the mitzvot shall accompany you”.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a common thread in this week’s parasha. But there are a few key words that can perhaps serve as a guiding beacon for us in this sea of commandments. When the Torah speaks of the mitzvah of returning a lost object, it says:

And so shall you do with his ass; and so shall you do with his garment; and so shall you do with every lost thing of your brother’s, which he has lost and you have found; you may not ignore (Devarim 22, 3)

The words “you many not ignore” (לא תוכל להתעלם) may also be translated as “you many not look the other way”, or “you may not hide yourself”. Even in a seemingly trivial matter such as returning a lost object to its rightful owner, the Torah commands us not to ignore our fellow man. In fact, it uses repetitive wording to emphasise the lengths to which we must go in order to return the lost object: “השב תשיבם” (doubling the word “you shall return” in Hebrew). The Midrash says here that the practical outcome of this repetitive wording is that one needs to try “four or five times” to return the lost object before giving up.

We live in an individualistic society that does not encourage or foster much human interaction. We each lead our own lives, pursue our own goals and mostly follow the dictum that “good fences make good neighbours”. But the Torah tells us that we cannot ignore, we cannot look the other way. The Even Ezra (12th century, Spain) points out that the words “לא תוכל” (you shall not) should be interpreted literally, just as they’re used in other places when the Torah commands not to do something. It is not a matter of personal choice; just as one cannot transgress other mitzvot, so one cannot ignore a lost object. We have an obligation.

R. Moshe Alshich (16th century, Israel) adopts a different approach. He points out that it is not reasonable to expect a person to drop everything he’s doing and search for the owner of the lost object “even four or five times”. It is not inherent in human nature to behave in this way. The “השב תשיבם” should be interpreted as follows. The first השב, as the Even Ezra says, is indeed a commandment. Even though we may not like it, we have an obligation to do it. However, the subsequent תשיבם are done of our own will, because we change our personality by obeying the commandment. By forcing ourselves, against our nature, to follow the rules of the Torah and make an effort to find the owner, we change ourselves so that we now willingly continue to search for the owner, if we have not found him first time we tried.

This is a very powerful interpretation, that goes well beyond the mitzvah of returning a lost object. In fact, it relates to the much broader purpose of the Torah: to make us better human beings by fulfilling the will of God. This is the common thread of the 74 mitzvot found in Ki Tetse: “you may not ignore”. By following the mitzvot continuously, day after day, we transform ourselves and change our behaviour for the best. It is the rote repetition that is the essence of the Jewish faith.

Nasso – The Holiness Within

Is holiness (kedusha) something that is separate from our daily lives, a concept so pure that it must remain transcendental and disconnected from the mundane humdrum of our existence? Or is holiness something that is inherent in our daily lives, that we must take into consideration in our daily activities?

The first few chapters of the book of BaMidbar deal with how the tribes of Israel were organized structurally during the 40 years they wandered around in the desert. At the center of the encampment was the Tabernacle (Mishkan), the holiest of places. Around it was the camp of Levi – residence of Moshe, the priests (kohanim) and the Levites. And in the third circle was the camp of Israel, the rest of the tribes.

After the description of this structure, the Torah goes on to deal with four seemingly unrelated Jewish law (halacha) topics:

  1. The law of sending impure people outside the encampment. Three types of impurity dictate such banishment: the leper (metsora), the sexually diseased (zav) and the person who comes into contact with a corpse (tame met).
  2. The law of sacrifice for a person who robbed another person (asham gezelot).
  3. The law of the wayward wife (sotah).
  4. The law of a person who takes a vow of abstinence (nazir).

How are these four laws connected to the seemingly technical description of how the tribes camped in the desert?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (the “Rasher Hirsch”, 19th century Germany) offers the following explanation. The detailed description of the order of encampment in the desert is not purely technical. It emphasises the idea that holiness is not external to our life but rather an integral part of it. The fact that the Mishkan resides at the very centre of the camp is testament to the centrality of holiness in our daily existence. This fact demands that we take holiness into account in all aspects of our lives.

Rashar Hirsch points out the three groups of three in our parasha and ties them together. The three camps (Mishkan, Levites and Israel). The three impure (metsorazav and tame met). And the three laws (asham gezelotsotah and nazir).

  • The law of how to deal with a person who robs another person (gezel) is tied to the law of metsora. This tie highlights the fact that the holiness of God is within us in everything related to the social aspects of our lives.
  • The law of how to deal with a wayward wife (sotah) is tied to the law of zav. This shows that holiness should be present in the family and in the relationship between husband and wife.
  • And the law of abstinence (nazir) is tied to the law of tame met. It highlights the presence of holiness in our private life and how we choose to live it.

Holiness is not an abstract notion. The central idea of this week’s parasha, Nasso, is that holiness has a place within us and that we should be constantly aware of how we embed this holiness in everything we do.