Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What is Wrong with Wearing High Heels?

Parshat Ekev

High Heels and Anguished Feet
I’ve always detested high heels. First of all, they look unnatural, ugly and conceited with their narrow twistedness and raised, gaudy, batons underscoring the lowest part of our being. Untrained feet like mine can’t even fit into such devices. I recall how my German grandmother, several decades ago, warned me against high heels, by showing how her feet had been misshapen by being unnaturally twisted into the fashionable high heels required to fit into the aristocracy of her time. Witnessing her anguished feet made an awful impression on me, although her warning had been totally unnecessary. In high school my peers were divided into two distinct groups. The fancy girls with high heels and nail polish that frequented the discotheques, and the flower girls like me, with untamed locks, flowing tunics and bare feet. Since childhood when going shoe shopping style, fashion and even color was always secondary to comfortable shoes that were to serve as the foundation of our every movement. When they designed Crocs, it seemed to anyone that knew me that these comfortable, wide shoes were invented especially for me!

Shoe Designers Awaken Their Consumer’s Lower Passions
High heels have their comeback in fashion at various time periods throughout the ages. The shoe designers invest much time and money in sophisticated techniques of revealing the thinking processes and lower passions of their potential consumers. The high-heeled shoe is an example of one such ‘innovation.’ Rather than being concerned with the spiritual etiquette and positive effect of their designer shoes, the shoe designers’ purpose is primarily to stimulate the yetzer hara (negative impulse) of the person wearing their shoes. In their quest that their shoes become popular products in high demand on the market, the designers couldn’t care less about whether they will negatively impact the way their consumers stand and walk. A high level of awareness is required of the average person in order to understand how the shoe influences his personality. However, the ‘awareness’ of the yetzer hara knows no bounds. “There is nothing new under the sun.” These matters have been known by our Rabbis since ancient time, and they are described by our holy prophets and their Rabbinic commentaries. In portraying the spiritual and ethical decline prior to the destruction of the Temple, our Rabbis describe the arrogant, immodest body language of the daughters of Tzion, with special emphasis on their way of walking:

ספר ישעיה פרק ג פסוק טז
...יַעַן כִּי גָבְהוּ בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן וַתֵּלַכְנָה נְטוּוֹת \{נְטוּיוֹת\} גָּרוֹן וּמְשַׂקְּרוֹת עֵינָיִם הָלוֹךְ וְטָפוֹף תֵּלַכְנָה וּבְרַגְלֵיהֶם תְּעַכַּסְנָה:
“Hashem says because the daughters of Tzion are so haughty and walk with outstretched necks and winking eyes, walking and raising themselves as they walk; and making a tinkling (spout ‘venom’) with their feet” (Yesha’yahu 3:16).

Haughty High Heels
Wearing high heels emphasizes the human aspect of haughtiness by making women appear like they are raising themselves as they walk. Rashi explains, “With their feet they spout venom” to indicate that when they would pass in the street near Jewish youths, they would stamp their feet and hint to them of the affection of the adulteresses, in order to arouse their temptation, like the venom of a serpent. The Talmud goes even further in describing the effort of the Jewish girls in order to entice the yetzer hara of the Jewish boys: Regarding forbidden sexual relations, it is written: “Because the daughters of Tzion are haughty.” This indicates a tall woman walking alongside a short one so that the tall woman would stand out. “And walk with outstretched necks,” indicates that they would walk with upright stature and carry themselves in an immodest way. “Walking and raising themselves as they go,” indicates that they would walk in small steps, heel to toe, so onlookers would notice them. “Making a tinkling [te’akasna] with their feet,” Rabbi Yitzcḥak said: This teaches that they would bring myrrh and balsam and place them in their shoes and would walk in the marketplaces of Jerusalem. Once they approached a place where young Jewish men were congregated, they would stamp their feet on the ground and splash the perfume toward them and instill the evil inclination into them like venom of a viper (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9:2).   

Shoe fashion design has the power to make a significant difference in the way a woman stands and walks. Moreover, a noisy clicking of the heels on the ground express a personality that desires to attract attention. The inner message of walking in this way while clicking the heels loudly is, “even with the heel, the organ furthest away and least important I have the ability to demonstrate my importance” (Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, Aleinu Leshabe’ach).

The Heel Represents the Totality of a Person
Parashat Ekev is all about the heel, although the word for ‘heel’ – עֵקֶב/ekev in the context of our Parasha is translated as “it will be.” This is because the heel is the end part of our body, therefore it also denotes the future to come. Thus, Ibn Ezra explains that the heel symbolizes the final reward. Similarly, “Just as in the holy tongue the beginning of everything is called the רֹאשׁ/rosh – ‘head,’ so is the end of every matter is called the עֵקֶב/ekev – ‘heel.’ In the same manner as the head is the beginning of a person while the heel is his end and lowermost part” (Ramban, Devarim 7:12). It is interesting to note that the word for ‘shoe’ in Hebrewנַעַל /na’al also means a ‘lock.’ The shoe is called so because it locks something that has special significance, alluding to the independent importance of our feet. Perhaps the feet and especially the last part of the foot – the heel – represents the totality of a person. If a person’s heel is expressing the Divine will, then we can be sure that the rest of the person is G-d fearing. The shoe that encases our foot and heel therefore resumes major importance as it is like the final lock that can latch in the rest of our being to its inherent connection with the Divine spark of our soul. Since the shoe connects us to the ground, enabling us to fulfill our purpose in the physical world, it makes sense that in Kabbalah our entire body is also called a ‘shoe’ compared to the neshama (Rav Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim 1:5).

“All’s Well That Ends Well”
ספר דברים פרק ז פסוק יב וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ:
“It will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that Hashem, your G-d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers” (Devarim 7:12).

Although the heel assumes major importance, since it’s the lowest part of our body, we may easily take it lightly. Rashi explains that עֵקֶב/ekev refers to the heel.’ Therefore, Hashem is promising us a covenant of kindness if we only heed the minor commandments that people [usually] trample with their heels [i.e., they are treated as being of minor importance]. This Rashi supports the concept that the heel is our most vital part, despite its seemingly lower status than the rest of a person’s body. If our spiritual work reaches all the way down to our heel then we can be assured that the rest of us is in a good place. The end purpose and goal of living in this material world is to connect our very lowest part with the highest spiritual awareness of our head. In this way we make Hashem a dwelling place below. This explains the importance of the heel, as we know from the popular proverb: “All’s well that ends well.” It is interesting to note, that the foot encompasses the end nerve points of all the organs in our entire body. Thus, we can heal our entire being through our feet as known in the wisdom of reflexology. The back of the heel is specifically connected with our spine, and reflexology of the heel can ease lower back pain and alleviate discomfort associated with standing for extended periods of time. The middle of the heel is associated with the sciatic nerve – the longest, widest nerve in the human body that originates in the lower back, while the sides of the heel help alleviate pain in the tailbone or extreme bottom of the spine. The fact that the heel affects such vital part of our body furthermore testifies to its importance. Due to the significance of the foot and the heel it is vital that we treat them with love and dignity as is becoming for a Bat Melech (daughter of the King). We should ensure that our shoes have thick enough soles to protect our feet from thorns, prickles and nails. Moreover, we must ensure that our shoes are comfortable and fit our feet well without causing any pain, even when we stand or walk for extended periods of time. In the rural area – with its mountain slopes and rocky soil – that we call home, high heels are completely incompatible. Yet wherever a person may live, have you ever heard of anyone who claims that high heels are comfortable?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

When is the Time to Stop Praying for What we Want?


Parshat Vaetchanan

The Ripple Effect of Prayer
Is there ever a time when we have prayed enough for something and it’s time to let go and move on? Well, it seems that way from the beginning of Parashat Va’etchan, when Hashem became angry at Moshe and told him to stop praying for permission to enter the Land of Israel. Hashem always answers our prayers, but it can be hard to accept that sometimes the answer is, “No!” Our Sages teach that Moshe had offered 515 different prayers to enter the Land, according to the numerical value of the word וָֽאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן/Va'etchanan, which means ‘implored.’ However, each of Moshe’s prayers were rejected (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 11:6). This doesn’t mean that Moshe’s prayers were in vain, as the main purpose of prayer is not only to achieve a certain goal – being granted our wishes, but rather being in communion with Hashem. Moreover, the object of our prayer may not be available to us at any given time. Yet, the yearning expressed through our earnest entreaty can have a ripple effect on others. Rabbi Trugman, as always, puts it so eloquently: “By praying so intensely to enter the Promised Land, Moshe imbued the Jewish people for all eternity with the passionate desire to be connected to the Land. Although he did not personally enter the Holy Land, he bequeathed to all the Jews living in exile the will power and desire to never give up hope of returning to the Promised Land.” Every time I read the opening of Parashat Va’etchanan, I’m moved to tears by Moshe’s heartfelt longing for the Holy Land. Simultaneously, I’m filled with gratitude that we merit to live out our days in this enchanted, G-d given, land within the embrace of the Divine Shechina.  

Moshe’s Eternal Power
Yet, sometimes it is prohibited to pray too strongly for something specific. There comes a place where we must accept that Hashem’s will may not be what we want. Moshe wanted so badly to enter the Land of Israel, but Hashem did not even allow him to continue to pray for it:

ספר דברים פרק ג פסוק כג- כו
וָֽאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־הָשֵׁם בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר: כד אֲדֹנָ֣י הָשֵׁם אַתָּ֤ה הַֽחִלּ֨וֹתָ֙ לְהַרְא֣וֹת אֶת־עַבְדְּךָ֔ אֶ֨ת־גָּדְלְךָ֔ וְאֶת־יָֽדְךָ֖ הַֽחֲזָקָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִי־אֵל֙ בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּבָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה כְמַֽעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ וְכִגְבֽוּרֹתֶֽךָ: כה אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֹֽן: וַיִּתְעַבֵּר הָשֵׁם בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר הָשֵׁם אֵלַי רַב לָךְ אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה:
 “I pleaded with Hashem at that time, saying, 24) ‘O Hashem, G-d, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] G-d in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? 25) Please let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.’ 26) But Hashem was angry with me because of you, and would not hear me, and Hashem said to me, ‘Let it be enough, speak no more to me of this matter’” (Devarim 3:23-26).

G-d commanded Moshe to stop praying because otherwise, the power of Moshe’s prayer would, so-to-speak, force Hashem to grant him his wish, even though the world was not yet ready for Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe corresponds to the sefirah (Divine Emanation) of Netzach associated with persistence, permanence and eternity. Everything connected with Moshe remains forever. This is why Moshe brought us the Eternal Torah, which can never be changed. Had Moshe entered the Land, he would have become the final Mashiach, and caused the building of the eternal Temple- never to be destroyed. However, it would have been a premature redemption, as the world still needed to build its spiritual foundation and evolve to rectify many additional rectifications.

Your Power of Prayer is Limited when Unaccompanied by Positive Action
So, where does all this leave us? Has G-d ever commanded us to stop praying for anything we want? It’s not like we have a direct communication with Hashem, that we would know. Some people rely on prayer alone for everything including their livelihood and soulmate. They may spend hours in hitbodedut (solitary prayer), putting out a minimum of effort without seeking a steady job or meeting with matchmakers. I’m not the one to judge. Everyone has a different balance between histadlut (effort) and tefilah (prayer). Yet, when crossing the Reed Sea, “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them travel’” (Shemot 14:15). These words teach us an eternal lesson about the limitation of the power of prayer when unaccompanied by positive action.

Have Patience and Never Despair of Pleading to G-d in Prayer
What if we take every action to accomplish our goal while simultaneously storming the gates of heaven with our prayers? Could there still be a time when we must discontinue flinging our heartfelt prayers for a particular object at Hashem? Chezkiyahu told Yesha’yahu, “This is what I have learned from the house of my father; ‘Even if a razor-sharp sword is pressing on a person’s neck he should never despair of pleading to G-d for mercy…’” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 10a). I was trying to voice this principle to my family members when my cousin Ben, ob”m, was in his terminal stage of colon cancer. I couldn’t remain silent when his sister announced to the family that they were celebrating Ben’s last birthday. Yet to my great regret, my well-meant words of encouragement to intensify prayer, rather than give up hope, only infuriated the already disconsolate sister. L’havdil, (on another subject), while suffering secondary infertility for many years, I continuously pleaded with G-d for another child. Although my chances, according to the fertility experts’ verdict were slim, I didn’t give up. Thank G-d, my prayers and efforts did eventually bear fruit, (but not until ten years after receiving a special dollar-bracha from the Lubavitcher Rebbe). From this experience, I always teach the importance of never giving up hope. Hashem always answers our prayer, but sometimes the answer is, “Not yet!” In that case just keep praying!

Refrain from Praying in Order to Focus on Your Blessings
There are times, however, when it is not Hashem’s will that we continue praying for a particular aspiration. Not everything which is revealed good is our portion to attain in this lifetime. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and his wife never had any children, nor did they merit to live in the Land of Israel. Some people, unfortunately, remain single and childless all their lives. Absorbed in exasperating prayers for decades, being constantly reminded of their dire strait, may lead to unnecessary depression. Perhaps Hashem wants them to stop praying so intensely for unattainable goals, move on and focus on the blessings in their life. I remember when I was praying from the deepest part of my soul for a second child. In order to pray so hard, I had to go to the place where I could get in touch with my deepest anguish about not having more children. I felt like I was vacillating between feeling utter desperation and thankfulness that I did have, after all, a husband and one son. As soon as I focused on my blessings, I was unable to pray from that same place of desperation. At a certain point, we just can’t remain in that place of anguish. At what exact point, it’s time to make the switch, I cannot say. It varies from person to person. We all need to tune inwardly in order to listen to that inner voice to know when we are called upon to make do with our situation and accept Hashem’s will. “Make His will like Your will, in order that He will make your will as His will. Nullify your will before His will, in order that He will nullify the will of others before your will” (Pirkey Avot 2:4). After my second son was no longer a baby, I yearned for a daughter. Not yet 40, it was not that I was too old to bear another child, however, I just knew deep down that it was not Hashem’s will for me. I can’t explain how I knew. Yet, since then, I never engaged in further fertility treatments or poured out my heart in prayers for more children. It was as though Hashem told me, “Let it be enough, speak no more to me of this matter” (Devarim 3:26)

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Could there be any Benefits of Destruction?

Parshat Devarim
Printable Version


Tears of Rebuilding
I never look forward to the first nine days of the month of Av, which are loaded with disaster and tragedy. Their melancholic scent lies heavily on my shoulders. In addition to the destruction of the Temples, that occurred at this time, other misfortunes sought this inauspicious day, like flies crowding on an open wound. These calamities include the Spanish expulsion, the breakout of the First World war, the deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto, and more recently, the expulsion from Gush Katif. Sometimes, it’s hard to accept that the good G-d, Who loves us, can allow such suffering to exist. We need to strengthen our emunah to know that new light will shine forth- precisely according to the measure of the prior darkness. Just as when maggots from flies feed on dead tissue, they actually help prevent infection, so too, does the darkness of destruction become the backdrop for the renewed light of rebuilding. Plants may lie dormant during the dark winter months without a hint of bloom. Yet, when Spring kicks in, nature’s renewed, green growth dazzles us with its flourishing vibrant herbage and colorful flowers. From where would plants get their powerful, springy growth spurt if not through their latent phase of hibernation? Pioneering research indicates that when humans cry in response to stress, it reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, which in turn reduces stress. A friend recently told me, that her basement was completely destroyed by water damage. Yet, due to insurance coverage, they were able to rebuild it into a comfortable guest suite. A woman may feel awful during pregnancy, experiencing nausea, vomiting, indigestion, backpain, edema and more. Yet, the baby she bears will more than compensate her pain. The ninth of Av alludes to the nine months of pregnancy, and the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ט/tet, resembles an upside-down womb. During pregnancy, the fetus to be birthed into the world is growing yet concealed. This concealment is essential for its development. Similarly, the concealment of the Divine presence, during exile and suffering, is essential for our development (Meir Simchah Panzer).

Rebuilding Gush Katif in the Entire Land of Israel
14 years have passed since the expulsion from Gush Katif – a cluster of 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip. Yet, I still clearly recall how this area served as a model of rectification for “senseless hatred.” Torah scholars and farmers stood united in Gush Katif’s wonderful integration of Torah and the working of the Land. In Machon HaTorah V’Ha’Aretz the laws dependent on the land were researched and implemented. The children of both Rachel and Leah were united in Gush Katif, as farmers and Yeshiva students danced hand in hand. This endured for 38 years, corresponding to the 38 additional years the Israelites had to wander in the desert. As we all knew already then, their tragic, senseless destruction didn’t bring us any closer to peace. On the contrary, additional violence has resulted from this suicidal reward for terrorism. The beautiful villages sprouting forth cherry tomatoes, bug-free lettuce and geraniums were totally demolished and turned into terrorist arsenals which ravage our entire country. No one can understand why this destruction had to happen. Perhaps, in the strength and boldness of Aza’s Gush Katif, there was a premature perfection, a model for which the rest of Israel was not ready.

Yet, our loss teaches us to desire it so much more. This yearning for such perfected communities may help us to rebuild the essential qualities of Gush Katif within the entire land of Israel. 


With My Land in Tears

I cry with my Land in tears;
will you ever have any ears?

We have been slandered, ostracized and hated.
Are we pest or vermin that must be evacuated?

Growing and building with so much love and care;
bulldozed and brutally demolished so utterly unfair.

With utmost faith continuing sowing new seed.
Pleading and crying restraining any violent deed.

Lush gardens, farms, graves, synagogues and schools,
helplessly destroyed by those coerced to follow the rules.

Such a heavy price to pay for the falsest peace;
when will the ruin and destruction ever cease?

Why do you close your eyes, deny and refute
that the terrorists continue to constantly shoot?

As reward for violence, bloodshed, aggression and terror
they are given a bone and await to devour its marrow.

How many Jews in Israel can continue to live,
when rewarding terrorism is the message we give?

Negotiating peace under fire is an absurd lie.
Are we not all one big settlement in their eye?

Their aim is to cast the entire Zionist Entity into the sea,
and make Haifa, Safad, Jaffa, and Jerusalem Juden-free.

The saddest thing piercing my heart is the feeling of betray,
when a Jew is blinded to hate and expels his brother away.

When will we learn to build and foster love in our heart,
instead of tearing down, blaming and ripping apart?


Chana Bracha Siegelbaum
12 Av, 5765
August 16, 2005

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Daughters of Tzelafchad Teach Halacha

Parshat Masai

We live at a time when women’s place in Torah learning and active participation in community life is in a state of transformation. Many Jewish women, although passionately religious, are not satisfied with the traditional roles of Jewish women. They no longer accept limitations to their expression of Jewish ritual, and they request equal legal rights to take responsibility and participate in every aspect of Jewish community life, including the halachic decision-making process. We are in the process of clarifying the Torah parameters which allow a paradigm shift in the status of Jewish women. In this process, we need to ask ourselves as Orthodox Jewish women, how to follow the Torah path in engendering positive change, without infringing on the halachic authority of the tradition. The daughters of Tzelafchad can serve as role models for the accepted way for women to take responsibility in bringing about the necessary change that allows women greater leeway of expression in Judaism. These five sisters came before Moshe to request a portion of the land of Israel as an inheritance, since their father had passed away without leaving behind any sons. Not only was their request fulfilled, but moreover, the Torah and the Talmud praise the daughters of Tzelafchad for being wise, learned and righteous. From the daughters of Tzelafchad, we can glean the proper guidelines for how women can affect the necessary change in women’s roles, within the framework of halacha. These five righteous sisters got together to present their petition, that their father’s land inheritance should be transferred to his daughters since he passed away without any sons. When they came before the entire congregation, publicly presenting their petition before Moshe and the elders, no one even hints that they stepped out of line as women. Not only were they not criticized for venturing forward to address the male Rabbis, but they were even praised for their bold request.

Wise, Righteous and Learned
תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף קיט/ב תנא בנות צלפחד חכמניות הן דרשניות הן צדקניות הן חכמניות הן שלפי שעה דברו דא”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק מלמד שהיה משה רבינו יושב ודורש בפרשת יבמין שנאמר כי ישבו אחים יחדו אמרו לו אם כבן אנו חשובין תנה לנו נחלה כבן אם לאו תתיבם אמנו מיד ויקרב משה את משפטן לפני ה’. דרשניות הן שהיו אומרות אילו היה [לו] בן לא דברנו אפילו היה בת לבן לא דברנו. צדקניות הן שלא נישאו אלא להגון להן:
It is taught that the daughters of Tzelafchad were wise, learned and righteous. They were wise since they knew to speak at the proper time. Rabbi Shmuel, son of Rabbi Yitzchak, teaches that Moshe Rabbeinu was in the middle of teaching the section dealing with levirate marriage: “If brothers abide together...” (Devarim 25:5). They said to him, if we are considered as a son, give us a portion in the land like a son, if not then let our mother be taken in levirate marriage. Moshe then immediately brought their cause before Hashem. They were learned since they said if he had a son, we wouldn’t have spoken...even if he had a daughter of a son we wouldn’t have spoken. They were righteous since they didn’t marry except those who were befitting them (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 119b).

Wisdom: The Secret of Proper Timing
A person gains continuation in the world through his children and through his land, which is the outer manifestation of his soul. The fruits on the trees, which he planted, are like his children – his continuation in the world. If a person passes away without children, he has no continuation. The children continue the work of their parents. The children begin where their parents left off, rectifying their unsolved issues and problems. There are two ways in which a person’s name is carried on even after death.  One is levirate marriage (yibum) – where the brother of the deceased or his closest relative marries his widow. Their child will be called in the name of the deceased. The second way is when the deceased transfers his heritage to his offspring. The father’s name will be remembered through his field which is passed on to his children.  As it states, “…to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance” (Ruth 4:5). The daughters knew to speak at the proper time, when Moshe and the elders were learning about Levirate marriage. Each moment comes with its own lights and possibilities of transformation. The daughters of Tzalafchad understood the secret of timing. It is a deeply intuitive wisdom. From their example, we derive an essential principle: one must wait for the moment when an injustice or wrong attitude impacts upon the physical plane and blocks the path of truth for someone who is ready, now, to travel that path. The daughters waited to present their case until the precise moment when channels aligned to facilitate the needed change (Sarah Yehudit Shneider). We must learn the secret of proper timing from the daughters of Tzelafchad. The revelation of the Feminine Divine Presence goes hand in hand with the revelation of the feminine light. However, imminently before the birth, there is often a very strong urge to push.  Giving in to this urge, before its time, may have detrimental consequences. This was the case with B’nei Efraim, who hastened the end and left Egypt prematurely. We must balance the dichotomy of רָצוֹ וָשׁוֹב  – “running and returning” – Going forward in the dynamic process of change, yet returning and staying connected with the roots of our tradition. This inner process must temper our urge to push forward and guide us on the way of renewal, as it states, חָדָשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם/chadesh yameinu ke’kedem – “Renew our days as of old” (Eicha 5:21).

Learned: Able to Separate Between Personal Interest and the Truth of The Torah
The daughters claimed: If we do not inherit our father’s land, it would seem as if females are not considered offspring. Therefore, shouldn’t our mother be taken in levirate marriage?  If you give us our inheritance, then our father’s name will carry on. Otherwise, let our mother be taken in levirate marriage, so that our father’s name won’t be lost. Only because their father never had a son, did they have an argument from the section about levirate marriage (yibum). Had their father had a son, even if this son had died and only left a daughter, the daughter of the son would exempt their mother from levirate marriage. Therefore, it would not have been Tzalafchad’s daughters preventing their mother from yibum and for this reason they would have no argument that the inheritance should be passed on to them (Tosfot, Baba Batra 119b). The daughters were learned since they acknowledged that they would have no right to speak, had their father had a son or even a son’s daughter. They were able to learn out the intricate law, even when it went against their own personal interests. This exemplifies the ultimate ideal of Torah scholarship, that entails putting the objective truth before the slightest tinge of self-interest. All the halachot, established throughout the generations, were decided by the great people of the generation, who were able to separate between their personal interest and the truth of the Torah. For this ability, the daughters are praised by being called דַּרְשָׁנִיּוֹת /darshaniot – masters of textual analytical skill.

Righteousness: Ultimate Self-sacrifice
Before making their petition, the daughters of Tzelafchad cleansed themselves of any ulterior motives or attachment to anything less than truth (based on Targum Yonatan, Bamidbar 27:1). Although they hoped for a favorable outcome, they gave the matter up to G-d and cleansed themselves of any desire other than to fulfill G-d’s highest will for them and for all concerned. We to can affirm our commitment through prayer, “G-d not my will but yours be done. If my labor serves you, please prosper its path and if not, please block itand let me know as gently as possible how to adjust my course.”  This methodology of attitude practiced in good faith by all parties, will draw the unfolding of G-d’s highest will into the halachic discourse generated by our times (Sarah Yehudit Shneider). Often our petitions and requests are colored by self-interest. We may not even be aware ourselves that our idealistic words may be rationalizations, and what we truly care about is our own comfort. The fact that the daughters of Tzelafchad with great self-sacrifice chose to marry within their own tribe proves that their petition indeed emanated from holy intentions. They requested an inheritance for the sake of the continuation of their father’s name, in order that his soul should have an eternal, physical manifestation by means of his spiritual inheritance of the land. Had they afterwards married men from other tribes, their father’s land would have passed from his eternal, spiritual possession to the tribe of their husbands. This would have indicated that their request was merely a rationalization for their personal desire to grab land for themselves, G-d forbid. “Rabbi Eliezer son of Ya’acov taught, even the youngest among them did not marry before she turned 40…” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 119b). The fact that they were willing to wait until the age where they risked being too old for having their own children, proved the complete altruistic intentions of their petition. This self-sacrifice is hinted in the beginning of their story: וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד “The daughters of Tzelafchad came close” (Bamidbar 27:1). The word וַתִּקְרַבְנָה/vatikravna is related קָרְבָּן/korban – ‘sacrifice.’ The daughters were willing to sacrifice their own future by only marrying within their tribe.

Only in That Generation
במדבר פרק לו פסוק ו זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ לִבְנוֹת צְלָפְחָד לֵאמֹר לַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיהֶם תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים אַךְ לְמִשְׁפַּחַת מַטֵּה אֲבִיהֶם תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים: (ז) וְלֹא תִסֹּב נַחֲלָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמַּטֶּה אֶל מַטֶּה כִּי אִישׁ בְּנַחֲלַת מַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו יִדְבְּקוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
“This is the thing that Hashem has commanded concerning the daughters of Tzelafchad. Let them marry whomever they please, but they shall marry only within the family of their father’s tribe. Thus, the inheritance of the children of Israel shall not be transferred from tribe to tribe for each person from the children of Israel will remain attached to the inheritance of his father's tribe (Bamidbar 36:6-7).

From these verses, it is not clear whether the daughters of Tzelafchad were commanded to marry within their own tribe. The Talmud clarifies as follows: “Shemuel said, the daughters of Tzelafchad were permitted to marry all the tribes as it states, ‘Let them marry whom they please’ so how do we establish, ‘only within the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry’? Scripture gave them good advice, that they should only marry those who are fitting for them (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 120a). The daughters of Tzelafchad had full permission to choose any marriage partners- even outside of their own tribe. However, in order to ensure that their land would not be lost permanently from their tribe, they were advised to marry within their tribe. The land receives its mission and shape from the original ownership by the tribe it is assigned to, as if the land is only born through the infusion of the soul of the particular tribe to whom it belongs. Ba’al Turim notes that the words, זֶה הַדָּבָר/ze hadavar – ‘This is the thing’ from our Torah verse shares the gematria of בְּדוֹר זֶה/b’dor ze –‘in that generation.’ The advice to the daughters to marry within their own tribe only pertained to them and their generation; otherwise, a situation of apartheid would arise between the tribes. After the conquest of the Land of Israel, when the portions of the tribes were established, it was no longer a problem if the daughter would transfer her portion to the tribe of her husband. It was vital only for the first generation that conquered the land, that each portion be allotted according to the original Divine design.

Reframing Torah Laws to Concur with Our Current Reality Brings Redemption
The story of the daughters of Tzelafchad and the laws of inheriting the land conclude the traveling in the desert and the book of Bamidbar. It occurs on the last of the 42-stage journey from Egypt to the holy Land. Thus, its reenactment in the 6000-year scale of history will be one of the last stages before the messianic age. This indicates that the final geulah will be drawn down by righteous women, who are willing to employ self-sacrifice and take risks in order to attach ourselves to the Land of Israel and reveal new Torah laws. We can learn from the daughters of Tzelafchad how Torah laws that seemingly denigrate women, can in truth be understood from a deeper perspective, by researching and revealing the inner kernel of the Torah – its eternal principle. Matters in the Torah that bother us as women cannot be brushed away. The eternal dynamic of the Torah entails that over time, a friction develops between the current reality and the exterior layer of the Torah. In order to resolve this friction, rather than dismissing the Torah as being old-fashioned, we need to reveal the inner layer of the Torah as the daughters of Tzelafchad did. By understanding the inner dimension of the Torah, we have an opportunity to reframe the usually accepted application of the Torah in an appropriate way for our current reality. Yet, it is no less important to accept that the endless depth of the Torah is beyond our limited understanding. Since there is absolutely no way, we will ever be able to grasp it totally, we must humbly accept even those matters in the Torah that bother us, and which we have not yet been able to understand in a deeper way that is fully satisfactory to us. The daughters of Tzelafchad exemplified this kind of bitul (selfless humility) and faith in our sages when they displayed their trust in the authority of Moshe in front of the entire congregation. They recognized the fact that rabbis and elders are the gatekeepers of halacha, which applies within the external world of action. However, in the internal higher worlds, women are the leaders. This is why the geulah (redemption)–leading us towards the internal world–is brought about by the righteous women. In geulah times, the wellsprings are flowing outwards – יְפֻצּוּ מָעֲינוֹתֵךָ חוּצָה/yafutzu ma’ayanoteicha chutza – as the inner layer of the Torah must be revealed. We can speed up the redemption process, when matters in Torah, which bother us as women, prompt us towards revealing its inner layer. Thus, the daughters of Tzelafchad, who set the precedent for new revelations in the Torah תּוֹרַת נָשִׁים /Torat Nashim – ‘the Torah of women,’ paved the way for our final redemption.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

How Important is Keeping Your Word?

Parshat Matot


The Challenge to Implement Torah Law on the Matter of Keeping Our Word
“Once a word has been allowed to escape, it cannot be recalled” wrote the Roman poet, Horace, almost a millennium ago. These words, that assumed universal ethical status, reflect the teachings of our Torah sages. Thus, it has always been important for me to keep my word, although, admittedly, it is not always as simple as that. This week, I caught myself a couple of times in words that escaped my mouth which I afterwards realized weren’t so easy to implement.  Once, was when I took my students on a special hike, to one of the natural wellsprings in Bat Ayin. After a 40-minute strenuous hike, which gradually reduced our group from 10 to 8 and in the end to 6. We finally arrived at our destination: A beautiful natural pool, large enough to swim 3 strokes across! As we were splashing, swimming, singing and enjoying the cool water under the blue sky, with a contrasting backdrop of various shades of green herbage and trees, a man arrived at the site. He and his girlfriend were also looking forward to dunk in the wellspring, so I told them, “We will be out in 10 minutes with Hashem’s help!” Yet, when I tried to get us all out of the pool 10 minutes later, my students convinced me to let them stay in the pool a bit longer, saying: “The couple said that they are enjoying themselves at the picnic table. They are not in a rush.” Although I’m sure the couple was fine, I still felt a bit uneasy about not keeping my word. Another time this week, I had agreed to pay for a certain service. I was about to take out my VISA card from my purse, when the provider said that she didn’t need the payment until later. “In that case,” I asked her, “May I therefore wait to commit to the payment until after I have discussed the matter with my husband? Since I already agreed to pay you, I have obligated myself. Only if you are willing to absolve me from my word, am I permitted, according to Torah law, to reconsider my commitment.”  The lady conceded and all was fine, but if I hadn’t learned the law about keeping my word, I might have inadvertently transgressed it numerous times.

The Torah Laws Regarding Keeping Your Word
One of the basic principles of civil law is the distinction between ‘promises’ and ‘contracts.’ Whereas a contract must be honored and failure to do so can be penalized by law, an oral promise is not binding, and there is no legal sanction for breaking a promise. In contrast, honest dealing in thought, words and action is part of the Torah business law. Therefore, the Torah obligates us to keep our oral promises in business transactions. In this matter, the Shulchan Aruch repeats Rambam, Hilchot Mechira 7:8, word for word and rules as follows:
שו"ע חושן משפט - סימן רד הלכה ז
הנושא ונותן בדברים בלבד, הרי זה ראוי לו לעמוד בדבורו אף על פי שלא לקח מהדמים כלום, ולא רשם ולא הניח משכון. וכל החוזר בו, בין לוקח בין מוכר, אע"פ שאינו חייב לקבל מי שפרע ה"ז ממחוסרי אמנה ואין רוח חכמים נוחה הימנו:
“A person who conducts a business transaction in word alone – it is proper for him to keep his word, even though he did not take any money, and although nothing was written, and no collateral exchanged. A buyer or seller who retracts, although he does not receive a curse [which is applied to somebody who backs out after money was exchanged] is considered lacking in faith, and the spirit of the wise is not at ease with him” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 204:7).

The Meiri (Bava Metzia 49a) extends this principle to being faithful to obligations undertaken even in our thoughts. This, however, is only for the pious, who – after having decided in thought to complete a transaction or give a gift – stick to their decision even when the other side is unaware of it. They are strict to fulfill whatever they have decided in their hearts as it states, “…and speaks truth in his heart” (Tehillim 15:2). This is a very high level to attain, yet it is a lofty ideal of honesty and integrity for which we can strive. 

Speech: The Underlying Foundation of Life
The main theme in Parashat Matot is vows, elucidating how we are obligated by the words that we express.
ספר במדבר פרק ל  פסוק ג
אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַהָשֵׁם אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה:
“If a man takes a vow to Hashem or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes out of his mouth shall he do” (Bamidbar 30:3).

Since I verbalized that I am going on a juice-fast next week, and my husband didn’t object, I must fulfill my words and carry out that which I have taken upon myself. This is in accordance with the continuation of the section: “…and her husband hears it but remains silent on the day he hears it, her vow shall stand, and her prohibition which she has imposed upon herself shall stand” (Ibid. 8).  Why does the Torah attribute such power, to words? We cannot underestimate the power of speech – a defining human quality. The ability to articulate our thoughts into specific words distinguishes human beings from the animals. Onkelos, the authoritative Aramaic translator from the Talmudic era, defines humanity as a “speaking spirit” in his translation of the creation of man (Onkelos, Bereishit 2:7). Speech is not only a defining human quality. It is the manifestation of the Divine breath which resonates within us, ever since G-d breathed a living soul into the first human being. G-d Himself chose to use the power of speech to create everything in the universe, teaching us the vital role of speech as the underlying foundation of life.

The Need to Undo Past Promises
The obligation to keep our word applies to both men and women. Yet, the Torah uses the language אִישׁ/Ish – ‘man’ in order to teach us that according to halacha, one who takes a vow or swears an oath can consult an “ish” – a prominent person with Torah authority and annul it:

[The following rules apply when] a person took an oath (sh’vuat bitui) and [then] regretted having taken the oath: 1. If he sees that he will suffer if he upholds this oath 2. His intent changes 3. A factor occurred that was not in his intent originally when he took the oath and he changed his mind because of this. [In either of these cases he may appeal to be released from his oath] from one sage – or from three ordinary people in a place where there is no sage. They cancel his oath and he is permitted to perform the matter that he vowed not to do or refrain from carrying out the matter that he vowed to do. This is called ‘release from an oath’ (Rambam, Hilchot Shevuot 6:1).

Despite the sacred status of our words, there are instances warranting that we re-evaluate our prior promises. In certain situations, things we have taken upon ourselves in the past may no longer be beneficial, but rather morally incorrect by causing needless suffering. The classic example of misguided adherence to our words is the story of Yiftach’s daughter (Shoftim Chapter 11). Yiftach was a great military leader who, vowed that if G-d would grant him victory in his battle against the Ammonites, he would offer, “Whatever comes out of the door of my house…as a burnt offering” (Shoftim 11:30-31). Tragically, it was his daughter, his only child, who came out to meet him. He felt bound by his words, “For I have uttered a vow to Hashem that I cannot retract” (Ibid verse 31), and “He did to her as he vowed” (Ibid 35). Hashem punished both Yiftach for not going to a sage to release his vow, thereby condemning his daughter to live in celibacy all her life, and Pinchas, the sage of the generation, for not taking the initiative to release Yiftach’s vow. Pinchas lost his Ruach Hakodesh as it states, “Pinchas the son of Elazer was the ruler over them in the past, and Hashem was with him (I Divrei HaYamim 9:20), (Yalkut Shimoni, Shoftim 11:68). Yiftach was stricken with boils, and his limbs fell out and had to be buried in various places as it states, “He was buried in the cities of Gilead” (Shoftim 12:7); (Rashi, Shoftim 11:39). From this we learn, that as important as it is to keep our word, it is equally important to break it when it can cause suffering and moral depravity. In my practice as a spiritual healer, I have come across cases where women have taken upon themselves to never again speak with their sisters or mothers. After having undergone an emotional and spiritual maturing process, it becomes clear that such commitments have become horrendous. As we keep growing the need to reevaluate our past promises and commitments becomes vital.

Synchronizing Thought, Speech and Action
Rambam clarifies how the leeway to cancel an oath is intrinsically connected with our intention: “A factor occurred that was not in our intent when we took the oath,” or “our intent changed.” This teaches us the importance of mindful intention: unifying thought, speech and action. We are called upon to connect our inner thought, as expressed by words, with actions in daily life. The underlying message of the Torah law – to keep our word – teaches us that our outside must reflect our inside. Therefore, we must refrain from uttering empty words that are not completely anchored in our minds and behaviors. Feeling overwhelmed with so much on my plate, I find it particularly challenging to bring my focused, mindful intention into my prayers and blessings. My mind keeps wandering toward all the chores of my day and I know I’m not the only one with this problem. Disconnection between our thoughts, speech and actions affects our inner world and is, in a sense, being dishonest to ourselves. Thus, the highest way of truly keeping our word is to create consonance between mind, emotion and behavior. But how do we learn to unify our thoughts, words and actions which is so vital for true integrity? The answer may lay in reducing the extra things on our plate. I’ve been working on cutting down some of the excess, repeatedly reminding myself that “less is more.”  Let us work on truly focusing on the most important things in life, applying our mind, heart and effort into giving them our all!