Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Mystical Turquoise Colored Snail Fish

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Tetzaveh
This week’s parasha centers around the garments of the Kohanim when serving in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The exquisite fabric of the garments were woven together from linen, gold and wool dyed in three vibrant colors: tola’at shani (crimson), argaman (purple) and lastly techelet (sky-blue). These colors were produced by different animals or plants. Naturally, it is disputed which animals or plants produce each of these colors. Even the nature of each of the colors is disputed, and my translation is only one possibility. Until recently, I thought that the tola’at shani color was dyed from worms as the Hebrew word tola’at means worm. However, Rambam explains that tola’at shani is not produced from a worm, but from a vegetable product in which a worm grows (Hilchot Parah Adumah 3:2). There is even greater dispute among the sages until this day about the nature of the creature that produces my favorite color: techelet. For as long as I can remember, I have always been attracted to this deep mysterious color that reminds us of the color of the sky just before the sun sets. I feel energized in my element when I wear techelet, and as those of you who know me can testify, I wear it most often, to the extent that some of you even call me the ‘the turquoise Rebbetzin.’ Techelet, the ancient biblical sky-blue dye, which adorned the robes of kings, priests, and simple Jews, was lost to the world nearly 1300 years ago. Recent discoveries in the fields of archeology, marine biology and chemistry in conjunction with intense examination of historical and Talmudic sources have identified the source of the dye as the snail Murex Trunculus. The mitzvah to wear a thread of techelet is once again being fulfilled by Jews. It is very exciting to live in these messianic times when it is possible to keep the mitzvah of techelet since Hashem has enabled us to rediscover the creature that produces this exquisite color. As can be expected, not everyone agrees, although it has been verified by extensive research and halachic authorities. I’m happy that the color of techelet graces the tzitzit (ritual fringes) of both my husband and my two sons. So how do we know that Murex Trunculus is the true source of the biblical techelet, and what kind of animal is this Murex, chosen for the elevated purpose of adorning the priestly garments and fringes of the tzitzit of every Jewish male?

The Techelet-Producing Creature in the Torah and the Talmud
Techelet was one of the main materials among the requested donations for the Mishkan as, It states,
 ספר שמות פרק כח (ה) וְהֵם יִקְחוּ אֶת הַזָּהָב וְאֶת הַתְּכֵלֶת וְאֶת הָאַרְגָּמָן וְאֶת תּוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי וְאֶת הַשֵּׁשׁ
“They shall take the gold, the techelet (sky-blue), the argaman (purple), the tola’at shani (scarlet) and the fine linen” (Shemot 28:5). The Talmud classifies the source of the techelet dye as a חלזון/chilazon. This term refers to a snail like sea-creature with a hard shell. The following Talmudic statement is one of the sources for verifying the research done regarding the identity of the techelet producing creature.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף מד/א תנו רבנן חלזון זהו גופו דומה לים וברייתו דומה לדג ועולה אחד לשבעים שנה ובדמו צובעין תכלת לפיכך דמיו יקרים
Our Rabbis taught, “The body of the chilazon resembles the sea [in its color]: in shape it resembles a fish, it comes up once in 70 years and with its blood one dyes techelet, and therefore, it is so expensive” (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 44a). From here, we learn the following six qualifications for rediscovering the source of techelet:

1. The source of the dye is the chilazon.
2. The color of its body is like the sea. (Possibly the color of the seabed)
3. It is like a fish. (Possibly referring to all sea-creatures reproducing by eggs)
4. It comes up once in 70 years. (Possibly a general term for something rare)
5. Its blood is used for techelet.
6. It is expensive.

A seventh qualification is that the snail-fish producing techelet derives specifically from the shores of northern Israel as a further Talmudic statement teaches:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף כו/א  ציידי חלזון מסולמות של צור ועד חיפה
“Those who catch chilazon from the headland of Tyre as far as Haifa” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 26a).

From this statement, we can deduce that the natural habitat of chilazon was off the shores of what is today northern Israel and southern Lebanon, Phoenicia of ancient times.

Attempts of Finding Source of Techelet
In 1888, the Radzyner Rebbi (Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner) pioneered a quest for techelet. He identified the squid (Sepia officinalis) as the techelet producing creature, and indeed the squid does fulfill many of the Talmudic requirements. It looks like a fish, and in a way we can say that it comes up once in 70 years, as it has cycles when it is in abundance, while it is only available to skilled people with nets who can catch them the rest of the time. The main weakness of this discovery, however, is that it produces black rather than blue ink. The techelet color derives from the added chemicals rather than from the squid itself. The Rebbi’s three books on the subject (Sfunei Temunei Chol, Ptil Tekhelet, Ein HaTekhelet) still serve as a basis for halachic investigation. Most Breslev chassidim wear techelet from the squid to this day.

In 1913 Rabbi Isaac Herzog’s doctoral thesis on techelet named the Murex Trunculus as the ‘most likely candidate’ for the source of techelet – except that, by using contemporary dyeing procedures, its dye was not pure blue. In 1980 Prof. Otto Elsner of the Shenkar College of Fibers in Israel demonstrated that when the reduced solution of Murex Trunculus dye is exposed to sunlight, the UV-rays from the sun act to break the bromine bonds. When oxidation occurs in sunlight following the removal of the dyed fabric from the solution, pure indigo bonds to the wool, while the bromine atoms are left in the vat. Subsequently in 1985 Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger, author of K’lil Tekhelet succeeded in applying the process of dying techelet for the ritual purpose of tzitzit according to the Halacha. He was the first person, since the Arab destruction of the last Jewish vestige in the land of Israel in the 7th century, to have produced ritual kosher techelet. Finally, in 1993 the P’til Tekhelet organization was formed together with R. Tavger, to produce and distribute techelet strings, as well as to promote research and educational projects.

Snail, Worm or Fish?
Let us explore some of the main identifications of the chilazon. Rashi on Sanhedrin 91a described the chilazon as a worm with a shell. While in tractate Shabbat 74b and 77b he established that the chilazon was a sort of small fish. In his commentary on (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 28b), Rashi translates chilazon as limace, which is old French for snail. It is possible to classify a snail that lives in the sea, as a fish. The Vilna Goan states, “…all that is in the sea is a type of fish in all forms that it has” (Eliyahu Rabbah on Keilim 10:10). Rabbi Herzog held that the chilazon is similar to a worm enclosed in a shell that lives in the sea, which makes it resemble a fish. Even the Rebbe of Radzin wrote that if not for his other proofs on behalf of a squid he would have understood that the simple implication is that the chilazon has a shell. The author of Tiferet Yisrael, understood that it referred to a snail that lives in the sea. Murex trunculus is a medium-sized sea snail, in the family Muricidae, the murex shells or rock snails. This species of sea-snails secretes a mucus that the ancient Canaanites/Phoenicians used as a distinctive purple-blue indigo dye. Murex trunculus, like fish, are spawned from eggs. This sea-snail has long been believed to be the source of argaman as its dye originally is purple, and only turns sky-blue when exposed to sun, in this way the same creature produces both Temple colors, as it states, “Techelet and argaman from the isles of Elisha were your awning” (Yechezkiel 27:7). Radak commented that this refers to garments dyed with techelet and argaman deriving from the isles of Elisha. These isles of Elisha are situated by the seashore, most likely by the shores of northern Israel and Lebanon.

Evidence for Murex Trunculus as the Source of Techeclet
The majority of observant Jews still do not wear the string of techelet in their tzitzit. Besides the fact that it is expensive, many are not aware of the evidence that the true source for techelet has been rediscovered. Last time someone asked me how we know for sure that we really have found the true source of techelet, I couldn’t recall many of the points. So I decided to do this review with you, choosing some of the many points that resonated strongest with me.

1. The Talmud states that the chilazon is found at the shores of Haifa to Tyre. This is the habitat of Murex trunculus.

2. Digs near Haifa and Tyre in 1882 revealed the remains of a dye factory, which had mounds with thousands of Murex shells (broken to access their dyestuff) (Royal Purple, p.24, p.151-5; Ziderman, p.438; Twerski, p.82).

3. This shell produces a dye that can be converted to a blue indigo dye without much difficulty.

4. The dye of Murex trunculus is chemically identical to indigo (kela ilan), a fake techelet produced by plant material, which the Talmud states is the same color as techelet (Babylonian Talmud, Menaḥot 42b-43a).

5a. The chilazon was a shellfish (mollusk) as the Talmud states that one who cracks open (HaPotzeya) a chilazon violates the Shabbat (Shabbat 75a). The word potzeya, which means to strike with force, only applies to something hard like a shell.
5b. Further proof for the chilazon having a hard shell: “Go and learn [about the clothes of the Jews in the desert] from the chilazon - all the time that it grows, its shell (nartiko) grows with it (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:11).

6. The sages of the Talmud would surely have been aware of the dyes produced just north of them in Phoenicia. If the dye produced by the Murex is indeed invalid, then, just as the Talmud warned against the use of kela ilan (Baba Metzia 61b), it would have mentioned the prohibition of using the ‘disqualified’ mollusk and described the differences between the two species. This proof is solidified by the scrap of sky-blue dyed woolen cloth found at Masada in the 1960s by Yigal Yadin, dating from the Mishnaic period. Its containing of dibromoindigo is a clear indication the source of the dye was Murex trunculus.

7. Dozens of actual Murex trunculus shells were found in digs on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, dating from the Second Temple Period, in a section thought to be the homes of kohanim. Point 6 and 7 demonstrate that ancient dyers had developed techniques to produce a sky-blue color from the murex, that murex-dyed wool was available in Israel in the Mishnaic period, and that the Murex trunculus snail was well known in Jerusalem during the second Temple period.

Techelet Revived
Since the land of Israel returned into Jewish hands, keeping the Torah has been infused with renewed life. Various Torah research institutes are being established in the Land, and authentic ways of the Torah are both rediscovered, and reinstated. Today, over 100,000 people wear P’til Techelet in their ritual garments. I hope this writing will help bring even more people to consider practicing the mitzvah of techelet. Some well-known Rabbis who wear true techelet include Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach, Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, Rabbi Amram Opman, Rabbi Simcha Kook, Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Dr. Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Many others wear it privately. In a recent approbation for Levush Ha’aron, a book that promotes the use of the Murex trunculus for techelet, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a prominent posek in the U.S. and a leading figure in the OU, writes that the book is, worthy to be disseminated among Torah scholars and can also be relied upon in practice. Unfortunately, there are still those who choose to be suspiciously opposed anything new in their determination against wearing techelet. This is in spite of the fact that there is no prohibition in wearing a blue colored thread in the tzitzit, even if it turns out that this is not techelet, a point made poignantly by the Radziner Rebbe, in his book, Ptil Techelet. However, by not wearing techelet, a man nullifies a positive mitzvah from the Torah (Bamidbar 15:38). So there is nothing to lose but much to gain by taking on the mitzvah of techelet.

Please tell your husband, sons, nephews and uncles etc. and help return the crown of Torah to its original state! Check out more details and depths on the topics in the following websites:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jewish Months

Immerse yourself in the secrets and the power of each month of the Jewish year...






Adar I (Jewish Leap Year)





Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Multicolored Unicorn

Nature in the Parasha: Parashat Teruma 
Tachash: Dolphin, Goat or Seal?
From childhood fairy tales, unicorns have long enchanted us with their mystical grace, finesse, and unconquerable nature. Perhaps the legends of the primeval unicorn were inspired from our Torah, specifically from the tachash, mentioned in opening of this week’s parasha. The tachash skin appears in the center of the list of materials needed for the Mishkan (Tabernacle). “Red ram skins, skins of tachashim, and acacia wood” (Shemot 25:5). What kind of creature exactly was the tachash (plural tachashim) and what can we learn from it? Translating the word tachash is a challenge and unattainable task, since this kind of creature no longer exists. I have come acr­­oss such far out and inconstant translations from different English Bibles, such as seal, goat, porpoise and dolphin. See below for a list of 11 completely different translations of the word tachash that I downloaded from the internet. I’m glad that at least the Jerusalem Bible and Silberman Chumash left the word alone and just transliterated it from the Hebrew. So what does a tachash have to do with a unicorn, which is not even one of the many and varied translations? Rashi explains that tachash was a kind of wild beast, which existed only at the time of the Mishkan. It was multicolored, and therefore the Targum Onkelos translates it ססגונא/sasgona, a contraction of words שש/sas – rejoicing גונא/gona – colors, meaning, “It rejoices and prides itself in its colors.” Rashi’s explanation, of the multicolored beast, still does not bring us closer to the unicorn. Rabbi Meir in the Talmud, however, tells us that the tachash had one horn in its forehead, and the Sages debated whether it was a wild beast (chaya) or domesticated animal (behema) (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 28b). The legendary unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long horn and cloven hooves. The cloven hooves is an indication of a (pure) kosher animal, this fits in with the tachash as Rabbi Yosef holds, only kosher animal skins were used for the holy Mishkan (Ibid. 28a). When I glanced through various images of unicorns, I noticed that many were depicted on the backdrop of a rainbow, linking us back to the multicolored tachash.

The Colors of the Tachash: Vessels for Higher Lights
I’m quite intrigued with the mysterious tachash, created specifically for the Mishkan. Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that the tachash came into being for the sake of the Mishkan in honor of G-d, as its skin was filled with the most beautiful and amazing patterns. The outer covering of the Mishkan and many of its vessel were covered with these gorgeous hides. After having fulfilled their divine purpose, the tachashim disappeared from the face of the earth, as if these creatures were too stunning for the lower physical world. This reminds me of אוֹר הַגָּנוּז /ohr haganuz – the hidden light which was too great for the wicked in this world. Hashem, therefore, hid it away for the righteous in the world to come (Rashi, Bereishit 1:4). Actually, there may be a connection between this hidden light and the colors of the tachash skin. Our purpose in this world is to repair the seven days of creation each corresponding to a different color and Divine emanation (sefirah). The Zohar teaches that there are colors emanating different kinds of light. By means of these colors, it is possible to perceive the brighter lights. The statement of our sages that the tachash was only created for the Mishkan can also be understood to mean that the tachash was created for the sake of the Jewish people. When all of the children of Israel become elevated as one unified being, then the Mishkan becomes our cosmic body. Its outer covering – the tachash skin – with its colors representing the seven building blocks of the world, likewise embody the entire Jewish people. Each of us is connected to a different hue in the color spectrum, channeling a different kind of divine light. The multicolored tachash, thus, represents the unified Jewish people complementing one another by the different shades of colors we represent (Sefer Ohr HaMeir, Parashat Teruma).

Fancy Exterior for the Sake of Heaven
Why did the tachashim pride themselves in their beautiful colors? Shouldn’t we be humble rather than proud? Yeitev Lev in his commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu, explains that the tachash came to teach us not do things for external reasons, such as in order to receive wealth and honor. Since the tachash took pride in its external beauty, it only lived temporarily. In order to gain eternity our intentions need to be for the sake of heaven rather than self-aggrandizement. Are there no redeeming qualities in priding ourselves for our exterior beauty and splendor? You may notice that holy Chassidic masters take great pride in an immaculate appearance crowned by luxurious fur streimels. Perhaps, a simpler inexpensive dress code would be more conducive to engender the desirable character trait of humility? Actually, great tzaddikim (righteous people) and benefactors of the Jewish people who are not bugged down by their ego, have the ability to take pride in their appearance, while remaining humble within. This character trait made the tachash suitable for the covering of the Mishkan (Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Parashat Teruma). I can identify with the multicolored tachash delighting in its bright colors. Wearing darker more humble shades such as black, navy and brown feels heavy and depressing to me. I remember in Denmark the Copenhagen Synagogue taking pride in its plain unassuming exterior façade hiding a most elegant sanctuary with a woman’s balcony and glorious crystal lamps. The tachash teaches us that an attractive exterior can go hand in hand with holiness, as the holy Mishkan was vibrant and colorful even on the outside. The challenge is to be fancy for the sake of Hashem while remaining humble within.

List of Bible Mistranslations of the word תַּחַשׁ/tachash – Multicolored Unicorn

New International Version ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather; acacia wood;
New Living Translation tanned ram skins and fine goatskin leather; acacia wood;
New American Standard Bible rams' skins dyed red, porpoise skins, acacia wood,
King James Bible And rams' skins dyed red, and badgers' skins, and shittim wood,
Holman Christian Standard Bible ram skins dyed red and manatee skins; acacia wood;
International Standard Version ram skins dyed red, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
NET Bible ram skins dyed red, fine leather, acacia wood,
GOD'S WORD® Translation rams' skins dyed red, fine leather, acacia wood,
American Standard Version and rams'skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia wood,
Douay-Rheims Bible And rams' skins dyed red, and violet skins, and setim wood:
World English Bible rams' skins dyed red, sea cow hides, acacia wood

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Sabbatical Year & Blessings of Redemption

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Mishpatim
Planting in the Sixth Year and Relinquishing Ownership in the Seventh
Sign in B'erot Garden - Garden of Emuna (Faith)
Parashat Mishpatim is filled with laws as the name of the parasha means ‘laws’ – particularly interpersonal laws, which make perfect sense to human logic. Sandwiched in between the law not to oppress the convert and the mitzvah of keeping Shabbat, Hashem instructs us to keep the Sabbatical year (Shemitah) and let the land rest: “Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in its yield; but in the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it; and what they leave let the beast of the field eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves” (Shemot 23:10). I find it interesting that the Torah introduces the mitzvah of Shemitah for the very first time, by prompting us to plant during the six preceding years. It is only when we do the work of planting and benefit from the harvest during the regular years that we are able to gain the full impact of the sabbatical year. We can only give something up to G-d if it used to be ours. If we don’t ever work the land, how can we fulfill, “You shall let it rest and lie fallow?” It seems from this English expression “lie fallow” that we must have nothing growing during the Shemitah year. Only after seeing this English translation do I understand one of my visitor’s puzzlement when she saw me busy planting the winter crop before Rosh Hashana. She exclaimed, “But I thought that we are supposed to give the land a rest, so why are you planting now right before the Shemitah year?” I explained to her that the Sabbatical year parallels Shabbat, and just as we are busy getting everything ready in the last hours before Shabbat, so may we get our garden ready and plant during the sixth year in preparation for Shemitah. Actually, the Hebrew word נְטַשְׁתָּהּ/netashta doesn’t exactly mean “to lie fallow,” rather it means “to let go and leave [the land alone].” It is a verb describing an action, actually a lack of action on our part, rather than describing the condition of the land itself. So our verse in this week’s parasha “six years you shall sow your land…” I get confirmation that my sowing Swiss chard, arugula, fennel, and chicory at the end of September last year to provide for the Shemitah year, was surely in accordance with Hashem’s directive. Only when I have something growing in my garden, can I let go of ownership during the Sabbatical year.

The Shemitah Banana Blessing
It is also possible to understand the statement, “Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in its yield…” as a blessing rather than a commandment. When we keep Shemitah in accordance with Hashem’s will, then the earth will give its energy during the remaining six years, unlike some fields, which need to lie fallow every second year, in order to produce. In the merit of keeping the Shemitah year, the field will be blessed during the six previous years, so you can “gather in its yield” (Torah Temima). I read an amazing story about a miracle during last Shemitah year, (2007-2008), about a completely secular banana farmer. For whatever reason, he decided to keep Shemitah and approached the Keren HaShvi’it for assistance. They complied to register him in their program as long as he would also take upon himself to personally keep Shabbat throughout the Shemitah year. He agreed, whereupon Keren HaShvi’it undertook to cover his farming expenses. All his produce would then become the property of Otzar Beit Din and distributed according to Halacha. That year Israel suffered significant cold and frost spells, which is very damaging for bananas. The farmer, who hadn’t yet seen the damage of his orchard, began to receive calls from his neighbor farmers, complaining bitterly that their entire banana crop had been destroyed by the frost. When the farmer drove up to inspect his orchard near Tiberias, he was overwhelmed by the damage as he passed from one orchard to another. Not a single banana from his neighbors’ orchard had survived. They had all turned brown and become rock-solid hard. He could only imagine how bad his trees must have gotten. When he finally arrived at his own orchard, he was awestruck! ALL of his bananas were yellow and green. Although his orchard bordered those of his neighbors, not a single tree of his was struck by the frost. As he rushed from one section of his orchard to another, he realized that more than the farmer keeps the Shemitah, the Shemitah keeps the farmer! Since then more and more farmers have begun to keep Shemitah – and look at what blessed rainy year we have this Shemitah year!

Sharing on Equal Grounds
In addition to bringing blessings to the Land, by keeping Shemitah, we learn to give up our field and produce to others once every seven years. This instills within us as a nation a broader concern for the needs of our fellow human beings (Sefer HaChinuch). When one of my students asked to pick from my greens, I was happy for the opportunity to keep the mitzvah of Shemitah and responded, “of course you really don’t even have to ask, it is also yours!” It may not always be so easy to let go of ownership, when you have worked hard, invested much money in soil, watering system, workers and seeds. Yet, this mitzvah of Shemitah ingrain within us the proper character traits of sharing on equal grounds, regardless of whether the other deserves it or not. This, expression of unconditional love, is so different from the Western values I was raised with, where the poor beggar is held responsible for his own poverty. Relinquishing ownership during the Shemitah year in order to share with everyone brings us closer to feel the unconditional love of, “what is mine is yours” (Pirkei Avot 5:10). I hope that when the summer fruit begin to ripen, many more neighbors and students are going to take their pick. This will give me a break from harvesting, dehydrating, juicing, jam making etc. Another purpose of Shemitah is exactly for our nation collectively to take a breather from the physical work of farming, and focus on higher, more spiritual pursuits. During this holy year, we are expected to concentrate more on our spiritual mission in life, and a little less on the material endeavors. We focus more on why we are needed, rather than what we need, more on faith in G‑d, less on faith in our own talents and dodges.

Letting Go Letting G-d: The Shemitah Struggle
At the moment my garden looks quite depressing. Old half-dry seedpods hang with their heads, and weeds are popping up all over the place. Although you are allowed to do whatever work necessary to prevent plants from dying, many of my plants have sadly wilted away, when I stopped paying daily attention to the garden. I find it a great challenge to keep the mitzvah of letting go and letting G-d decide the fate of the plants that are already in the ground. At times, I just can’t help myself from picking a few weeds. It’s almost an automatic reflex, like the challenge of not picking off dead skin on Shabbat. I know I’m allowed to pick weeds to feed the chickens, but you are really not supposed to pick them with the roots. As a religious Jewess, I obviously stay far away from doing serious gardening work during Shemitah. However, all the little borderline, hard-to-keep, gray areas test our Yirat Shamayim (fear of G-d). This applies equally to keeping the mitzvah of Shabbat. As much as we need faith to take off a full day a week from work and trust that Hashem will provide our needs, it is so much harder for the farmer to take off an entire year. We need a lot of Yirat Shamayim, as well as emunah to properly keep Shemitah. Sefer HaChinuch teaches that through allowing the land to rest during the seventh year and not cultivating it; we exhibit full faith and trust in G-d to provide for our needs (Mitzvah 84). Although during the last few Shemitah years it was really difficult to get Shemitah veggies, things are actually so much better this time. The Bat Ayin mini-mart has a great selection of Otzer Beit Din vegetables, and so does the big Rami Levi supermarket close by. It seems that Shemitah awareness is greatly growing in Israel.

Why Redemption in the Merit of Shemitah?
Hashem is giving us the Land of Israel in order that we guard its sanctity by keeping the laws of the land, especially Shemitah. That is our price for the privilege of living here. This can be compared to renting an apartment. If we don’t pay the rent then we get kicked out of the apartment. The laws of Shemitah teach us that we do not own the land, we are only ‘renting.’ However, realizing that the land truly belongs to G-d, by keeping Shemitah, gives us the merit to possess the land of Israel. This explains why, “The Mashiach will arrive the year following Shemitah” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a). When we show our perfect faith in Hashem by keeping the laws of Shemitah, then we are worthy of redeeming the land. It is, therefore, not surprising that every year following the Shemitah year has been consequential in our possession of the Land of Israel. Throughout the history of the State of Israel, we have either experienced great setbacks for our lack of keeping the laws of the land faithfully, or been rewarded greatly for the strengthened connection with Hashem and holiness we achieved during the Shemitah year. Most of the change in the borders of the state of Israel took place the year following Shemitah year. For example, it was Shemitah year in 1966, and the following year, during the Six Day War, we recaptured Yerushalayim and Gush Etzion. The next Shemitah year was in 1973. This year was followed by the devastating Yom Kippur war. Following the Shemitah year in 1980, we relinquished Sinai to Egypt. After two cycles of Shemitah in in 1995 the Oslo agreement brought bouts of terrorism in its wake. With Hashem’s help we can expect good news this fall following our current Shemitah year. May Hashem send his Mashiach in the merit of the righteous people keeping the laws of the land!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Mountain – A Window to Heaven

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Yitro
Har Sinai - student artwork
In Denmark, where I grew up, there are no mountains at all. It is a totally flat country. When, as a teenager, I was searching for truth I found Denmark and Danish people very square and straight but without spiritual heights. I noticed that people from mountainous even just hilly countries seemed more spiritual. So I developed this somewhat original anthropological theory, that the personality of different people is affected by the nature in which they live. Flat countries like Denmark produce ‘flat’ people, whereas people who live in the mountains tend to be more connected to the spiritual realm. At this time, before having found my truth in Torah, I revered the spirituality of the East. It, therefore, made perfect sense to me that the saints living in the Himalayan Mountains were so much more spiritual than the Danes from the green flatland. I attributed my feeling out of place in Denmark to the lack of mountains for my spiritual yearning. As soon as I finished high school, I was out of there, on my journey climbing the mountains in search of truth. Sure enough, I found myself learning Torah in Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Tzion from 1980-1987! Today, I live in the heart of the Judean Hills, surrounded by mountains on all sides, with the greatest mountainous view from my dining room panoramic window, and my spacious backyard. No wonder I feel at home here in spiritual Bat Ayin!

This week’s parasha confirms the theory of my youth linking spirituality to mountains. The most spiritual event of world history took place at Mount Sinai. At the Revelation of Sinai, when G-d gave the Torah to the Children of Israel, the great meeting point between G-d and us was nothing other than a mountain.

The Mountain of Life
The word הַר/har – mountain appears exactly 18 times in this week’s parasha, which incidentally begins with chapter 18 of the book of Shemot. 18 is the most well known number in Jewish numerology, corresponding to the Hebrew letter yud (10) and chet (8) spelling out the Hebrew word חֵי/chai – life. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the word ‘mountain’ is mentioned 18 times in preparation for and in connection with receiving the Torah – the Tree of Life. The mountain appears first in our parasha when Yitro leaves his honorable abode to journey into the wilderness to learn Torah from Moshe (Shemot 18:5 with Rashi). How did Yitro know where to seek Moshe? The mountain where G-d spoke with Moshe was already well known. This is where Hashem originally revealed Himself at the burning bush when Moshe was shepherding Yitro’s flock on the Mount of G-d (Shemot 3:1). Here, Hashem told him, “The sign that I have sent you, is that when you have brought the Jewish people out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d on this mountain” (Shemot 2:12). Moshe then showed Yitro the mountain where G-d would give the Torah. Moshe treasured this place camped there in love and anticipation of G-d’s revelation (Ohr HaChaim). Yitro, moreover, had heard from Moshe that the mountain of G-d was the most suitable place to receive Divine inspiration, something he too desired very much (Emek D’var).

Going Up to the Mountain of G-d to Convert
Not only Yitro, the most well known convert, came to the mountain to receive Torah. Actually, according to the Zohar, the mountain is symbolic of conversion of the soul. This concurs with the fact that the word הֵר/har – mountain shares the same numerology with the word בַּגֵּר/ba’ger – among the convert (Shemot 12:19). The mountain is the place for converts to gather to convert as it states, “Many nations shall go and say, ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of Hashem’” (Yesha’yahu 2:3). Since the mountain of G-d is a place where gentiles convert, it is written that Yitro came “to Moses into the wilderness.” “To Moshe,” to proselytize and bring gentiles under the wings of the Shechinah. ““Into the wilderness,” they would come. For the mountain of G-d is for converting the soul, to receive there the nefesh (soul) of the convert. The time will come when the other nations will strive to come under the wings of the Shechinah and say, “...let us go up...” All nations of the world are associated with descent, but those who cleave to the Holy One, blessed be He, will achieve an ascent. Therefore, it is written, “Let us go up.” (Zohar 2:69b).

Mountain of Humility and Peace
The Torah emphasizes that Israel camped facing he mountain. “When they departed from Refidim, and came to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mountain” (Shemot 19:2). The word רְפִידִים/Refidim can be unscrambled to become פרידים /Peridim (divided). Thus, the Torah is teaching us that they departed from being divided and encamped before the mountain like one person with one heart. This is why the word “encamped” is written in the singular language (Rashi). The particular place of Mount Sinai is what caused Israel to unite. Honor seeking and pursue of power causes all strife in the world. Therefore, when the children of Israel saw that although Mount Sinai is the lowest of all the mountains, Hashem desired it the most, they then realized how Hashem chooses the lowly. This is what inspired them to become humble and make peace between them. It was not the solitude of wilderness that did it, this is why the plural language is used when describing that they arrived and camped in the wilderness. This teaches us that while in the wilderness they were still disputing. It was only when they faced the mountain that the singular language denoting unity is used. Thus, it was the specifically the mountain that brought them peace (K’li Yakar).

Meeting Point between Heaven and Earth
It was from the mountain that Hashem called to Moshe to ascend (Shemot 19:3), and it was on the mountain that Hashem descended before the eyes of the entire nation of Israel (ibid. 11). Because of the great holiness of the Mount, Hashem warned the people not to come too close and not to touch the mountain or its edge (ibid. 12). On the day of the giving of the Torah the mountain became filled with “thunder and lightning. A thick cloud was on the mount, and the sound of the Shofar kept getting louder; and all the people in the camp trembled” (ibid. 16). Even the mountain itself trembled when Hashem descended upon it in fire and smoke (ibid. 18). Sometimes on a misty day, when I look out of my window, blankets of moving clouds envelop the mountains. It is an awesome sight, and I stand with my eyes glued to my glass-door feeling magnetized. Here in the mountain we live in the clouds. Even if they are not the Clouds of Glory, they still radiate a glimmer of the place where heaven and earth meet.

Dwelling on the Mountain
Hashem’s descending upon the mountain was a culmination of the process of Hashem’s desire to return to abide in the lower world. From the beginning of Creation Hashem desired a dwelling place below as it states, “…walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; (Bereshit 3:8). When Adam and Chava were expelled from the Garden of Eden due to their sin, G-d’s presence receded to the first heaven. When Kain killed Hevel, He withdrew to the second heaven, and through the sin of the generation of the Flood, the Tower, Sodom etc. He retreated all the way to the seventh heaven. However, when Avraham came and performed Hashem’s will, He returned to the sixth heaven, Yitzchak brought Hashem down to the fifth heaven, Ya’acov to the fourth, the tribe of Levi to the third, Amram to the second and Moshe to the first heaven. When the Children of Israel stood together to receive the Torah with one heart, Hashem went all the way down to ten handbreadths of the earth, as it states, “Hashem descended on Mount Sinai (Shemot 19:20). He made an opening in the heavens facing Sinai and he entered the head of the mountain inside of this window, while its legs were standing on the earth. This is the meaning of “I came to my Garden, my sister my bride” (Song of Songs 5:1). “At the time of the giving of the Torah, I finally arrived at my resting place that I had desired from the beginning of Creation to dwell in the lower world” (Ba’alei Tosfot, Shemot 19:20). After discovering all this, I understand my infatuation with mountains much better. I certainly am happy to live in here in the Mountains of the Judean Hills.