Thursday, April 18, 2019

Poem for My Father

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Poem for My Father, Shlomo ben Yisrael Leib z”l in Honor of the Inauguration of “Solomon’s Song Garden”

I know your spirit is with us today.
Dearest Far please don’t go away,
even if I’m not sure what to say,
for it’s not words I want to convey.

Just wish your presence to be near.
So, we can still be together here.
You know how much we hold you dear.
Please don’t let your spirit disappear.

We made this little garden space,
to be a patch of natural grace,
a spiritual connecting place,
where your light we can embrace.

You always loved the good life
Together with mother, your wife.
When discord between people was rife,
your loving care appeased their strife.

As a father you were good and strong.
You were strict when we were wrong.
On your lips was always a new song.
For your warm compassion we long.

Never afraid to take a firm stand,
you cherished all of Israel’s land,
the mountains, sun and sand,
every rock and every plant.

You came and left the world at spring,
a time when every bird flaps its wing,
when sprouting flowers pleasure bring,
and when all kinds of birds begin to sing.

Like spring, you were young at heart.
Although you were also very smart,
your youthfulness got a new start,
so, at spring you chose to depart.

May your spirit and soul abundantly enjoy,
the gathering of grandchildren – your convoy,
with the playfulness of many girls and boy.
So, please let no-one this garden destroy!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What Can we Learn from the Spiritual Disease Described in the Torah?

Parashat Metzora
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Spiritual Roots for Physical Ailments
I’m terrified of the awful illness that plagues so many people in our times. In Israel and in Torah observant circles we don’t even dare mention the proper name of this dreadful disease that has taken so many lives, as we don’t want, G-d forbid, to call it upon anyone. We simply call it הַמַּחֲלָה/hamachala – ‘the sickness.’ 

In biblical times it doesn’t seem like people suffered from cancers, aids and heart attack. The only illness mentioned by name in the Bible is tzara’at – a disease usually mistranslated as ‘leprosy,’ yet it is more accurately translated as ‘psoriasis.’ (Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica, Shai A, Vardy D, Zvulunov A (2002). [Psoriasis, biblical afflictions and patients’ dignity] (in Hebrew). Harefuah 141 (5): 479–82, 496. PMID12073533). 

By mentioning the symptoms and the process of curing the disease of tzara’at in great details, the Torah offers a model for finding the cause and healing of any disease throughout the ages. I find it interesting that although permission was given for the doctor to heal (Shemot 21:19), the Torah chose specifically the Kohen to diagnose tzara’at and to oversee the healing procedure of this spiritual disease. By choosing the Kohen, in his capacity as spiritual healer, rather than a physician, to heal the only disease mentioned by name in Scripture, the Torah insinuates that the root of illness is spiritual rather than physical. Throughout the Talmud and Midrashim, Chazal view tzara’at as a consequence for various transgressions involving interpersonal misconduct, particularly lashon hara (slander/gossip). “Rabbi Yossi Ben Zimra said: Whoever speaks lashon hara - tzara’at comes upon him…” “Reish Lakish said: ‘This shall be the ritual for a metzora’ – this shall be the ritual for the motzi shem ra (the person guilty of defamation).” “Rav Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: tzara’at comes on account of seven things: 1) lashon hara; 2) murder; 3) false oaths; 4) immorality; 5) arrogance; 6) theft; 7) stinginess” (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b-16a). Also, today, most illnesses have spiritual causes. Therefore, addressing the spiritual root of illness helps to achieve its physical cure.

Various Types of Tzara’at Illustrate Different Aspects of Character Flaws
The different types of illness indicate the particular character-trait that the diseased person needs to work on and do teshuvah for (repent). For example, various kinds of tzara’at allude to different aspects of negative speech.
ספר ויקרא פרק יד פסוק נד
זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה לְכָל נֶגַע הַצָּרַעַת וְלַנָּתֶק: (נה) וּלְצָרַעַת הַבֶּגֶד וְלַבָּיִת: (נו) וְלַשְׂאֵת וְלַסַּפַּחַת וְלַבֶּהָרֶת:
“This is the law for every lesion of tzara’at, and for a netek, [the name of the lesion of tzara’at when it occurs on an area of hairy skin]. For tzara’at of garments and houses, for a se’et, for a sapachat and for a baheret” (Vayikra 14:54-56).

The Hebrew roots of the three kinds of tzara’at mentioned here can refer to three different motivations for engaging in evil speech. Each one having its own spiritual root and way of repentance:
1. שְׂאֵת /Se’et – ‘a rising’ – Alludes to a person speaking against others in order to raise his own stature.
סַּפַּחַת/Sapachat – ‘a scab’ – Alludes to a person joining (sipuach) – a group of people who speak against others. In ordinary circumstances, he would not speak lashon hara, but to be sociable or to fit in, he would.
3. בֶּהָרֶת/Baheret – ‘a bright spot’ – Alludes to a person might have done something against someone else, and in an attempt to exonerate himself, he speaks against that person. He clarifies (bahir) or rationalizes his behavior (Based on the Chatam Sofer).

Teshuvah – The Optimal Cure
ספר ויקרא פרק יד פסוק ב זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ וְהוּבָא אֶל הַכֹּהֵן:
(ג) וְיָצָא הַכֹּהֵן אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן וְהִנֵּה נִרְפָּא נֶגַע הַצָּרַעַת מִן הַצָּרוּעַ:
“This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzara’at, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the kohen. The kohen shall go outside the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzara’at has healed in the afflicted person” (Vayikra 14:2-3).

One of the tasks of the Kohanim was to determine if a sign on a person, garment, or house was in fact tzara’at. Rebbe Michel Z’lotchover explains that the Kohanim represent the tzaddikim (perfectly righteous) in each generation. Their purpose is to direct us toward teshuvah and good deeds. In order to engender teshuvah, the person afflicted with tzara’at was commanded by the Torah to go unshaven, wear torn clothes, and proclaim in the streets that he was impure. These are all actions that disgrace a person and makes him aware that he must repent. The process of purifying tzara’at – a physical ailment with a spiritual root identified by the kohen – can be experienced figuratively today through spiritual healing where we ask Hashem to help us ‘see’ the underlying roots of our ailment and guide us to fix them through, emunah (faith), forgiveness and changing direction. For example, I recently experienced awful, burning hives on my face that made me look terrible. When I did spiritual healing on myself the word ‘anger’ came up. This was surprising for me since I never usually get angry. That is, I never yell at people. Yet, spiritual healing brought my inward unexpressed anger into my awareness. That same week, I had experienced four different very challenging incidents with various people. The frustration I felt expressed itself in angry, burning lesions on my face. So, in my spiritual self-healing, I worked on accepting the difficult situations exchanging my anger with emunah that everything would resolve itself and so it eventually did. This inner self-healing is a way of integrating regretting our negative actions and emotions and transform them into closeness with Hashem. Thus, spiritual healing engenders teshuvah in a real and practical way.

From Physical to Spiritual Healing in the Era of Redemption
In the Torah and Talmud relying on physicians and medicine was questionable. According to Rav Acha of the Talmud, a person, who is wholly faithful and cleaving to Hashem, does not need to rely on manmade cures. Rather, he should search within his heart to find what spiritual failing may have caused him to become susceptible to illness and repent. Yet, the ordinary person, whose faith is weak and feels himself too far from Hashem to rely on ‘miracles,’ has no choice but to avail himself of the current therapeutic options. Therefore, according to Rav Acha, when seeking cures from physicians, as is the way of the world, we must apologize to Hashem for our lack of emunah in G-d (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 60a). There is no need to apologize for practicing or receiving spiritual healing, as spiritual healing both emanates from and strengthens our emunah in Hashem.  The increasing popularity of spiritual healing in our time reflects our yearning for geulah (redemption) when we and our health once again will be completely in Hashem’s hand. As the Ramban explains:
“When Israel is perfect and numerous then they will not be ruled by nature at all… For Hashem will remove all sicknesses from among them, to the extent that they will neither need a doctor, nor to guard themselves in the ways of medicine at all as it states, “I am G-d your Healer” (Shemot 15:26). In this manner, the Tzaddikim would act during the time of prophecy. Even if a sin would befall them and they would become ill, they would not go to the doctors, but only to the prophets…” (Ramban, Vayikra 26:1). M1ay our prayers and spiritual healing lead us to greater closeness with the Almighty! May we learn to open the channels that eventually will lead us to prophecy and complete repentance! May Hashem heal all the sick and remove illness from all of us forever!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Why the Difference in the Laws of Ritual Purity between the Birth of Males and Females?

Parashat Tazaria

Dealing with the Torah Differentiation between Male and Female
My students always question me, whenever I teach a Torah concept that is unequal for men and women. “Why did the Torah permit a man to marry more than one wife, while a woman was never permitted more than one husband?” “Why is only a man authorized to grant his wife a divorce?” “Why does only a woman require yibum (levirate marriage) but not the man?” “Why are only men required to learn Torah for its own sake...” I don’t mind that the list goes on and on ad infinitum, as my own first questioning of Judaism was, “Why does the man thank Hashem for not creating him a woman?” While, there are many answers to all these questions, over my almost 40 years of living a Torah observant life, I have learned to not be bothered by such questions. Since, I am very confident in my Jewish femininity and strongly aware of how the Torah values women, it is easy for me to accept that men and women are different and therefore, different laws apply to them respectably. This concept is best exemplified by the fact that none of my students ever asked, why only the boys get circumcised but not the girls! Similarly, I’m not really bothered by the fact that the ritual impurity caused by the birth of a girl lasts two weeks, whereas for the birth of a boy its only one week. Today, this difference has no practical implication as, “We don’t differentiate between blood and blood” (Talmud). Today, any blood that emerges from the womb is considered impure, whether due to menstruation, sexual disease or childbirth. Thus, a woman after birth, whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl must wait until she stops bleeding completely (usually around six weeks), count “seven clean days” and only then immerse in a mikvah in order to return to marital intimacy. Nevertheless, we need to explain the Torah difference between the impurity period for the birth of a son versus that of a daughter. I’m pleased that most of the classical medieval commentaries address this issue. Yet, in order to shed light on this question, we need to address the concept of why childbirth causes impurity in the first place. 

Why Does Childbirth Cause Impurity?
ספר ויקרא פרק יב  (ב) אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּוֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא:
(ג) וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ: (ד) וּשְׁלשִׁים יוֹם וּשְׁלשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּשֵׁב בִּדְמֵי טָהֳרָה בְּכָל קֹדֶשׁ לֹא תִגָּע וְאֶל הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא תָבֹא עַד מְלֹאת יְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ: (ה) וְאִם נְקֵבָה תֵלֵד וְטָמְאָה שְׁבֻעַיִם כְּנִדָּתָהּ וְשִׁשִּׁים יוֹם וְשֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּשֵׁב עַל דְּמֵי טָהֳרָה:
“When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be impure for seven days; she shall be impure just as at the time of separation when she menstruates. On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days, she shall remain in a state of blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor enter the Sanctuary until the period of her purification is completed. If she gives birth to a female, she shall be impure for two weeks, as during her menstruation. For sixty-six days, she shall remain in a state of blood of purity” (Vayikra 12:2-5).

How can childbirth – the epitome of purity – causeטֻמְאָה /tumah – ‘impurity?’  Since birth brings new life into the world, whereas tumah relates to death or to loss of potential life, why does birth cause tumah?

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף ב/א אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן שְׁלָשָׁה מְפַתְּחוֹת בְּיָדוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁלֹּא נִמְסְרוּ בְּיָד שָׁלִיחַ וְאֵלוֹ הֵן מַפְתֵּחַ שֶׁל גְּשָׁמִים מַפְתֵּחַ שֶׁל חַיָּה וּמַפְתֵּחַ שֶׁל תְּחִיַּת הַמֵּתִים:
Rabbi Yochanan said, three keys are in the hands of the Holy One and are not handed over to an emissary. These are the key to rain, the key to childbirth, and the key to the revival of the dead (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a).

Since nothing impure emerges from on High, how can impurity arise from childbirth, when it is one of the three keys that are only in Hashem’s hands? The answer is that impurity enters only after pregnancy ends. The Kotzker Rebbe explains that in every important event, when holiness is strengthened, impure energies are also aroused. Because of the power of pregnancy and birth, to which G-d controls the key, impurities are kept out until the baby is born. Yet, when the holiness leaves, impure energies gain entry. This is like the impurity that overtakes the body once the soul leaves. Similarly, when we excel in some area, especially in something Jewish, there is a danger of being unconsciously overwhelmed by negative energies and subsequently backsliding.
Since the female child inherently carries a higher degree of holiness, due to her own biological, life creating capability, a greater void, or tumah, remains after her birth. Thus, the greater
tumah after a baby girl’s birth reflects her greater capacity for holiness (due to her creative powers) and necessitates the longer wait to remove this ritual impurity Chana Weisberg.

The Pain and Suffering of the Cycles of Nature
תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף ל/ב דָּרַשׁ רַבֵּי שֶׁמְּלַאי לַמָּה הַוָּלָד דּוֹמֶה בִּמְעֵי אִמּוֹ לְפִנְקָס שֶׁמְּקֻפָּל וּמֻנָּח יָדָיו עַל שְׁתֵּי צְדָעָיו …וְנֵר דָּלוּק לוֹ עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְצוֹפֶה וּמַבִּיט מִסּוֹף הָעוֹלָם וְעַד סוֹפוֹ… וְאֵין לָךְ יָמִים שֶׁאָדָם שָׁרוּי בַּטּוֹבָה יוֹתֵר מֵאוֹתָן הַיָּמִים… וּמְלַמְּדִין אוֹתוֹ כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ… וְכֵיוָן שֶׁבָּא לַאֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם בָּא מַלְאָךְ וְסָטְרוּ עַל פִּיו וּמֻשְׁכָּחוֹ כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ...

Rabbi Simlai questioned, what does the fetus in the mother’s womb resemble? A folded notebook with his hands placed on his two sides… and a candle lights for him upon his head and he looks and sees from one end of the world to the other… There are no days that a person dwells in such goodness more than these days… and they teach him the entire Torah…When he comes to the air of this world, the angel comes and slaps him on the mouth and makes him forget his entire Torah… (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 30b).

Life on earth is specifically created by nullifying the heavenly bliss of life inside of the womb. This nullification is revealed through the suffering, the contractions of birth, the cry of the newborn and the blood of birth. Without being slapped in the face to make the baby forget his Torah, he would be unable to fulfill his mission in this world, which is to exert his free will through reconnecting with Torah. The tumah of childbirth expresses the lack and sorrow which comes from forgetting the Torah of the womb. Since the expulsion from the Garden, pain and impurity mars the joy of birth and the natural cycle of life. Childbirth expresses this duality of nature. Birth brings new life to the world, but the act is accompanied by blood and great pain. Sometimes it is life-threatening. Physicality is responsible for our impulses, our vulnerability to the forces of nature, to illness, the deterioration of our bodies and our ultimate death. With every birth, we come face to face with the sin of Adam and Chava that caused the debasement of nature, leaving us with the current world where all are subject to the cycle of life. We are all born, and we all die.

Why is the Impurity Caused by the Birth of a Girl Twice as Long as When a Boy is Born?
To shed light on this question we need to go back to the consequence of Adam’s and Chava’s sin.

ספר בראשית פרק ג (טז) אֶל הָאִשָּׁה אָמַר הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ בְּעֶצֶב תֵּלְדִי בָנִים וְאֶל אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשָׁל בָּךְ: (יז) וּלְאָדָם אָמַר כִּי שָׁמַעְתָּ לְקוֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ וַתֹּאכַל מִן הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לֵאמֹר לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכֲלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ:
“To the woman He said, ‘I shall surely increase your pain and your pregnancy; in pain you shall bear children…’ 17 And to man He said, ‘Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, You shall not eat of it, cursed be the ground for your sake; with pain shall you eat of it all the days of your life” (Bereishit 3:16-17).

Chava received a double portion of עֶצֶב/etzev – ‘pain.’ This is the reason why the impurity and pain from the birth of a female is twice as long as from the birth of a male. Another reason is that the nature of the female is cold and moist whereas the male is hot and dry. Therefore, giving birth to a girl causes more blood and consequently, the process of purification is longer (Tzror Hamor, Vayikra 12:2). Kli Yakar explains that since it was a woman who began the process of bringing impurity into the world, by eating from the forbidden fruit, all women need extra purification. The first woman, Chava was the original cause of the impurity of the blood of niddah, therefore, when a woman gives birth to a girl, she needs a twofold seven-day purification process: one seven-day purification period for herself and one for her daughter (Kli Yakar, Vayikra 12:2).

Rectifying the Breach of Nature
Returning to our original passage from this week’s parasha, it is interesting to note that after the birth of a boy the Torah mentions his (brit milah) circumcision on the eighth day (verse 3). This seems superfluous since the Torah already commanded circumcision in great detail in Parashat Lech Lecha. Furthermore, the period of impurity after the birth of a daughter is not written as 14 days but rather described with the unusual word, שְׁבֻעַיִם/shevuayim – ‘two weeks,’ which is related to שֶׁבַע/sheva – ‘seven.’  The time of the mother’s impurity is thus contrasted with circumcision on the eighth day. Maharal explains that the number seven – connected to Shabbat – expresses holiness within nature, whereas the number eight – connected to circumcision – expresses the extra holiness that we can achieve beyond nature. Through circumcision on the eighth day man enters a covenant with G-d and rises above nature with all its pitfalls. Since the level of holiness it achieves is higher than that inherent in nature, circumcision on the eighth day overrides Shabbat. This also explains why the time period of impurity is shorter following the birth of a boy. The covenant of circumcision shortens its duration because it is a corrective to the physical nature with its inherent pain and deterioration. The corrective for daughters takes place at the covenant of marriage. Since the timing of this covenant is much later it doesn’t shorten the duration of impurity after the birth of a girl. The ability of the Jewish people to bring holiness beyond nature to the world will b”H lead to our victory over death and impurity by serving as a corrective for the sin of Adam and Chava. This is reflected in the bracha (blessing) at the covenant of circumcision: “Rescue our beloved from destruction, for the sake of His covenant that He has placed in our flesh;” as well as in the blessing we recite at the covenant of marriage: “Gladden these beloved companions as You gladdened Your creation in the Garden of Eden of old” (Rabbi Dror Brama). 

May we merit to celebrate both covenants and thus overcome the impurity of birth, of exile and of death. May we merit to be part of the renewed nation through the revival of the dead and the national rebirth!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

How Can We Learn Emuna from a Chicken?

Parashat Shemini
Printable Version

Being a Small Poultry Farmer
It seems that we have been chicken owners as long as we’ve lived in Bat Ayin – for about 27 years. None of us had any prior experience raising birds, but chickens are easy to take care of. I do remember as a child visiting the farm of our au-pair girl. I saw how they would pluck the feathers of a newly slaughtered chicken and remove the gizzard, peeling off its outer peel, within which there were remains from her last meal, including undigested grass and grain. I’ve just learned that a gizzard (Kurkevan) with an inner membrane that can be peeled off is one of the four signs of a kosher bird listed in the Talmud. The main criteria distinguishing a kosher bird is that it must not be a predator. It must have a muscular pouch, or crop, near the throat to store food and an extra toe. Additionally, when they stand on a wire, they have three toes in front and one in back. These distinctive features of kosher birds are not mentioned in the Torah but only in the Talmud (Chulin 59-63). The Shulchan Aruch furthermore specifies that the eggs of kosher birds must be pointed at one end and round at the other (Yore De’ah 86:1). Parashat Shemini lists the kosher requirements for various animal: Fish require fins and scales. Mammals require split hooves and they must chew their cud. However, the written Torah doesn’t provide any definitive signs for birds or fowl. Instead, the Torah lists twenty species of non-kosher fowl (Vayikra 11:13-19), plus sub-species (for a total of 24 – see Talmud Chulin 63a). Non-kosher birds include owls, pelicans, eagles, ostriches, vultures and more. I connect with the notion that we may not eat scavengers, carnivores or birds of prey. These are not characteristics that we want to absorb at all. Only pure animals are fit for a Jew to eat. We can easier elevate their more refined character through mindful eating especially on Shabbat and holidays.

Birds and Purity
Perhaps the reason why there are no identifying markers for kosher birds in the written Torah is because birds, in general, are purer than other animals. Therefore, the Torah only lists the exceptions – the limited amount of impure birds. All other birds, not singled out by the Torah as impure are kosher by default.

ספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוק יג וְאֶת אֵלֶּה תְּשַׁקְּצוּ מִן הָעוֹף לֹא יֵאָכְלוּ שֶׁקֶץ הֵם...
 “Among birds, you shall consider these an abomination; they shall not be eaten; they are abominable…” (Vayikra 11:13).

However, due to the many uncertainties as to the precise identities of the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah, we cannot be sure which birds are identified by the Torah. Therefore, in practice, Torah law rules that only birds with a tradition of being kosher may be eaten. These include chicken, duck and geese. Maharal explains why kosher birds are used in the purification ritual from tza’ra’at (a spiritual illness that is considered as death). This is because these birds are associated with life due to the swiftness of their movements. This is contrary to death which is stagnant and devoid of movement. Moreover, the refined substance of the bird allows it to soar high in the sky. This explains why, according to my neighbor, looking at chickens engenders purity. She told me that she heard that somewhere, (I haven’t found her source). Therefore, she visits with me in our chicken coop to soak up some purity vibrations.

The Dedicated Motherhood of Our Feathered Friends
Most birds are very good mothers, and it is a joy to watch the way a mother bird untiredly teaches her chicks how to eat and fly up onto the perch. They also cover their chicks with their wings at night, providing a snug, warming shelter. From the birds, Ruth learned her expression to Boaz at the pivotal moment, “Spread your wings over your handmaid for you are a redeemer” (Ruth 3:9). Among all the special features of birds, I find the way they hatch their chicks by patiently sitting on eggs most inspiring. For a chicken, it takes exactly 21 days of sitting on the eggs before the cute, little egg-sized chicks hatch. During this period, she hardly moves- not even to eat, or drink, let alone to ruffle her feathers. Below is a poem I wrote many years ago when my chicken strengthened my emunah, while I was struggling with secondary infertility.  

Emuna from a Bird

My little brown hen
was sitting on eggs.
I do not know
exactly since when.
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

Her entire being she would invest
to shelter and never leave her nest.
I would impatiently try to keep track,
when would those eggs ever crack?
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

Too much time seemed to have gone by,
I tried anxiously to figure out why,
why did I interfere
with her natural way to rear?
No one else had so much care.

She would hardly get up to eat
or peck around in the sun.
In order not to leave her seat,
she would give up all the fun.
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

She sacrificed her entire being,
 even her own health,
to give life to those inanimate
pitiful rounded shells.
From where did she get her faith
that her labor would bear fruit?
perhaps she just stuck to her task
even if nature would not follow suit?
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

I feel like a bird as well
yearning to reach the sky,
waiting for the future tell
that my time has come to fly.
Must I really be sitting and sitting
just sitting and doing my bidding?
My wings ache to be used,
my heart to be directed well.
I feel ready and all enthused
but how can I penetrate the shell?
How long must I be sitting?
just sitting and doing my bidding?

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Why Would I Ever Want to Feel Guilty?

Parashat Tzav
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Is Excessive Guilt a Jewish Phenomenon?
I remember my parents’ candy cabinet. It was the top section of the antique, polished, solid, oak-wooden cupboard. This section even had a key, but I don’t know why it was never locked. Its shelves were bursting with sweets from an assortment of licorice to Anton Berg’s marzipan and various bags of candy. As far as I can remember back, I had a penchant for sweets, perhaps, I was even born with a sweet tooth. By the age of seven, I had developed a method for extracting candies from closed candy bags without my mother noticing that the bag had been opened. I would simply slide the candies out from a narrow slit on the edge of the bag. When my mother looked away, I would stand on a stool while using this method to steal just one candy, leaving the bag looking new and unopened. The problem was that I often repeated this procedure until – to my great dismay – I discovered that the bag was nearly empty. When my mother later inquired who had stolen the candies, my confession was written on the guilty expression of my face. I’m not the only one to have struggled with a guilty conscience. The claim that especially Jews harbor feelings of shame and guilt is well known in both literature and humor. “What’s Jewish Alzheimer’s disease? It’s when you forget everything but the guilt” is an example of one such joke emphasizing Jewish guilt. According to Simon Dein, in Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, guilt and Judaism are closely interlinked with a long historical legacy. Through psychoanalytic, theological, and cultural examination, he concludes that ‘guilt’ is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture. More than guilt being a problem, it is second nature to the Jews, particularly through the guilt-inflicting Jewish mother. The Origins of Jewish Guilt: Psychological, Theological, and Cultural Perspectives. According to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman such stereotypes about Jewish guilt, have no basis in reality. As early as 1964, a study in the American Midwest reported higher levels of guilt among Protestants and Catholics than among their Jewish cohorts. Rabbi Tzvi also personally asked several therapists with many Jewish patients. They all concur that excessive, crippling guilt does not appear to be a particularly Jewish phenomenon.

The Purpose of Feeling Guilty
Shame and guilt are related. The Hebrew word for guilt אַשְׁמָה/ashma is similar to the English word ‘shame.’ Both involve feeling bad about ourselves. Whereas shame is a general feeling of not living up to our potential, guilt is usually associated with a particular action. From the very first people in the world – Adam and Eve – the feeling of guilt became ingrained within humanity. After having disobeyed G-d’s command, they were overcome by the feeling of guilt, so they tried to hide from Hashem (Bereishit 3:8). Evading taking responsibility for their sin caused them to turn their guilt into blame (Ibid. 12-13). Since then, we all struggle with this inborn tendency to blame, rather than taking responsibility for our actions. In our quest to avoid pain, we may also try to hide and cover up, not even admitting our wrongdoing to ourselves. In the following Bible-chapter, Hashem provides guidance for how to deal with our negative impulse and possible consequent sin. When Kain felt guilty about being jealous, because Hashem only accepted his brother’s sacrifice, Hashem empowers him to mend his ways: “If you improve your deeds, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve, sin will be crouching in wait for you to the grave. It yearns to make you stumble, but you can rule over it” (Bereishit 4:7). It is natural and unavoidable at times to feel angry, irritated, jealous and moody, yet it is our responsibility to work on not letting these feelings get the better of us. Feeling guilty for negative emotions is beneficial and is meant to prompt us to avoid acting upon them. Just as Hashem told Kain, “You can rule over it,” we too can contain our negative feelings without acting upon them. When we succeed, we can release the feeling of guilt, knowing that we have gained complete forgiveness as Kain was promised. Although Kain fell deeply into cardinal sin, at least he took responsibility for his action by confessing: “Is my iniquity too great to bear?” (Bereishit 4:13). Consequently, Hashem placed His mark of protection upon him (Ibid 15). If Hashem mitigates the punishment of even a murderer because he took responsibility and admitted his sin, how-much-more-so will He forgive us for whatever wrongdoing we may have committed (Based on Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, Jewish Guilt A Guide For Healthy Maintenance ).

Transient Guilt as a Tool for Repentance
Guilt can serve a powerful social function in terms of controlling our behavior, as long as we are aware of our inherent ability to do good. A temporary guilt feeling is a result of realizing that we were wrong. Yet, believing that our nature is evil will not help us to resist the temptation to do evil. Judaism empowers us to know our innate goodness and helps us to use the initial guilt for self-improvement. Lingering guilt is not a Jewish emotion. Rather, it is the first step of the teshuva process. When we channel this initial guilt feeling into ‘regret’ we are on the way to total repentance. Teshuva is comprised of three steps: 1) remorse, 2) confession, and 3) resolution for the future. Remorse stems from a yearning to come close to G-d, and the agony of realizing that we have become distant from the source of life. This regret causes an even greater love for G-d than before, like a husband and wife who make up after a dispute. Experiencing deep feelings of regret purifies the spiritual stain on our soul caused by the forbidden pleasure. It also transforms our wrongdoing into merits, since they are what cause us to become even closer to Hashem. This explains why Parashat Tzav teaches us that the guilt offering is called “holy of holies.”

ספר ויקרא פרק ז (א) וְזֹאת תּוֹרַת הָאָשָׁם קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא: (ה) וְהִקְטִיר אֹתָם הַכֹּהֵן הַמִּזְבֵּחָה אִשֶּׁה לַידֹוָד אָשָׁם הוּא: (ו) קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא:
“This is the law of the guilt offering. It is a holy of holies… And the kohen shall cause them to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a fire offering to Hashem. It is a guilt offering It is a holy of holies (Vayikra 7:1-6).

Just as the initial feeling of guilt evaporates when the guilt offering goes up in flames, likewise, today there is no need to hold on to guilt feelings as long as we take responsibility for our actions. Here are five ways to help us release excessive guilt and make positive changes in our lives.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Small Sacrifices of Life

Parashat Vayikra
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Transforming our Lost Objects to Become Sacrifices
After all these years, I’m still working on letting go of attachments to the material! Even now, I clearly remember and can almost still feel pain about losing a gift from my dear grandmother – a special, solid gold-brooch – 13 years ago, at my son’s wedding. It was holding my shawl together, until I took it off and put it on the nearby chair, as I whirled in my wildest dances. When I collected my shawl a few hours later, the brooch was gone. Within my great simcha (happiness) of exhilarated dancing, celebrating my oldest son’s wedding, there was a scratch in my joy. This was to be my sacrifice – my thanksgiving offering to Hashem for bringing our son to the marriage canopy. Since then, a great collection of smaller sacrifices has been piling up in my hectic, sometimes – I’m embarrassed to say – absentminded life. These include shawls, necklaces and earrings, especially my favorite blue sapphire earring that I looked for everywhere and didn’t even find in the chicken coop, near the hammock or behind the bed. Its single widow is still dangling on my earring stand, reminding me of my loss. However, in order to transform these kinds of minor losses to become sacrifices, it is necessary to let go of the initial pain of the loss. We must truly accept, for a sacrifice must be given with a full heart. This is the first step. The next step is to contemplate how the loss is actually a kindness from Hashem to grant us atonement for our failings. Then we are ready to reach the highest level of transforming lost objects to become sacrifices: By truly rejoicing over the loss!  Rebbe Nachman teaches that lost objects brings us completion, as it states, “He repays… to cause them to loose… yet He will repay…” (Devarim 7:10); (Likutei Moharan, I:8). He also teaches that lost objects are a result of תַּאֲווֹת/ta’avot – ‘desires and lusts’ (Ibid. II:88). Searching for lost objects – like searching for Chametz – implies searching in our innermost being to break our lusts for earthly desires. This results in finding all our lost objects. Oh well, way to go…

The Gift of Atonement
In Temple times, people would take an animal, such as a cow or a goat that they may have raised from infancy, cared for and fed daily, perhaps even talked to and received an acknowledging bleat in reply. Then, with a full heart they would willingly see their animal go up in flames, as they confessed their sins. The feeling of atonement, rebirth and spiritual closeness, with which they would walk away, more than made up for the loss of their animal.

ספר ויקרא פרק א פסוק ד וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה וְנִרְצָה לוֹ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו:
“And he shall place his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to atone for him” (Ibid. 4).          

כַּפָּרָה/kaparah is an amazing gift that Hashem grants us to enable us to come close to Him. Atonement clears away all the blockages – due to negative actions, feelings or thoughts – which separate and prevent us from becoming one with Him. The word ‘atonement’ in English can be broken up into ‘at-one-ment’ – for atonement is a rebirth that facilitates us to reconnect with the light of our soul and with our inherent oneness with Hashem. If we allow ourselves to take the time to contemplate deeply on the gift of ‘at-one-ment,’ we can remain happy, even though our most precious crystal chandelier shatters. By accustoming ourselves in such spiritual aerobics, no distress will remove our sense of closeness to G-d. As Miriam Adahan writes, ‘It’s all a Gift.’

To Sacrifice the Animal in Ourselves
The word קָרְבָּן/korban – ‘sacrifice’ derives from the root ק-ר-ב/k-r-v, which means to come close. The purpose of all the sacrifices is to bring us close to our Creator.

ספר ויקרא פרק א פסוק ב דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַהָשֵׁם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה מִן הַבָּקָר וּמִן הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת קָרְבַּנְכֶם:
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to Hashem; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice (Vayikra 1:2).

The Torah states, יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם /yakriv m’kem – ‘sacrifice your sacrifice’ or “bring an offering of you” – meaning the offering must come from you. The physical animal sacrifice is not enough. Hashem wants our heart. We must bring an offering from ourselves, as Sforno explains: The sacrifice must be accompanied by “a verbal confession and submission, in the sense of, ‘So we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves’ (Hoshea 14:3); and as it states, ‘The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit’ (Tehilim 51:19). For G-d has no desire for fools who offer sacrifices without previous submission” (Sforno, Vayikra 1:2). Thus, a person’s offering is not just his animal but himself as well. Therefore, it states, אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב/adam ki yakriv – ‘a person who sacrifices’ – for the main sacrifice is to sacrifice oneself (Zohar 3:26b).

Four Ways of Engaging in Sacrifices Today
How do we sacrifice ourselves?  Even in Temple times, sacrifices were only a means for repentance, to be able to cleave to the light of Hashem with awe and love. According to Rabbi Avraham Dov Avritch, today, when we can’t make a physical Temple sacrifice, repentance and cleaving to Hashem can be achieved in two ways: 1. Lower teshuva- by means of fasting. 2. Higher teshuva- by means of cleaving to the light of Torah (Sefer Bat Ayin, Parashat Shemini).

1. Fasting can be understood also in a broader sense. It can include a yearly cleanse such as a juice fast and mindful eating throughout the year– eating slowly and chewing every bite carefully without our eyes and mind on the next bite. We can also practice leaving a small piece of our favorite treat on the plate, even if we still desire to eat it. This is an excellent, practical way of sacrificing that we can do today.

2. Cleaving to the light of Torah implies adding more Torah learning to our daily routine, whether reading Torah books, going to classes or learning with study partners. In order to free up time for this, we may need to sacrifice some of our secular pursuits: reading fashion magazines, buyer’s guides, surfing the net or engaging in social media. For a woman, sacrificing her time or standard of living, in order to enable her husband to increase his Torah learning, is one of the most meritorious offerings possible (See Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a).

3. Engaging in acts of kindness and donating to a worthy cause is likewise a way of giving our sacrifice in our times. In the Talmud, money is called דָּמִים/damim – ‘blood’ (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 86b). Sharing our financial resources with others, can therefore be considered as if we sacrificed our own blood on the Temple altar. There is no better atonement for any wrongdoing than giving tzedakah.

4. We mustn’t forget about תְּפִלָּה/tefilah prayer – the traditional sacrifice replacement. Prayer includes meditation and reciting the blessings slowly with intention. By meditating upon the greatness of G-d, we can sacrifice and transform the animal within. This ultimately alters the very composition of our materialistic traits, so that they too may gain an appreciation of the spiritual, and develop a love for G-d.

There are many additional ways of offering sacrifices in our time, whether voluntary or those that unwittingly grace our path. Let us work on regarding such sacrifices, big or small, as opportunities and portals for rebirth, growth and closeness with our Creator.