Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Fires of Lag b'Omer

Lag b'Omer is one of these hidden holidays which we celebrate "big time" in Bat Ayin. In addition to the big communal fire for the entire community, almost each family has their own bonfire. When I invited a couple of our friends over to share the light of our bonfire, one woman responded: "Sorry, we can't come, because we have a big pile of wood clippings to burn. We want to use the night of Lag b'Omer to burn it all up." So I'm asking you, is the purpose of the bonfires on Lag b'Omer mainly to consume all the accumulated garden waste? Or is there a deeper reason behind lighting fires on this holy day? What is the best way to take advantage of the energy of Lag b'Omer? I look forward to reading your comments!

Lag b'Omer – A Holiday Shrouded in Mystery
Lag b'Omer is an exciting and mysterious holiday. We light bonfires, play music, celebrate weddings, and some shoot arrows. All this takes place during the semi-mourning period when we do not hold weddings, play dance music, cut hair, or shave. What is the underlying significance hiding behind this obscure holiday? Lag b'Omer celebrates the anniversary of the passing of the renowned Mishnaic sage and foremost Kabbalist, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. His teachings comprise the text of the Zohar the primary book of the Kabbalah. We don't have any other holiday of this caliber which celebrates the passing of a Jewish sage. Why do we celebrate the passing of one of the greatest sages in Jewish history with so much joy?

The Successor of Rabbi Akiva Entering the Orchard of Kabbalah
Lag b'Omer, which literally means the thirty third day of the Omer, commemorates two events. On the thirty third day of the Omer, there was an interruption or end of the plague that killed twenty two thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud relates that subsequently Rabbi Akiva moved to the south of Israel where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai became one of the five students who then carried Rabbi Akiva's teachings into the future. He later died on the same thirty third day of the Omer. On his deathbed, he expressed his personal wishes that his yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) be celebrated with great joy. Rabbi Akiva was the greatest Kabbalist of his time. He is the only one of four Rabbis who entered the Pardes (An acronym for the four levels of Torah including the secret mystical level of Kabbalah). Whereas the other Rabbis were injured either physically or spiritually, Rabbi Akiva was the only one who entered and returned in peace (Chagiga 14b). The mystical tradition that Rabbi Akiva carried with him was passed down to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and revealed in the Zohar. 

Lag b'Omer's Kabbalistic Transmission – Rectification for Rabbi Akiva's Students
Rabbi Avraham Trugman explains how Lag b'Omer celebrates the survival of the Kabbalah. When Rabbi Shimon and his son were hiding from the Romans in the cave, Rabbi Shimon summoned Eliyahu the prophet by a specific formula that he had learned from Rabbi Akiva. This is how it came about that Eliyahu taught them the holy Zohar. There is a tradition in the writings of the Chida (Rabbi Chaim David Azulai), that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai received the sacred traditions of the Kabbalah from Rabbi Akiva specifically on Lag B'Omer. The knowledge of Kabbalah needed to be transmitted during the month of Iyar, called the month of Ziv (splendor), because at this time the land of Israel is glowing with holiness, as the fruits are maturing on the trees and the flowers are blossoming. Since the knowledge of Kabbalah is the holiest teaching, the greatest obstacles deter it from being passed on and revealed in the world. This is the underlying cause of the dispute between the students of Rabbi Akiva and their death during the Omer period. However, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his students, brought about the rectification. He enlightened his students with the secret of Kabbalah that he had received from Rabbi Akiva. The zenith of this Kabbalistic revelation took place on the day when Rabbi Shimon's soul rose to heaven. Therefore, we celebrate on the day of his passing, how Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai became the most important link in the chain of Kabbalistic succession.

Bonfires
Since "the Torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23), we can understand the main custom of Lag b'Omer to light the bonfire. The fires of Lag b'Omer represent the light of the inner dimensions of the Torah as well as the deepest longing of our soul to be close to G-d and to understand the spiritual, mystical depths of the Torah. The bonfires also connect us back to Rabbi Akiva, who was tortured to death. He transformed his burning pain into sacrificing his life with the fiery love of Hashem. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai carried on Rabbi Akiva's ability to transform the fires of torture to the fire of love of G-d. This incredible light became engraved in the holy Zohar. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh reveals that the two letters of "Lag," 33, when inverted, spell "Gal," which means to reveal/open, as in the verse "Open [Gal] my eyes that I may see wonders in Your Torah" (Tehillim 119:18). Lag b'Omer represents the fire of Torah that gives us the inner vision to grasp the wonders of the Torah, thereby illuminating the long night of exile. With Hashem's help, Israel will be redeemed in the future through the merit of learning the Zohar. In order to overcome the darkness all around us, on a personal, national and universal level, we need to go beyond the superficial learning and observance of Torah, and reveal deeper and more spiritual levels that will bring light to ourselves and the world

Receiving the Torah with a Good Heart
B'nei Yissascher explains that the forty nine days of counting the Omer can be broken down to the numerical value of the Hebrew "A good heart" consisting of (לב- lev- 32) and טוב)- tov- 17). (32+17=49) If you count from the first word of the Torah until the word "good" ("tov") in "Hashem saw that it was good" (Bereishit 1:3), you will find exactly thirty two words. Together the first thirty two words (לב) and the word "good" (טוב) spell out the expression "לב טוב - A good heart." Hashem commanded us to count the numerical value of "A good heart" in preparation for receiving the Torah, which embodies the quintessence of "A good heart." The Torah is the heart of the world. Therefore, it has thirty two paths of wisdom. On the first day of Creation, after creating light, the Torah states that Hashem saw that the light was good. According to the Midrash, He concealed this light in the Torah. Therefore, the Torah is the the essence of good corresponding to the hidden "light that is good." This explains why Hashem commanded us to count 49 days (32+17) in order to be worthy to receive the Torah.

The Hidden Light of the Torah
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is called the holy candle, for through him the secrets of the Torah were revealed. This is the secret of "the light that is good" – the Ohr HaGanuz buried in the Torah. Just as the word "tov" in the sentence "the light that is tov/good" is the thirty third word in the Torah, so was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's holy light revealed on the thirty third day of counting the Omer. After having counted thirty two days of the Omer, then the "good" of the heart hidden in the Torah, is revealed. For this reason Lag B'Omer is "tov" (17) days from Shavuot. On that day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai rose to the upper heaven, and it follows that this is also the day he was born, as Hashem always fulfills the years of the Tzaddikim (Rosh Hashana 11b). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's holy book is called the Zohar- (Splendor), which refers to "the light that is good" hidden in the Torah. His light will be preserved until the revelation of the light of Mashiach, as our sages said "G-d said, let there be light" (Bereishit 1:3) – this is the light of Mashiach (Yalkut Shimoni, Yesha'yahu 60). This explains the minhag (custom) to light candles and fires on this day, in honor of "the light that is good" which begins to sparkle on that special day of Lag b'Omer "tov" days before receiving the Torah. This is in honor of the soul of Rabbi Shimon the illuminator of the Torah, and in honor of his holy book the Zohar which gives light from one end of the world to the other (B'nei Yissascher on Lag b'Omer).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

To Plant and Be Planted

Haftorat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Amos 9:7-15
Printable Version

I was inspired by shepherd Amos who in this week’s haftorah describes the Jewish people’s connection with our Land through working the land. The people of Israel is moreover compared to Hashem’s plant firmly planted on the soil of the Land of Israel. Isn’t it amazing that the week of Israel’s Independence day we read about how we will never again be uprooted from our Land?

The Haftorah’s Connection to the Parashah
Living a Torah life is a Condition for Living in the Land of Israel
The double weekly Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, teaches the nation of Israel about the importance of living a moral holy life according to the Torah. Parashat Acharei Mot, which is also read on Yom Kippur, lists all the forbidden relationships which we must keep far away from, in order to become holy (Rashi, Vayikra 19:2). This leads us to Parashat Kedoshim which opens with the command to “Be holy, for I Hashem your G-d am holy” (Vayikra 19:2). This parashah includes a wealth of mitzvoth pertaining to every facet of life from interpersonal relationships to our relationship with the environment, from our respect for property to sanctifying time and space to the service of Hashem. Achieving holiness through keeping these mitzvot is the required condition that makes Israel worthy of living in the Holy Land. “You shall faithfully observe all My laws...lest the land, to which I bring you to settle in, spew you out” (Vayikra 20:22). The haftorah reinforces the message of Parashat Kedoshim. During the time of the redemption, only the Jews capable of living a holy life will merit living in the rebuilt Land of Israel. Amos prophesies  how “All the sinners of My people shall die by the sword…in that day will I raise up the Sukah of David (Temple) that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:10-11). Another connection between the parashah and the haftorah is that they both describe the importance of working the land of Israel. “When you come into the land, you shall plant every fruit-bearing tree...” (Vayikra 19:23). Likewise, the return of the people of Israel to the Promised Land during the redemption is characterized by working the land, as the haftorah describes:  “Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that sows seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine…(Amos 9:1).

The Connection between the Haftorah and Israel’s Independence Day
I find it very significant that during the week in which Israel’s Independence Day falls, we read about the return of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel, its rebuilding and replanting. In addition, Parashat Kedoshim is the only parashah spoken to “All the congregation of the children of Israel.” From this we learn that holiness depends on the people of Israel being congregated together as one entity. This is only possible after receiving national independence in our Promised Land, where we have the ability to establish a country in terms of society and government. We are still far from attaining our goal of establishing a Jewish government based on Torah and mitzvoth. Yet, after the miracle, when Hashem returned the Land of Israel into Jewish hands, we step on the path of redemption, when the Divine ideal in the life of our nation will be established as described in both our Torah and haftorah reading.

The Way of the Land Precedes the Torah
The Hungarian Chareidi Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal turned to religious Zionism during the Holocaust when he wrote his in depth, scholarly work about Eretz Yisrael, Redemption and Unity. He explained that the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel will affect even the Diaspora Jews, who will become more unified through their soul’s connection to the center established in the Land of Israel (Em Habanim Semeichah page 95). The meraglim (spies) in the wilderness were not interested in entering the Land of Israel, because they claimed that Torah precedes the Land of Israel. Therefore, they preferred to remain in the wilderness and learn Torah from Moshe. However, according to the midrash, Derech Eretz – the way that leads to the Land – precedes Torah, as it states: “To guard the way of the land, the Tree of Life” (Bereishit 3:24). There is no Tree of Life except the Torah as it states, “She is a Tree of Life to those who hold on to her” (Mishlei 3:18). This teaches us that the way to the Land of Israel precedes the Torah. (Tana, D’Bei Eliyahu Rabah Chapter 1). Although the term “Derech Eretz” usually is translated to mean “The way of the world,” according to Rabbi Akiva Yoseph Shlessinger, Derech Eretz refers to the Land of Israel. I can personally testify that there is no way I would have come to live the Torah way, if the Land of Israel had not been in Jewish hands, making it possible for Jews from the Diaspora to come to Israel. I was totally un-inspired by the way the Jewish religion was practiced in Denmark, where I grew up. It was only my connection to Eretz Yisrael, fostered by my grandparents who both made aliyah when I was a baby, which eventually led me to become a Ba’alat Teshuva (returnee to Judaism). In the Land of Israel vibrating with holiness, at the sun-glowing rocks of the Kotel, surrounded by spiritual seeking Jewish youth from the entire world, my soul was reawakened.

To Plant and Be Planted
I will bring back the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine; they shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit. And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be plucked up out of their land which I have given them, says Hashem your G-d ”(Amos 9:14-15). From the sequence of Amos’ promise in our haftorah, it seems clear that if we first work the land and plant, then Hashem will plant us securely in our home land, without ever uprooting us. Planting in the Land of Israel – connecting our souls to their root – connects us to the Land for all eternity. The early Zionist thinker and writer, A.D. Gordon, wrote so beautifully, “We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining air and sunlight of the Homeland…” I feel so privileged to be part of the Messianic promise while preparing the soil of Bat Ayin for sowing the summer crop, and while witnessing the orchard at Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin grow, as young women from the four corners of the earth return to the Torah of the Land. Munching on our homegrown grapes of the Judean hills, imparts within us the bitachon (trust) in the prophetic promise of our haftorah that the children of Israel will never again be uprooted from our land!

What is more important, living a Torah life or living in the Land? How do you think Jews around the world can strengthen the connection of the Jewish people with the Land of Israel?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reaching Perfection in Speech

Haftorat Parashat
Tazria-Metzora
2 Melachim 7:3-20


The Haftorah's Connection to the Parashah – Reaching Perfection in Speech
This week’s double parashah Tazria-Metzora discusses various forms of tzara'at,(skin diseases), that could befall a person who is not careful with his speech. The haftorah describes the four men afflicted with tzara'at, who were starving like the rest of Israel during the Armenian siege in King Yerovam’s time. The lepers discovered that the Armenian forces had fled during the night leaving behind their tents, horses, and supplies. First, the lepers grabbed as much as they could for themselves, but then they had a change of heart and decided that they really needed to share the good news with the rest of Israel. “So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city, and told them… And the porters called, and they told it to the king's household within” (2 Melachim 7:10-11).

To Speak or Not to Speak?
The haftorah teaches us that in order to perfect our speech, we need not only to avoid gossiping and speaking negatively about others, but also to speak up and communicate when necessary for the sake of doing Hashem’s will. The lepers’ decision to share the good news with the rest of Israel, regarding the surrender of the Armenian army, on that very day rather than waiting till later, was their teshuva (repentance), from their previous evil speech. I once knew a family who was extremely private about everything in their life. When their newly-wed daughter was going through a difficult time in her marriage, a few people tried to speak with the family to urge them to get professional help. The family was traumatized and feared being exposed and becoming the talk of the town. They did not realize that the Jewish way is sharing not only our friends’ celebrations, but also their hardships.

Women Have a Tendency to Judge
The root of evil speech is negative thinking and judgment. My “non-religious” sister taught me a very important lesson regarding this matter. I will never forget how she responded when I once apologized for a comment I made in error. When I told her, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said this,” she responded, “You shouldn’t even have thought it!” Training our minds to give the benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to negative conclusions and judging other people, is the best way to avoid negative speech. In the Kabbalalistic structure of the sefirot, feminine energy is placed on the left side associated with judgment and contraction. Therefore, we have to be very careful to use our sense of judgment only when it can make a difference. For example, there is no point in judging our friend for going on an expensive vacation that we think she can’t afford. Yet, it is important to make a judgment that our friend is not feeling well, in order to extend a helping hand.

We are Shown Only What We Ourselves Need to Fix
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that if it happened that we see or hear about someone else’s wrongdoing, we need to understand that we have a tinge of the same problem ourselves. Rather than judging the person, we should be motivated to rectify ourselves. Although it is really hard to stop ourselves from Lashon Hara, as it states in the Talmud, “We all fall prey to a tinge of Lashon Hara” (Baba Batra 165a), our spiritual work is to rectify ourselves by removing the trace of our own negativity. This will cause the person who sinned to repent. Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef explains that since we are all one cosmic person, when we repent we will include the person who sinned within ourselves by means of this unity (Toldot Yaacov Yosef, Parashat Lech Lecha). This is what it states “Guard your tongue from evil…” (Tehillim 34:14), – do not despise and speak about the person who does evil. Rather it is incumbent upon us to “…turn away from bad” (ibid. 15), – and rectify this evil, and by means of this “do good” (ibid.) by causing that person to become good and repent from his evil (Arvei Nachal, Parashat Lech Lecha).

Looking Within
This implies that the entire psycho-physical makeup of a person is a reflection of the person himself. Similarly, everything we see or hear is only a reflection of ourselves. A good person will always notice the positive. Someone that once worked for us used to come the times that suited himself rather than the times we had requested. He would also often do the work he felt like doing, rather than the work we had instructed him to do. This would annoy me tremendously until I decided to look within myself, and see if I could find a trace of the same problem within my own character. I realized that I, too, did the mitzvoth of Hashem during the times that suited me rather than at the preferred time. For example, I used to always start preparing for Shabbat too late, and almost never completed everything in time to light the Shabbat candles the preferred time – eighteen minutes before sunset. Moreover, I used to do the mitzvoth I felt like, rather than what was required, such as allowing my husband to get the last word. I tried to really work on myself to complete the Shabbat preparations on time and to show more respect to my husband. Soon after I had this realization, our worker started to come on time and do the job we had asked him.

Evil Speech Comes from a Lack of Emuna (Faith)
The end of the haftorah describes the skeptical officer who had disbelieved in the miracle which Elisha had prophesized. Despite the long severe famine, he announced that food would be so plentiful the following day that the prices of barley and fine flour would drop drastically. “It came to pass, when the man of G-d had spoken to the king, saying: 'Two measures of barley for a shekel, and a measure of fine flour for a shekel, shall be to-morrow about this time in the gate of Shomron'; that the officer answered the man of G-d, and said: 'Now, behold, if Hashem should make windows in heaven, might such a thing be?' and he said: 'Behold, you shall see it with your eyes, but shall not eat of it” (2 Melachim 7: 18-19).As a punishment for his lack of emuna, this officer was trampled by the people, as he stood guard at the gates of the city. This teaches us that lashon hara (evil speech) is not just gossiping and noticing fault in other people. Expressing disbelief and lack of emuna in Hashem is also a form of lashon hara. The end of the haftorah alludes to the fact that the root of all evil speech is a lack of emuna. If we really believe strongly in Hashem, we would never judge others for their shortcomings except for the sake of helping them grow. We would never get angry or upset with anyone, as we would realize that their action manifest Hashem’s will. Moreover, emuna in Hashem leads to emuna in other people. When we believe that there is nothing in the world Hashem can’t do, we are also more likely to believe in other people, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Just as it seems impossible that the physical reality could change so drastically by Hashem’s miracles, likewise actions that appear at first glance to be negative, may actually have good reasons, and in reality be positive. Our emuna in Hashem teaches us to look within for the kernel of good in others and gives us faith in our ability to rectify the trace of negativity within ourselves.

The Dance of David

Haftorat Shemini
2 Shemuel 6:1-7:17

Printable Version

The Haftorah’s Connection to the Parashah – Awe of the Holy
This week’s parashah, Parashat Shemini, describes the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) with its Holy Ark. Similarly, its haftorah describes the ceremony of the return of the Holy Ark to the holy city of Yerushalayim, which was to come before the dedication of the Beit Hamikdash – the Holy Temple. In the Parashah, Moshe consecrates the Mishkan, the home of the Ark of the Covenant (Vayikra 9), while in the haftorah, King David sets out to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. (2 Shemuel 6:2-5). Both the parashah and its haftorah teach that coming too close to holiness without proper awe and respect can be detrimental. In the parashah, Nadav and Avihu where killed “when they drew near” to the Ark (Vayikra 16:1-2), while in the haftorah, Hashem killed Uzzah when he “put forth his hand to the Ark” (2 Shemuel 6:6-7).

The Dance of David
“The Israelites brought up the Ark with shouting and the sound of the horn, and David danced with all his might girded with a linen ephod” (2 Shemuel 6:14-15). How come David’s uncontrolled dance was not considered disrespectful to the Ark, in the same way that Uzzah “put forth his hand” and Nadav and Avihu “offered a strange fire” and were killed? Perhaps the underlying connection between the parashah and the haftorah teaches us the boundary between going overboard in expressing one’s personal way of worship, and excessive restraint that turns off our personal, passionate worship of Hashem. When David danced in jubilation for the return of the ark, he taught us the proper place to express uttermost excitement for the Holiest of Holy. David knew how to dance on the dangerous tightrope between the dance of death and the truest life expression. Nadav and Avihu, however, made up their own way of worship, other than what was commanded by Hashem. Unbeknownst to themselves, they were motivated and led to their sorrowful death by their personal ego. Hashem wants us to express ourselves personally in our worship to Him, but only as long as we keep our humility intact. The more originality and creativity in our worship of Hashem, the more humility is required of us. David expressed his utter humility by changing his majestic clothing into an Ephod – the plain robe worn by a priest as he officiates in the Temple (2 Shemuel 6:14). The significance of King David changing out of his royal robes and into the spiritual dress reflects his taking off the pomp and distance of his office and re-finding inside himself that simple spiritual place of dance. As a king it would be beneath his dignity to twist and twirl before the Ark. Yet, “Man sees [what is] before [his] eyes, but G-d sees the heart” (1 Shemuel 16:7). The change of clothing was an expression of King David breaking through to his spiritual core – Hashem – the source of Eternal Life – the very opposite of the external “strange fire” with death in its wake.

Michal’s Disdain
“As the Ark came into the city, Michal the daughter of Shaul looked out the window and saw David leaping and dancing, and she despised him in her heart” (2 Shemuel 6:16). Michal felt that David’s unrestrained dance was unbecoming a king like himself, and especially in front of the Holy Ark (Metzudat David, 2 Shemuel 6:16). Moreover, she was embarrassed that her husband, David, wasn’t properly dressed as befits a king when the entire people are present. She disdained David for his lack of self respect and for “uncovering himself before the eyes of his servants’ handmaids” (2 Shemuel 6:20).

Michal Daughter of Shaul
Michal scolded David for acting as a commoner and lowering his dignity. “Michal the daughter of Shaul came out to meet David, and said, how glorious was the king of Israel today, in that he uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the low fellows shamelessly uncovers himself?” (2 Shmuel 6:20). Michal was called, “the daughter of Shaul,” when she scorned King David for exposing himself. Her attitude reflected that of the daughter of a king. As an aristocratic princess, she was appalled by David’s undignified behavior. Michal’s father, Shaul, was moreover, known for being especially dignified. He was “a choice young man, and handsome; and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulder and upwards he was taller than any of the people” (1 Shemuel 9:2). Michal took after her father. Just as Shaul was taller and lifted above the people, so too was Michal aloof and preferred her husband not to lower himself to the level of regular people. In contrast, David’s greatness is that he remained one of the people. He was born a simple sheepherder, and in spite of his success and royalty, he remained in his own eyes as one of the simple people.

Children and Exultant Dancing
David retorted to Michal that he danced before G-d who “chose me over you father… Therefore will I play before Hashem, and I will yet be more lightly esteemed than this, holding myself lowly…” (2 Shemuel 6:21-22). “And Michal, the daughter of Shaul, had no child to the day of her death” (2 Shemuel 6:23). What is the underlying connection between Michael’s disdain for David’s dance and her childlessness? Perhaps because she was unable to lower herself towards the common people, she would also be too self-important to lower herself to the “inferior human beings” that children are. Moreover, children learn by example, especially by the example of the expression of their parents’ emotions. Rabbi Moshe Weinberg taught that a major reason why children go off the derech (leave the Torah way) is because they see their parents bored when the Rabbi speaks, or during prayer, yet their Daddy jumps up and down in excitement in front of a football game. It is not our words but rather the intensity of our emotions which shape our children. Our sincere passion for Torah and mitzvot has a much deeper effect on our children than the most well-thought out pep-talk. Since Michal didn’t allow David to express his immense happiness for the Holy Ark, which served as a prime example of love of G-d to his children, Michal was not worthy of having her own children. Dancing in holiness, especially, is a way to connect with children. As we hold the child’s hand we are reconnecting to our own inner child that just wants to jump, move, skip, hop, and sing praise to Hashem for His miracles.

The Boundaries of Tzniut
In order to master any character-trait, we need to know its proper boundary, by being willing to apply its opposite when needed for the sake of Hashem. Avraham’s love of G-d became revealed only when he demonstrated his fear of G-d through his willingness to sacrifice his favorite son for the sake of obeying Hashem. Rav Tzadok Hakohen explains that there is rectified and un-rectified tzniut. Michal, daughter of Shaul, despised David for revealing himself in a way that looked the opposite of the tzniut she had learned in her father's house. Yet, she did not understand that David acted for the sake of Heaven, and Michal was punished with childlessness for trying to use tzniut against the honor of Heaven. Her tzniut was the external tzniut of the gentiles. Achasverus became angry when Esther entered [and offered herself willingly to him] as he thought that this is not the way of tzniut (Yalkut Esther 1056). He did not recognize that Esther came before him dressed in Ruach Hakodesh and intended for the sake of Heaven. True tzniut can only be manifested when we apply its limitation for the sake of Hashem. Kings and prophets descended from Tamar because of her tzniut (Megillah 10b). Yet, her tzniut tzniut was only revealed when she dressed up as a harlot on the highway to seduce Yehuda for the sake of Heaven (Rav Tzaddok of Lublin, Divrei Sofrim, Likutei Amerim, sign 16). We have to be careful with this kind of Torah, as it could be misused to exonerate immodest behavior. Moreover, it is not so simple to determine which kinds of actions for the sake of Heaven supersede the boundary of accepted tzniut behavior. Evidently, we do not have license to break clear-cut halacha even “for the sake of Heaven”. Only in instances where the halacha is unclear, does the spirit and the intention play an important role in deciding how to act.

I’d like to call on the reader to discuss this issue. What are the boundaries of tzniut? Is it possible to be overly modest? In which cases does modesty yield for the sake of Heaven?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

Parshah Metzora
Why Separate the Menstruating Woman?
This week’s Parashah, like the previous one, deals with spiritual purification so pertinent to the general mode of cleansing prior to Pesach. “If a woman has a discharge of blood, where blood flows from her body, she shall be niddah for seven days...” (Vayikra 15:19). The concept of niddah is related to the word nadad, meaning to wander, separate or remove. The Torah tells us that from the time a woman has her period, until she immerses in the mikvah, she has the status of a niddah. During this period, she separates herself from any physical contact with her husband. What is the underlying reason for niddah? Why does a woman have to separate from her husband every month? The laws of niddah and menstruation are difficult to understand. They are chukim (statutes) whose ultimate reasons are beyond human comprehension. Nevertheless, we may attempt to explore and uncover some of the reasons concerning the concept of niddah.
A Result of Eating From the Tree of Knowledge
The impurity of death is a result of the sin of Adam and Chava. We were supposed to have lived eternal life in the Garden of Eden. However, the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge brought imperfection and death into the world. When Chava was told, “I will greatly increase the pain of your childbearing...” (Bereishit 3:16), the words “I will greatly increase” referred to the pain of menstruation (Iruvin 100b), which is a part of the reproductive cycle. The expulsion of mankind from the Garden obstructed the natural harmony between man and woman. However, G-d gave us ways to return to Eden. Both entering the holy Temple and intimate relations between husband and wife are pathways of returning to the Garden. Marital relations are compared to the sanctuary, which is like a miniature Garden of Eden. When a person was in an impure (tumah) state, he was absolutely forbidden to enter the holy Temple under the severest of penalties. The fact that this impurity is not physical, but primarily involves the soul is learned from the verse “You shall not make your souls unclean” (Vayikra 11:44). Thus, before entering the Temple, or having marital relations, one must be spiritually purified by immersion in a mikvah. The power of the mikvah to return us to the state of Eden is alluded to in the story of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan mentions in Waters of Eden that the story is suddenly interrupted by the description of the river, which went out of Eden. The reason for this interruption is to provide a way to return to Eden even before being expelled, according to the principle that Hashem makes the healing precede the wound (Megillah 13b). The natural rainwater collected in the mikvah connects us with the river, which brings us back to the Garden of Eden.

Parshah Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

Parshah Tazria
The previous Parashah concluded with the mitzvah that Israel sanctify themselves: “For I am Hashem your G-d; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, for I am holy” (Vayikra 11:44). Parashat Tazria opens with the laws of purification after birth: “If a woman has conceived seed, and given birth to a male...” (Vayikra 12:2). Ba’al HaTurim explains that the Torah juxtaposes the description of the woman who has conceived with the command to be holy in order to teach that one must sanctify oneself at the time of intimate relations. In Judaism, marital relations can be one of the holiest acts a person ever performs. Through marital relations, one becomes a partner in creation. Even when no physical children are conceived, the holy union between husband and wife causes souls to be brought down from Heaven. These souls later enter the bodies of converts as the Midrash explains when referring to, “the souls that they [Avraham and Sarah] had made in Charan” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:4 quoting Bereishit 12:5).
The Fruit of Their Affection
Why is the verse describing the woman who conceives juxtaposed with the section about prohibited foods? Ramban explains in Igeret HaKodesh that eating forbidden foods can influence the embryo negatively and cause the baby to be born without spiritual sensitivity. Just as food is a factor, imagina¬tion and thought also influence the embryo. When husband and wife unite with thoughts of love, the Shechinah rests between them, and their child becomes the fruit of their pure desires and affection. This principle can be understood in light of our current medical knowledge. A pregnant woman is instructed to avoid x-rays, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy. The reason given is that while the fetus is forming its initial features it is most susceptible to outside influence. From this we can infer that at the time of conception the embryo is even more impressionable, and thus greatly influenced by the mental state of the parents.

Parshah Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

Returning to Eden
A central theme in Parashat Shemini is immersing in the mikvah (ritual bath), which is one of the three primary mitzvoth designated for the Jewish woman, in addition to the challah offering and lighting the Shabbat candles. Immersing in a mikvah has the power to change the status of either a person or a vessel by spiritually purifying it.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains in Waters of Eden that the purpose of the mikvah is to bring us back to the Garden of Eden, from where we were expelled when partaking from the Tree of Knowledge. Immersing in the mikvah enables us to rise from the fallen state caused by eating from the Tree of Knowledge and to reconnect us with the perfected state of Eden. An allusion to this is found in the word mikvah (mem, kuf, vav, heh) which has the same Hebrew letters as the word koma (kuf, vav, mem, heh), meaning “rising” or “standing tall.” Since human mortality is also a consequence of our fallen state, returning to the Garden of Eden requires purification from everything associated with death by immersing in the mikvah. Coming to the Holy Temple and entering the sacredness of marital intimacy are ways to re-enter the Garden of Eden in a spiritual sense. Menstruation is related to death as it implies the loss of potential life. Therefore, the Torah requires the Jewish married woman to purify herself spiritually after her monthly period. By immersing in the waters of the mikvah, she prepares herself for marital relations – her personal return to Eden.

Parshah Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

With Clean Hands
This week’s Parashah begins by describing the burnt offering, while the end of the previous Parashah described the guilt offering which a person must bring to atone for having denied that he stole. The most important condition upon which all the sacrifices depend, is hinted at in the juxtaposition between Parashat Vayikra and Parashat Tzav. The end of Parashat Vayikra proclaims, “Then it shall be, because he has sinned, and incurred guilt, that he shall restore that which he took violently away…” (Vayikra 5:23). Parashat Tzav begins, “and this is the law of the burnt offering” (Vayikra 6:2). The connection between the two sections teaches us that if you desire to bring an offering, do not steal anything from anyone. “For I, Hashem love justice. I hate robbery with burnt offerings” (Yesha’yahu 61:8). “When will I accept the burnt offering which you bring? When you have cleaned your hands from robbery, as King David states, “Who shall ascend unto the mountain of G-d and who shall stand in his holy place? [He that has] clean hands and a pure heart” (Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 1 quoting Tehillim 24:3-4). This teaches us that honesty in monetary matters is an absolute condition for offering any sacrifice in the sanctuary. Our worship of G-d for all generations is defined by this lesson, even when we do not have a sanctuary. There can be neither sacrifice nor any kind of closeness to G-d, except when the deeds of our mundane life are purified from the smallest tinge of harming our neighbor. One cannot separate the two. Bringing up a sacrifice without adhering to upright and honest behavior is the kind of rite against which the prophets of Israel fought an eternal battle.