Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How Does the Torah Require Us to Treat Converts?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ekeiv
Holy Conversion Candidates
I have been running a conversion program for more than 15 years as a subdivision of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin. What prompted me to start the conversion program? It was a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students – let’s call her Sylvia – who grew up in a typical secular Jewish home, where they kept Chanukah and ate matzah on Pesach. She enrolled in our program to explore her Jewish identity. She had barely arrived, when a comment made in one of the classes caused Sylvia’s entire Jewish world to collapse. “All my life, I grew up believing that I’m Jewish, but perhaps, according to strict Jewish law this is not the case,” sobbed Sylvia at my kitchen table. “I understand what you are going through is not easy. Tell me what’s going on!” I encouraged, as I handed her a tissue and put my comforting arm around her. “My Dad is Jewish and I thought my Mom was as well, since she converted to Judaism before I was born, but her conversion was not orthodox,” explained Sylvia. After her initial shock and identity crisis, I helped Sylvia undergo an orthodox conversion. This was the beginning of our conversion program. Sylvia now lives a committed chareidi (ultra-orthodox) lifestyle, married to a Rabbi in Jerusalem, and the happy mother of seven children! (Since then, our application form strictly detects the halachic Jewishness of students prior to arrival in our program). Over the years, Hashem has sent us the most amazing holy women seeking to convert in our program. These devoted conversion candidates have added seriousness and commitment to Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, and are a great inspiration for our Jewish students. They are generally more particular about keeping the mitzvot with all their minutiae, including the mitzvah of tzniut (modesty) in dress, speech and behavior. The community of Bat Ayin has been very welcoming to these holy converting souls, but I’m appalled to learn that this is not the case in many communities the world over.

The Edict Banning Converts
Over the years, I have heard from several conversion candidates that in their country, they were not welcome in the Jewish community. They were not invited for any Shabbat meals, and in some cases, they were even banned from the synagogue and from classes in Judaism. Some communities don’t accept even an orthodox convert as being truly Jewish. The Syrian Jewish community is the most extreme in this regard. In their edict of 1935, it states, “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jewish; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.” This edict was confirmed in 1946 by Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin who added: “The rabbi will not perform religious ceremonies for such unkosher couples… The congregation’s premises will be banned to them for any religious or social nature… After death of said person he or she is not to be buried on the cemetery of our community…” Community members who violate the edict are shunned – some have not even had any contact with their own parents for decades. The original edict was signed by five dignitaries. Since then, it has been reaffirmed in each generation by more and more rabbis. The version issued in 2006, was signed by 225 rabbis and lay leaders. To this day, 99% of Syrian Jews accept this edict. Jakie Kassin, the grandson of Rabbi Kassin, and the son of the prior chief rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn is quoted with the following statement: “Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert.” Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don’t want gentile characteristics.”

Excommunicating the Mashiach
This hostile attitude towards converts and their spouses stand in stark contrast to the teachings of the Torah:
ספר דברים פרק י (יז) כִּי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד: (יח) עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה: (יט) וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
“For Hashem your G-d is the G-d of gods and the Lord of lords: the great, mighty, awesome G-d, Who does not show favor and does not take bribes; Who executes judgment for the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger (convert), giving him food and garments. You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim 10:17-19).

Similar statements, emphasizing the mitzvah to love and treat the גֵּר/ger – stranger or convert kindly are emphasized numerous times in the Torah. We are called upon to emulate Hashem, Who loves and shows extra care towards all the weak of our congregation. No motive, even worthy ones such as to protect the community from assimilation can ever justify the pain and agony that the Syrian Jewish edict has caused to numerous converts and their families. What would prevent the Syrian Jewish community from excommunicating the Mashiach, himself, due to his ‘unclean’ gentile blood, stemming from David’s great grandmother Ruth – the righteous convert?

Who is a גֵּר/ger – Stranger?
According to the Torah, it is not clear who is a גֵּר/ger- whether it refers to a convert or to a non-Jewish resident. In the written Torah, the word גֵּר/ger refers to a stranger – a person who comes from a foreign land to live here. We learn this from the above quote: “For you were strangers (גֵרִים/gerim) in the land of Egypt.” Clearly, when the Israelites are referred to as גֵרִים/gerim, it certainly does not imply that they converted to the Egyptian religion. Thus, in our Torah verse, the term גֵּר/ger simply denotes someone living among a foreign people. These Torah verses present lofty principles, aspiring to sanctify and elevate the reality of the material world by implementing Divine values and act towards even non-Jewish Israeli residents with the utmost love and treat them as equals. According to this messianic ideal, we are required to show the highest level of care and concern for the weak of our society, even though they are not part of our people, providing they keep the basic Noachide laws, which are prerequisite for living in the land of Israel (Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 10:6). Yet, other Torah verses seem to indicate that the גֵּר/ger is a convert, who has accept all the mitzvot:

ספר שמות פרק יב (מח) וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַהָשֵׁם הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשׂתוֹ וְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ וְכָל עָרֵל לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ:(מט) תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכֲכֶם:
“If a גֵּר/ger lives with you he shall perform the paschal-offering to G-d. Let all of his males be circumcised, and then he shall come near to perform it, and he shall be like the native-born. One law shall there be for the native-born and for the גֵּר/ger who lives in your midst” (Shemot 12:48-49).

“You Shall Love the Conversion Candidate!”
In the written Torah it is not clear whether a גֵּר/ger refers to a non-Jewish resident living in Israel or to a full-fledged convert. According to the Oral Torah, the word גֵּר/ger refers solely to a ‘ger tzedek’ – someone who has accepted all of the Torah’s mitzvot and joined the Jewish people by a kosher conversion. The lofty ideals of the Torah are frequently presented in the form of general, abstract principles. On the other hand, the Oral Law is mainly concerned with the practical details as they apply to concrete reality. I would like to venture an additional way to explain the seemingly inconsistency regarding the definition of the term גֵּר/ger. Perhaps the Torah’s ambiguous terminology comes to teach us that the גֵּר/ger that we must love and treat kindly includes not only the actual convert but also the conversion candidate, who is still in the conversion process. He or she sacrifices so much to become part of our people and suffers greatly during the conversion process by not having any community where they truly belong. The Midrash teaches us the greatness of the conversion candidate, who is considered equal to a righteous Jew:

ילקוט שמעוני רות - פרק א - רמז תרא
אמר ר' אבהו בוא וראה כמה חביבין גרים לפני הקב"ה כיון שנתנה דעתה להתגייר השוה הכתוב אותה לנעמי שנאמר ותלכנה שתיהן עד בואנה בית לחם:

Rabbi Abahu said, Come and see how precious proselytes are to the holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it states, “They both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Megillat Ruth 1:19); (Yalkut Shimoni Ruth 1:601).

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Do We Need to Make a Favorable Impression on the Gentiles?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat V’Etchanan
Supreme Settlements
I had the privilege to grow up in a very organized and clean country. In Denmark, all the trains arrive and depart exactly on time! The people rarely throw candy wrappers in the street, and no one pushes anyone or takes his place in the supermarket lines. If you drop your wallet, someone will make great efforts to return it to you even if they have to run up myriads of winding steps after you. The Jewish people still have what to learn from this kind of Derech Eretz (good manners). Our longwinded exile, with its countless prosecutions, pogroms and terrorism has kept us traumatized and submerged in suffering. All these predicaments have deterred us from becoming the perfected community we have the potential to be. During exile, the focus has been on achieving individual perfection, but now that we have finally returned to our own holy land, it is time to create spiritual communities that shine their light to the entire planet. I believe that the settlements of Gush Katif served as exemplary communities, where harmonious families lived together in unity on their clean, green, treasured land. We are now mourning eleven years since the traumatic expulsion from Gush Katif, known in the in the Jewish world for its bug-free greens and in the entire world for making the desert bloom with cherry tomatoes and geraniums. A great percentage of Israel’s produce export derived from Gush Katif. For example, 65% of organic produce; 90% of bug-free leafy vegetables; 95% of cherry tomatoes; and 60% of herb exports. We will never fathom how our nation could be so misled as to demolish its supreme settlements, especially since this cruel expulsion only caused more terrorism and brought us further away from attaining true peace. We will never know why Hashem allowed the communities of Gush Katif – which accomplished so much in only 38 years – to be utterly overturned. Perhaps, it was in order that the accomplishments of these communities could be diffused into all of Israel, as the people of Gush Katif brought their radiant relic to the rest of Israel wherever they relocated. We surely have much to learn from them.

Why Do We Care What the ‘Goyim’ Say?
As Moshe prepares the Children of Israel for their forthcoming settlement in the Holy Land, he teaches them Hashem’s rules and regulations for building perfected communities in the Land of Israel:
ספר דברים פרק ד
(ה) רְאֵה לִמַּדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוַּנִי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהָי לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּאִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: (ו) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה:(ז) כִּי מִי גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּהָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו: (ח) וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם:

“See, I have imparted to you statutes and laws, as Hashem my G-d has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who on hearing all these chukim (statutes) will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’ For what great nation has a G-d so close at hand as is Hashem our G-d whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Torah that I set before you this day?” (Devarim 4:5-8).

Moshe emphasizes that we need to observe Hashem’s laws “for that is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” Why is it so important to make a favorable impression upon the non-Jewish nations? Many vehement Zionists raise justified objections regarding excessive concern with what the goyim (Gentiles or non-Jews) will say. True, in the political arena, we have witnessed that it is impossible to please the nations – “We give them a finger and they demand the hand.” So why does our Torah emphasize the importance of being a light unto the nations? We can find a clue to this question in the words of the prophet that reflect Moshe’s message: “…I will also make you a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Yesha’yahu 49:6). The role of the Jewish people is to be the ambassador and light-bearer for Hashem, facilitating the Divine redemption reaching to the four corners of the earth and encompassing every single creature. Therefore, it is vital for those who keep Hashem’s Torah meticulously to radiate wisdom and morality to the rest of the world.

The Importance of Secular Scholarship & Agriculture in Israel
Commentators ask why the Torah expects the nations to be impressed by the statutes of the Torah that do not make sense to limited human understanding? When we experience a person’s wisdom and righteousness, we learn to trust this person to the extent that we will comply with his wishes, even if he asks us to do something irrational. Likewise, when the nations see that Israel keeps the mishpatim (laws that do make logical sense), which are organized in beautiful order, they will accept that even the chukim, whose rationale is unknown, have deeper hidden reasons. Ultimately, by experiencing positive interactions with Jews and Israel, nations will become ready to trust the instructions of the final Mashiach. For this reason, the Vilna Gaon emphasized the obligation to learn the seven scientific wisdoms, which sanctify Hashem’s name and bring the redemption closer. He also noted that this knowledge is vital for perceiving the depths of the wisdom of the Torah. It was in order to fulfill the Torah directive, “To make you high above all nations… in praise, and in fame, and in glory…” (Devarim 26:19), that the Vilna Gaon studied secular subjects and authored books on Hebrew grammar and geometry (Kol HaTor, Chapter 5b, Sha’ar Be’er Sheva). Whenever the Torah mentions the word תְהִלָּה/tehilah – praise in connection with Israel or the land of Israel it is referring to the wisdom of Israel in the eyes of the nations (Ibid.). The Vilna Gaon also emphasized cultivating the land of Israel and making it fruitful as a way of becoming a light to the nations. As it states, “For as the earth brings forth her growth, and as the garden makes her seeds spring forth; so will Hashem, G-d, cause to sprout forth righteousness and תְהִלָּה/tehilah – praise before all the nations.” The nations will recognize the wisdom of Israel when we dwell on our land and work it so that it produces great blessings” (Kol HaTor, ibid.). This prophesy was actually fulfilled when the neighboring Arabs applauded Gush Katif’s first cherry tomatoes sprouting forth in the dessert.

Torah Ethics and Litter-Free Environment
What can we do to become “a light to the nations” in the case that we are unable to engage in productive agriculture or secular scholarship? The Torah teaches us moral integrity. The development of kindness, generosity, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude are main tenants of the Torah. Immersing ourselves vigilantly in the keeping of the minutiae of the laws regarding kosher foods, Shabbat observance etc. must go hand in hand with strictness in keeping the ethics of the Torah in interpersonal relationships. There is no such thing as, “religious Jews cheat in business!” If someone is dishonest in business then he is transgressing the precepts of the Torah, and certainly doesn’t deserve the title: ‘religious Jew.’ Our power of speech is what defines us as humans. The woman of valor only “opens her mouth in wisdom and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Mishlei 31:26). So let us think carefully before we let those slippery words of complaint, judgement, anger or resentment slither out of our lips. We also show consideration for others by keeping our noise level down. There is nothing more annoying than when people yell, scream or honk unnecessarily in the street. The Torah teaches that our voices should not be heard outside of our homes (Tehillim 144:14). So if you have a fight with your husband, at least make sure to close your windows! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of personal cleanliness and keeping our environment litter free. It is essential to educate our children and grandchildren from an early age never to throw garbage on the ground, and especially not on the holy earth of Israel. If the Danes can show self-restraint and hold on to their ice-cream wrapper until they pass a garbage can, certainly no less is expected of every Torah Jew!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Blessings of Rebuke

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Devarim
Rectified Rebuke
Most people don’t like to be criticized. Perhaps I should even say, “No one likes to be criticized!” In my experience, the way and the tone of voice in which the criticism is given makes all the difference. It can be very painful, when someone who supposedly loves you criticizes you in a very unloving way – for example, your husband, your sister, or your best friend. Rather than being inspired to want to change, this kind of criticism makes you feel put down and hurt. I once heard, in the name of the last Rebbe of Lubavitz, that in preparation for giving an injection, the doctor or nurse must ensure a thorough cleaning and disinfection of the skin. This implies that when we need to give rebuke, we must first clean ourselves thoroughly of negative motivations, such as anger, irritation and defending our own ego. Only then, can we really focus on our love towards the person who will benefit from our reproach. If you scolded your friend or family member, without first going through this self-cleaning process, do not be surprised if your words will not be well received. Moreover, certainly do not add insult to injury by accusing the object of your rebuke of not accepting criticism. Actually, we cannot really expect anyone to accept criticism, unless it is constructive criticism. To be critical, is to be condescending. Yet, it is possible to give rectified rebuke in a loving way. Besides constructive, caring motives, the parameters for rectified rebuke, include to whom, how and when.

The ‘Whom’ of Rectified Rebuke
The last person in the world to rebuke is your mother-in-law. She is included in the mitzvah of honoring and fearing your parents, whom we are not even permitted to contradict (Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah, 240:2). If we see our parents or in-laws act against the Torah, we may not rebuke them. We may only ask respectfully in a question, “Doesn’t it say such and such in the Torah” (Ibid. 11). The same goes for our rabbis, mentors and teachers. “Any student who takes honoring his rabbi lightly, causes the Shechina to depart from Israel” (Ibid 242:20). If we notice our rabbi or mentor acting against the Torah, we may only ask, “Didn’t our rabbi teach us such and such” (Ibid 22). The people we have the greatest responsibility to rebuke are our children and students. Although they have a mitzvah to respect us, we must also show them respect even as we reproach them.

The ‘How’ of Rectified Rebuke
In addition to pure motives of wanting to help the person you love, it is also important to wrap the bitter pill in a sweet coating. If you don’t feel love for the person you want to rebuke, it is best to just let it go, as only words that come from the heart will enter the heart.Prior to rebuking, take a few moments to meditate and get in touch with the feelings of love that you have deep down in your heart for every Jew. When rebuked, we become very sensitive and will notice whether the words come from love or not. We express our love not only in the words of kindness and praise that we include before and after our words of reproach but also in the tone of our voice and our body language. The Talmud asks, “How do we know that if we see something unseemly in another, we are obliged to reprove him? Because it states, ‘You shall surely rebuke’ (Vayikra 19:17). If we rebuked him but he did not accept it, how do we know that we must rebuke him again? The text states, ‘hoche’ach tochi’ach – rebuke, you shall rebuke’ even though,” (Babylonian Talmud Arachin 16b), “Even a hundred times” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 31a). “We are not permitted, however to do so harshly and to put him to shame, as the Torah verse concludes, ‘Do not suffer sin because of him’” (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b; Sifra on this verse; Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 7). “If you rebuke your brother and he does not listen, then it is you who is to blame. Words from the heart enter the heart” (Words From the Heart (Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson).

The ‘When’ of Rectified Rebuke
Proper timing is also vital for rectified rebuke. The worst time for reprimanding is when is either hungry, angry, depressed, exhausted or just simply tired. Whenever possible, wait until a bit of time has elapsed, so that your own irritation has abated and your friend is in a receptive mood. We do not perform operations unless the patient is in good enough health to endure the procedure. Since the mussar masters teach that it’s harder to fix one midah (character trait) than to learn the entire Talmud and all the laws of the Shulchan Aruch, make sure that the object of your rebuke is in an emotionally healthy state and open to hearing your suggestions for change. The Torah has guidelines for the ultimate timing for rebuke. On his deathbed, Ya’acov imparted blessings to his children, which included important messages of rebuke. Right before people depart, whether for the next world – or even just for a temporary leave of absence – others are more receptive to learn from them. The same is true for the first time you see someone after having just returned from a trip. When you have been missed, your words will be absorbed to a greater extent.

Moshe’s Allusive Admonitions
The Book of Devarim is Moshe’s 36-day monologue before his passing. At this time, the Israelites were particularly inclined to listen to the words of their master. Moshe, our teacher, made the most out of this favorable time to impart words of gentle rebuke to the Children of Israel. Moshe’s words of rebuke are a model for us on the ‘when, ‘whom’ and ‘how’ of rectified rebuke.
ספר דברים פרק א (א) אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר משֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב: (ב) אַחַד עָשָׂר יוֹם מֵחֹרֵב דֶּרֶךְ הַר שֵׂעִיר עַד קָדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ:
“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the plane facing the Reed Sea between Paran and Tofel, Lavan, Chatzerot and Di-zahav” (Devarim 1:1).

At first glance, this opening verse of Moshe’s monologue and the Book of Devarim seems to be no more than an opening statement, without any apparent words of rebuke. Yet, when you scratch beneath the surface, as Rashi does, each place mentioned alludes to one of the many sins of the Israelites. “Because these are words of reproof, Moshe enumerated here all the places where the Israelites provoked G-d to anger. Yet, he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only as a mere allusion contained in the names of these places out of regard for Israel (Rashi, Devarim 1:1). Moshe teaches us a very important principle for effective admonition. When giving rebuke, try by all means, to save the face of the person you are rebuking, by saying the minimum necessary, so that your friend will figure out the rest. People are more inclined to connect with messages that they themselves figure out, rather than when every detail of their faults are spelled out to the dot. When Natan the Prophet came to rebuke King David for taking Bat Sheva, he spoke in a parable and asked David regarding the law pertaining to a rich man who had many sheep and cattle but stole the only sheep of a poor man, who loved it dearly (II Shemuel 12:1-4). We can learn from Moshe and Natan to give our words of reproof in a subtle way which allows our friend to figure out for himself what we are hinting at. It was Moshe’s pure motive of love for his people that prompted his refined and tender words of reproof. He – as their Rabbi and mentor – had the responsibility to set the people straight at this auspicious time before his demise. The Israelites understood then, as we do now, that Moshe’s message reflected his genuine concern for Israel. Since Moshe’s words sprung from his heart, they entered the hearts of his people.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Appreciating Our Promised Land

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Masei
Ingathering the Exiles in the Merit of Working the Land
It never ceases to amaze me that we have the privilege to live on the Holy Land, and enjoy her fruits. The other day the students of B’erot harvested a huge crop of figs, from the blessed tree that we planted about 15 years ago, which has now assumed incredible dimensions. In our current Torah & Gardening Summer Session, I teach about how we can show appreciation for Hashem’s great gift of the land by working it. We develop a relationship with the land when we enrich and loosen the soil, plant seeds, add compost and weed out undesirables. Then, we mustn’t forget to enjoy just sitting in our garden on Shabbat and delighting in its gifts. The Vilna Gaon teaches how the ingathering of the exiles occurs through the merit of working the land and keeping the mitzvot dependent on the land (Kol HaTor 3:7). The mitzvot that we fulfill when we work the land such as keeping Shemita (the sabbatical year for the land), taking tithes, separating different crops to avoid kelayim (hybrids), not benefitting from the fruits of a tree during its first three years etc. speed up the redemption process and bring about the ingathering of the exiles. In Parashat Masai, which concludes the Book of Bamidbar, the Israelites have reached the end of their 40-year journey in the wilderness, ready to enter the Land of Israel. This final leg of their journey, the last of 48 stops enumerated in our parasha, parallels our own transitional era. We are now at the verge of redemption, when we must complete conquering the land of Israel and rebuild our Temple. The mitzvot given to the Israelites when they were about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Land of Israel, therefore pertain particularly to our time.

Eternal Entirety of the Land of Israel
The main mitzvah given to the Children of Israel in Parashat Masai, is far from being politically correct at our current time. Hashem commands Moshe to tell the Israelites that not only must they conquer the land of Israel, they, moreover, are to dispossess the prior inhabitants of their land, and drive them out:
ספר במדבר פרק לג (נא) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן: (נב) וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת כָּל ישְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֵת כָּל מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָם וְאֵת כָּל צַלְמֵי מַסֵּכֹתָם תְּאַבֵּדוּ וְאֵת כָּל בָּמוֹתָם תַּשְׁמִידוּ:(נג) וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי לָכֶם נָתַתִּי אֶת הָאָרֶץ לָרֶשֶׁת אֹתָהּ:
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan [River] into the land of Canaan, then you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land from before you. You shall destroy all their figured objects, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their cult places. You shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and settle in it; for I have assigned the land for you to possess” (Bamidbar 33:51-53).

Hilltop youth and other ‘zealots’ try to take this command into their own hands, whereas the Israeli government goes to the other extreme of negotiating with the ‘Palestinians’ to allow them to possess land within the proper boundaries of the Promised Land – Divinely granted to the Children of Israel. It is incredible how the political melody has changed since the beginning of the State of Israel. Then, the most leftist party was more hawkish than the rightwingers of today. The early secular Zionists understood the indisputable eternal Jewish right to the Land of Israel. While chairman of the Jewish Agency, David Ben Gurion said the following in a speech at the Twentieth Zionist Congress in Basel: “No individual Jew is able to give up his rights to the existence of the Jewish nation and to Eretz Yisrael. No Jewish entity has the authority to do this. Even all the Jews living today do not have the authority to surrender any specific portion of the land. This is a right that has been preserved for the Jewish nation, throughout its generations... The Jewish nation is not obligated or bound by any such surrender. Our right to this land, in its entirety, is valid for eternity, and until the complete redemption we will not abandon this historic right.” I do not follow politics much, but its clear to me that our security depends on our firm belief in the eternal Jewish right to the entirety of the Land of Israel, without compromise.

Peaceful Means of Taking Possesion
Regarding the mitzvah to drive out the nations from the Land of Israel, Rashi explains, YOU SHALL DRIVE OUT THE LAND –This means that you shall dispossess it of its inhabitants, and then YOU MAY SETTLE IN IT, i.e. you will be able to remain in it. However, if not, you will not be able to remain in it (Rashi, Bamidbar 33:53). Rashi’s point is evident from every terrorist attack that Israel has suffered. Yet, many contemporary Rabbis rule that this mitzvah does not apply in our time, because the other nations now living in our land are not idol-worshippers. Moreover, righteous nations who are neither Cananites nor Amalek may live peacefully side by side with us in the Land of Israel as long as they keep the Seven Mitzvot of B’nei Noach, and recognize Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. All contemporary halachic authorities agree that there is a need to distinguish between non-Jews who are faithful to the State of Israel and abide by the law, and the enemies of the State of Israel who seek its demise and encourage terror against its citizens. However, I believe that even with the enemies whose residence in the Land of Israel threaten our very existence, we must deal in the most peaceful way possible. As Rav Kook writes, “We pay the full price for every piece of property in our own land, even though our rights to the holy land never ceased... As much as possible, our taking possession is only through peaceful means and purchase... so that the nations of the world will have no claims against us” (Ma’amarei Ha’Re’aya 252).

The Boundaries of Israel and the Purpose of Creation
The Torah recognizes the importance of delineating the borders of the land, in order to know the exact parameters of the mitzvah to conquer the land. Chapter 34 of Bamidbar therefore gives the detailed borders of the land. The same word (totzotav), “its limit,” describes the border in each of the four directions:

ספר במדבר פרק לד (ה) וְנָסַב הַגְּבוּל מֵעַצְמוֹן נַחְלָה מִצְרָיִם וְהָיוּ תוֹצְאֹתָיו הַיָּמָּה:
“The border shall turn from Atzmon towards the Brook of Egypt, and its תוֹצְאֹתָיו/totzotav –its limits shall be at the Sea” (Bamidbar 34:5).

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh explains that the numeric value 913 of the word תוֹצְאֹתָיו/totzotav is identical with the first word in the Torah: בְּרֵאשִׁית/bereishit – in the beginning. The boundaries of the Land of Israel are intrinsically linked to the very purpose of creation – establishing a place for Hashem to dwell within the physical world.

Rashi asks why does the Torah begin with the account of creation rather than with the first mitzvah? He explains that in the future the nations will accuse the Jewish people of stealing the Land of Israel. Therefore, the Torah begins by establishing that Hashem is the One Who created the entire world. He decided to grant the Land of Israel to the Jewish people (Rashi, Bereishit 1:1). This commentary is quite prophetic today – since the founding of the modern state of Israel – much of the world indeed accuses us of having robbed the Holy Land.

Israel’s Expanding Borders
The boundaries of the land are described several times in the Tanach, with slight differences between each description. Just as the journeys and the encampments in the desert were part of an ongoing process of change and growth, so too, are the borders of Israel. Rabbi Trugman writes beautifully about how our right to live in the Holy Land is a privilege directly dependent on our actions and the moral and ethical fiber of the Jewish society created in the Land. The same holds true for the physical borders of the Land: the greater the Jewish people’s merit and degree of holiness, the more the holiness of the Land will increase and its borders will expand accordingly. Ultimately, in the Messianic era, the holiness of Israel will radiate throughout the world. Then the borders of the Holy Land will expand to encompass the entire world.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Vows of Vegetarianism and Peace

Life Lessons from Rebbetzin’s Heart 
Parashat Matot
Discovering Your Own Healthy Diet 
My husband and I were both vegetarians for several years before we embraced the Torah way of life. Most of our friends from the Yeshiva had been vegetarians as well. We were part of “The Return to Nature” movement so prominent in the seventies. How could we take a sacred life merely to indulge in our own gluttonous pleasure? Later, we realized that vegetarianism had saved so many of us from numerous un-kosher foods, making us more sensitive to spirituality and open to accepting the Torah. Today, I have several orthodox Jewish friends who are not only strictly vegan, but moreover, hardcore ‘raw foodies.’ However, when my husband and I began learning in the Yeshiva, we were taught that when we eat with the intention to use the energy to further our uniquely human service of G‑d, we could lift up even meat. When we eat in order to have energy to learn Torah and perform mitzvot, the animals we eat are elevated along with us, and become reunited with their G‑dly source. Conversely, if we eat solely for our own selfish desires, we swallow the meaningful life of even a vegetable with no excuse. “It’s not fair!” cries the helpless plant. My sister, who had been vegetarian since she was twelve because she didn’t want to take the life of an animal, and because she disliked the taste of meat, has in her later years begun to relish bone broth. Still, an avid health foodie, she now understands the importance of protein and minerals from bone broth which supports the body’s detoxification process. Today, the health food world claims that bone broth is one of the most powerful superfoods on the planet. Slow cooking draws out collagen, marrow and other healing elements from the bones, including amino acids, minerals, glycine, and gelatin – which help heal the gut and reduce inflammation. Having recently emerged from my juice fast, I’m still vegetarian. I feel great implementing my yearly vegan detox for about six weeks every summer. I believe there is no right diet for everyone. It really depends on the individual constitution. Each of us must get to know our own body and discover the way different foods affect us. 

Human History from Herbivore to Carnivore
Originally, both Adam and Chava, and their descendants for 1600 years, were vegetarian ‘fruities.’ Their diet consisted of seed, herb, tree, and fruit as it states, “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it will be yours for food” (Bereishit 1:29). According to Rabbi Yosef Albo, the original Divine plan was for humanity to refrain from killing and eating meat because killing animals is cruel and ingrains negative traits in the human character. The only reason Hashem permitted meat to Noach and his descendants was that people had degenerated into bestial, violent and corrupt behavior, equating humans and animals. This prompted G‑d to cleanse the world with the great flood. After the flood, G‑d implemented a new world order in which people would recognize humanity’s Divine purpose and moral superiority over the animals. In order to emphasize the differences between animal and human being, Hashem permitted eating flesh of animals: “Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything” (Bereishit 9:3). Our dominion over animals reminds us that we are charged with divine responsibility to perfect the world (Sefer HaIkkarim, Book III, chapter 15).

The Gravity of Keeping Your Word

If a person no longer desires to be a vegetarian, is he permitted according to Jewish law to switch to eating meat without any spiritual ritual transition? Most of us, Jewishly-under-educated Jews would have no idea that a decision to become a vegetarian, among other major decisions, may constitute a vow, and that we may need to have our ‘vow’ annulled. Parashat Matot teaches the laws of vows:
ספר במדבר פרק ל (ג) אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַהָשֵׁם אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה:
“When a man makes a vow to Hashem or takes an oath imposing an obligation or prohibition on himself, he shall not break his word; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (Bamidbar 30:3).

רש"י על במדבר פרק ל פסוק ג
נדר - האומר הרי עלי קונם שלא אוכל או שלא אעשה דבר פלוני יכול אפי' נשבע שיאכל נבלות אני קורא עליו ככל היוצא מפיו יעשה ת"ל לאסור איסר לאסור את המותר ולא להתיר את האסור: לא יחל דברו - כמו לא יחלל דברו לא יעשה דבריו חולין:

This is when one says, “Behold I take upon myself an obligation which is sacred to me as an offering, that I will not eat or that I will not do such and such a thing… i.e., to forbid for himself something which is permissible to him… (Rashi, Bamidbar 30:3).

This implies, that, when we take a certain obligation or restriction upon ourselves and verbalize it, with a statement such as, “I’m vegetarian!” then we have taken a vow upon ourselves and would need to get our vow annulled, in case we no longer desire to be limited by it. The Shulchan Aruch takes the issue of vows quite seriously and writes an introduction at the beginning of the Laws of Vows describing the severity of not fulfilling a נֶדֶר/neder – vow (Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 202). Normally, a vow is binding when a person takes upon himself verbally to fulfill a mitzvah, such as deciding how much and when he is going to learn, to visit the ill, to perform a certain act of respecting his parents, or to avoid eating something specific. In such cases, in order to avoid the problem of having made a vow, it is good to say “bli neder – without a vow.” A vow is binding sometimes even without words, such as if someone completely made up his mind to give tzedaka (charity). Here is what I found in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch on this topic:

A person accepted a stringency upon himself in matters permitted in order to serve as a barrier and a fence for self-control, e.g., fasting during the days of Selichot, or not eating meat and not drinking wine from the seventeenth of Tamuz and onwards. Even if he only acted this way one time, but intended to continue, or he behaved this way three times, although he did not intend to behave this way always, if he did not make the condition that it was without a vow (bli neder), and he wants to go back… he needs to be absolved. How is a vow or oath absolved? He goes to three Torah scholars, one of whom must be experienced in the laws of vows and knows which vows may be nullified and which vows may not be nullified and how they are absolved, and the scholars absolve the oath or vow for him (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:7-8).

A Vow Only Pertains to the Permissible Realm
If we made a promise and were unable to fulfill it, even something as trivial as a promise to play ball with our kids, it is proper to apologize and receive forgiveness. If we made a decision, even in our own mind, to give someone something, we should do so immediately and not allow regret to stop us from fulfilling our decision, which may be considered a vow. A vow only pertains to the permitted realm. We cannot make a vow to act contrary to Torah law, such as, for example, deciding not to make Kiddush on Shabbat.

Does the Torah Permit Eating Meat?
Eating meat may actually be against the Torah in some cases, as the Torah does not permit eating meat without certain restrictions. During the forty-year wandering in the desert, the Israelites were only permitted to eat meat as part of the sacrificial service. The Talmud states that only a person who is well versed in Torah is permitted to consume meat:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף מט/ב
תניא רבי אומר עם הארץ אסור לאכול בשר (בהמה) שנאמר זאת תורת הבהמה והעוף כל העוסק בתורה מותר לאכול בשר בהמה ועוף וכל שאינו עוסק בתורה אסור לאכול בשר בהמה ועוף:

The unlearned may not eat meat as it states, “This is the Torah concerning animals and birds” (Vayikra 11:46). Whoever is involved in Torah is permitted to eat meat and chicken but whoever is not involved in Torah is prohibited from eating meat and chicken (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 49b).

Vegetarianism – The Ideal of the Messianic Era
Hashem only permitted meat to Noach because he studied Torah. Everything in creation needs to be elevated. Therefore, each kind is nourished by a lower creation: the vegetative by the inanimate, the animate by the vegetative, and the human may be nourished by the animate as long as we actualize our human potential by learning Torah. Without being involved in Torah, we are not on a higher level than the animals and therefore unable to elevate them (Kli Yakar, Bereishit 9:2). Rav Kook saw the craving for meat as a manifestation of spiritual decline. He believed that in the days of the Mashiach, all humanity will return to a vegetarian diet (A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 6:32). In the Messianic Epoch, higher knowledge (da’at) will spread even to animals (Olat Rayah, Vol. 1, p. 292). This echoes the prophecy of Redemption: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain” (Yesha’yahu 11:6-9). Although Rav Kook believed that the vegetarian virtue of the generations before Noach represented a high moral level, he himself ate chicken on Shabbat as a symbolic reminder that the Mashiach had not yet arrived. However, in the Messianic Age, humans and animals will once again become vegetarians as at the beginning of creation (A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 6:32). Just as the predatory instinct will be removed from the animal kingdom, and creatures will no longer kill one another to live, so will people cease exploiting one another. Even the sacrificial offerings in the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem will consist of vegetation alone (Olat Rayah, I, p. 292); (Based on, The Vegetarian Teachings of Rav Kook, Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. with the editorial assistance of Rabbi David Sears).

Monday, July 18, 2016

Does Pinchas Serve as a Model for ‘Price-tag’ Activism?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Pinchas
Unanimous Outrage against Jewish Terrorism
The Gay Pride parade in the city of Be’er Sheva was cancelled last Wednesday in protest of Israel’s High Court of Justice banning the parade from passing through a central street. The reason for the ban was to avoid violence, such as what happened at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade last summer, when Yishai Schlissel murdered a 16-year-old girl, Shira Banki. Prior to the parade, Yishai had distributed a letter that read, “It is the obligation of every Jew to keep his soul from punishment and stop this giant desecration of G-d’s name next Thursday [at the gay parade].”

When my husband told me this news, my first reaction was, “People will say that the murder had a positive effect.” “That’s exactly what Hertzog and the ‘leftwingers’ are saying,” responded my husband. While, I am far from upset about the cancellation of the Gay Pride parade, I firmly oppose anyone taking the law into their own hands, justifying murder or even stone throws in the name of the Torah. The only exception is if, G-d forbid, our own lives are directly threatened, as it states, “Whoever comes to kill you, you must arise to kill him” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 58a). It is only for this reason that my husband, unfortunately, needs to carry a gun. For years, Bat Ayin has struggled to clear its reputation of being particularly extremist and ‘a bunch of Jewish terrorists.’ Contrary to public opinion, most of Bat Ayin’s residents, like myself, strongly oppose murders such as that of Shira Banki, the Arab teenager in 2014, and Yitzchak Shamir in 1995. I totally share the sentiment of Rabbi Joel Zeff, a new addition to B’erot’s faculty: “I can think of no greater desecration of the name of G-d, no more egregious perversion of the Torah, than that committed by these young men [who murdered the Arab teen from Shuafat]. Their unforgivable crime is compounded by the inestimable damage it has done to Israel’s already uphill battle to gain understanding for its struggle against terrorism. My only (small) consolation is the unanimous outrage against this barbaric act expressed by the entire spectrum of Israeli society” (Rabbi Joel Zeff, Parshat Pinchas: Zealot or Cruel Murderer?).

Erroneous Comparison between Arab Terrorism and ‘Price-tag’ Activists
The few acts of Jewish terrorism over the years have caused the world at large to erroneously equate the injustices done against Jews to that against Arabs in Israel. I remember discussing this issue with one of my leftist minded family members who claimed that, “Jews and Arabs are equally guilty, since violence committed by Jewish Israeli settlers and their supporters against Palestinians and Israeli security forces is just as bad as Arab terrorist acts.” Wikipedia even defines a term called ‘Israeli settler violence.’ Just as the Middle East conflict in general is blown out of proportion in the news with the demonization of Israel, so are the ‘Price-tag’ acts greatly exaggerated. In reality, only a minority of the so-called ‘Palestinians’ have the courage to stand up against Arab terrorism, while Jewish terrorist supporters comprise an extremely small minority of Israelis. “Demographically and organizationally, price taggers stand on ‘the fringe of the fringe’ of the settler world. Estimates suggest they number in the mere hundreds. The coordination (if any) of attacks is informal and spontaneous” (‘The Simple Jew’: The ‘Price Tag’ Phenomenon, Vigilantism, and Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s Political Kabbalah, Tessa Satherley). Conversely, the majority of the Arab world, and particularly the ‘Palestinians, support terrorism and the murder of Jews. Their leaders call to publically celebrate the murderers and name streets after them.

Hashem Sanctions Pinchas as a True Zealot
The example of Pinchas, in this week’s parasha has been used as a role model for zealotry. The Torah recounts that Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, was publicly engaged in immoral behavior with a Midianite woman called Kasbi. Hashem sends a severe plague as a punishment. While, Moshe remains passive Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple and stops the plague. Subsequently, G-d grants his covenant of peace to Pinchas as a reward for his zealotry:
ספר במדבר פרק כה
(י) וַיְדַבֵּר הָשֵׁם אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:(יא) פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי:(יב) לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם: (יג) וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

“Hashem spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not wipe out the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I grant him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him, and his descendants after him, a covenant of an everlasting Kehuna; because he was jealous for his G-d, and made atonement for the children of Israel” (Bamidbar 25:10-13).

Who Can Walk the Tightrope between Zealotry and Murder?
The question remains whether latter-day price-tag zealots are justified in modeling themselves on the case of Pinchas. The rabbis of the Talmud recognized that they could not abide a society in which individuals justify violence in the name of Torah. Therefore, they greatly limited the cases where individuals may act out of zealotry. As far as I know, there are only two cases where the principle of קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִים בּוֹ/kanaim pogim bo – “zealots may slay him” applies: 1. When a person curses G-d’s name with the name of a false god (Rambam, Laws of Idol-Worship 2). 2. Whenever a man has relations with a gentile woman in public, i.e., the relations are carried out in the presence of ten or more Jews (Rambam, Forbidden Relationships 12:4). There are many limitations within these limited cases: For example, any zealot, who strikes the transgressor the moment he withdraws after having sinned, is considered a murderer. This is why Pinchas was careful to kill the offenders in the midst of relations. Malbim notes, that it was a miracle that everyone saw that they were killed while engaging in the forbidden act, as otherwise, Pinchas would have been accused of murder. The difference between a true zealot for the sake of Hashem and a murderer is such a minute hairsbreadth that without the many miracles done for Pinchas, he may have easily been considered a murderer by the Rabbis. This is why the Torah has to testify regarding Pinchas’ pure intentions for the sake of Hashem’s honor. Not an iota of self-righteous indignation or personal revenge tainted Pinchas motivation. Which modern day ‘zealot’ can claim to be a true zealot like Pinchas? Who can fulfill all the qualifications that renders him a true zealot, sanctioned by Hashem himself for the ability to walk on the tightrope between murder and zealotry?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Do Our Eyes Have Power to Effect Reality?

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart

Parashat Balak
Developing Optimistic Eyes 
Everything in life depends on how you look at reality. I just harvested some strawberries from the garden and prepared them to serve my husband for breakfast. After their required 3 min. soak in veggie wash, they had lost some of their red and sparkling nature. “Sorry, they look so squishy,” I apologized. “They look great!” countered my husband. Life becomes much more colorful and enchanting when we develop optimistic eyes. Drinking half-full cups of lemonade is the secret to happiness. “Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left” (Hubert Humphrey). The new science of epigenetics asserts that our genes are influenced by our attitude. No wonder that people with positive outlooks live longer. The eye is a two-way communicator. It is not only passive receptive, but also active and impacting. Quantum physics proves that things act differently when observed. Just looking at light influences its behavior. It is not only looking, but the way we look at others that has the greatest impact. When we look with compassionate eyes, they become a source of spiritual nourishment. Thus, a mother’s loving gaze nurtures her baby no less than the physical nourishment of her milk. The Meshech Chacmah explains that Hashem allowed Avraham Avinu to see the entire land of Israel because seeing something ownerless causes the person to possess it. Since no one ever possessed the spiritual body of the Holy Land, it could be acquired through seeing alone. When Avraham gazed at the land of Israel, he conquered it spiritually as an everlasting inheritance for his children. Therefore, is states, “The entire land that you see- I will give it to your children forever” (Bereishit 13:15). Avraham’s eyes had this power because he had developed a good eye, as it states, “Anyone who has mastered these three traits is of the students of Avraham Avinu, and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Bil’am. The students of our father Avraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The students of the wicked Bil’am have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a coarse soul…” (Pirkey Avot 5:19). Rambam writes that someone with a “good eye” exhibits the characteristic of הסתפקות/histapkut – being satisfied with his lot. What he has is enough for him and he doesn’t constantly seek more money or material possessions. Therefore, Avraham didn’t want to take even a shoelace or a string from the King of Sodom.

Bil’am’s Evil Eye
Conversely, ayin hara (the evil eye) is never content. In his boundless greed, B’ilam was seeking more and more money from Balak (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:18). This greedy, grabbing instinct is the source of ayin hara, which plays such a pivotal role throughout Parshat Balak. It was specifically through his evil eye that B’ilam attempted to curse Israel.
ספר במדבר פרק כד (ב) וַיִּשָּׂא בִלְעָם אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֹׁכֵן לִשְׁבָטָיו וַתְּהִי עָלָיו רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים:
“Bil’am lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, and the spirit of G-d was upon him” (Bamidbar 24:2).

Rashi explains that by lifting up his eyes, Bil’am tried to impose an evil eye upon them. Yet, Hashem protected the Jewish people in the merit of our modesty (keeping our private life hidden from the eye). So why didn’t Bil’am just bless Balak? It would seem that either cursing the Jews or blessing the Moabites would result in a victory for Moav. The reason is, that Bil’am’s evil eye didn’t allow him to bless anyone.

Some men are specially fitted for the transmission of blessings by having acquired a ‘good eye.’ Others are specially fitted for the transmission of curses, wherever they cast their eyes. Such was Bil’am, who was the fitting instrument of evil. Even when he blessed, his blessing was not confirmed. Yet, all his curses were confirmed, because he had an ‘evil eye’ (Zohar, Vayikra 63b).

Don’t Flaunt Your Assets
A narrow or an evil eye may damage the person it sees. Perhaps through the energy fields surrounding him, it can cause lack of money, discord in the home, difficulty in finding a soul mate, or make a person feel stuck in his life. There are many examples in the Torah, Talmud and halacha, about the importance to protect ourselves from ayin hara. The Torah records that when the brothers entered Egypt to get food during the famine, they did so “amongst those going down to Egypt for food.” This expression teaches that they blended into the crowd. According to Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 91:6 quoted by Rashi, Ya’acov instructs each of his sons to enter through a different gate to avoid receiving an ayin hara, because they were all beautiful, strong, tall and handsome. Why would that bring about an evil eye? If they came as a group and drew attention to themselves, people could become jealous by seeing a family of able-bodied handsome men. We are all connected spiritually and therefore can affect one another. Rabbi Dessler asked his father, “how is it fair that people suffer because of the jealousies of others?” His father answered him that the person may be partly to blame by carelessly flaunting his possessions and causing jealousy to arise. Each display of wealth, beauty or power can be a jealousy-causing act. This jealousy may cause others to cry out in pain- a cry that rises up to the Heavenly Court (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav Me’eliyahu).

Protection from Ayin Hara and Negative Energy
Rabbi Yochanan was accustomed to sit at the gates of the women’s mikveh. He said, “When the daughters of Israel come up from the mikveh they look at me and have children as handsome as I am.” The Rabbis said to him, “Is not the Master afraid of the evil eye?” – He replied, “I come from the seed of Yosef, over whom the evil eye has no power, as it is written, ‘Ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin – Yosef is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine above the eye,’” (Bereishit 49:22). Rabbi Abahu said with regard to this verse, “Do not read ‘alei ayin’ but ‘olei ayin’ (literally, “rising above the eye,” i.e., above the power of the evil eye).” Rabbi Yossi in the name of Rabbi Chanina derived [proof that the evil eye has no power over the descendants of Yosef] from this text: “Let them multiply like fish [ve’yidgu] in the midst of the earth” (Bereishit 48:16). Just as fish [dagim] in the sea are covered by water and the evil eye has no power over them, likewise the evil eye has no power over the descendants of Yosef. Furthermore, the evil eye has no power over the eye that did not want to take nourishment from what did not belong to it (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 20a).

Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that in contrast to certain people who live their lives based on the comments and perceptions of others, Yosef had confidence in himself, and did not change according to the whims of others. Since Yosef was not “swayed by the crowd,” he was not susceptible to the evil eye. He did not live from that which did not belong to him – therefore, the destructive comments of others had no effect. Taking nourishment from what doesn’t belong to us comes from a feeling of lack in our own lives that makes us become energy suckers. The more we learn to trust in Hashem, and feel His love and personal protection in our lives, the less we need to take nourishment from what doesn’t belong to us. When we develop Emunah, that Hashem gives us exactly what we need, we can be happy with our own portion.

Sending Positive Energy and Blessing through Our Eyes
We cannot just dismiss the power of negative energy as being nonexistent so long as we don’t believe in it. Just as there is light and holiness in the world, so does the opposite exist. It would be foolish not to work on strengthening our immune system in order to protect ourselves against viruses and bacteria. Likewise, we need to strengthen our emunah system in order to protect ourselves from negative spiritual energy. By viewing ourselves through Hashem’s perpetual kind and open eye, and by not looking with desire at what belongs to others, it is possible to rise above the influence of negative energy like Yosef the Tzaddik. The human eye is an energy center that can send out either negative or positive energy. Through seeing, a person can affect reality through ayin hara (the evil eye), and ayin tovah (the good eye) which has an even greater influence (Rav Tzadok of Lublin, Takanat Hashavin 6). “A good eye is blessed” since it sends out positive energy. The power of good is always greater than the power of evil. When we work on removing our own negativity, by consciously sending out positive energy to others through our eye, we gain protection from ayin hara and engender much blessing in the world.