Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Is Sending Away the Mother Bird an Act of Compassion?

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Ki Tetze
Birds, Compassion and the Month of Elul
The mitzvah of sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks has always intrigued me. This week I’m sending away the ‘mother bird’ of my grandchildren and taking my three rambunctious fledging granddaughters aged 5, 7 and 8 for a full three day stint, so their mother can be “free” to fly to work while school hasn’t yet begun. As an endearing nickname, I actually call each of my granddaughters אפרוח/efroach – chick, to their great delight. Birds symbolize spirituality. They are light, refined and fly in the sky. The bird is associated with life because of its swift movements, which are completely alive. This is the opposite of death without movement (Maharal, Gevurat Hashem 19).
ספר דברים פרק כב:ו-ז
כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל עֵץ אוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל הָאֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ עַל הַבֵּיצִים לֹא תִקַּח הָאֵם עַל הַבָּנִים: שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֵם וְאֶת הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים
“If you come across a bird’s nest on the road, on any tree or on the ground, with baby birds or eggs, and the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You shall surely send away the mother, and only then may you take the young for yourself, so that it may go well with you, and you may prolong your days” (Devarim 22:6-7).

This peculiar mitzvah prompts many questions such as why does the Torah forbid taking the mother together with its young in the nest? Why do we have to send away the mother bird, if we want to take her eggs or chicks? What is so kind about sending away the mother-bird in order to take her young ones, won’t she feel pain when she returns to find her nest empty? Why is the reward of this mitzvah to live a good long life?

In my chicken coop, I go daily to collect eggs without sending away any of the hens. Am I then neglecting the favorable mitzvah of sending away the mother-bird? Rashi explains that this is not the case, for it states, “If a bird’s nest chance before you on the way” this excludes a bird’s nest or a chicken coop, which is in your property. Rambam explains that the purpose of the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird is to teach us compassion. Taking the child within the sight of her mother causes the mother acute pain. Animal mothers, just as human mothers, suffer when their offspring is harmed. “There is no real distinction between the pain of humans and the pain of animals, because a mother’s love and compassion for her young is not reasoned intellectually, but is connected with emotions and instincts. These are found among animals no less than among human beings… when the mother is sent away since she does not see her young ones being taken, she does not feel any pain. In most cases, however, this commandment will cause us to leave the whole nest untouched, because the young or the eggs, which we are allowed to take, are, as a rule, unfit for food. If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to animals, how much more careful must we be not to cause grief to our fellow human beings.” (Rambam, The Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 48). By performing the mitzvah of sending away the mother-bird, we are training ourselves to feel empathy and compassion for all G-d’s creations. This fits in with the theme of the month of Elul when the heavenly Gates of Compassion are open.

The Purpose of All Mitzvot is to Instill Good Character-traits and Compassion
There is a subtle difference between the approach of the Rambam and the Ramban. Ramban holds that compassion for the mother-bird herself is not the motive for this mitzvah. The fact that the Torah permits eating certain animals proves that human needs override those of animals. He explains that this mitzvah is related to another mitzvah which prohibits us from killing a mother animal and her young on the same day (Vayikra 22:28). If these mitzvot were for the sake of showing compassion toward the animals then it should be prohibited to slaughter the mother first and afterwards her calf, or to take the chicks at all. Rather both of these mitzvot have the following educational goal: to teach us not to be cruel-hearted. The focus of these mitzvot is therefore on ‘us’ rather than on the animals – to help us develop the trait of compassion by acting compassionately. Through these two mitzvot, the Torah is teaching us that our need should not become greed; thus, we are to avoid any action, which could lead to the destruction of an entire species. A similar explanation is given by the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 435). From the mitzvah to send away the mother-bird, with its reward of a good and long life, we learn a general principle about the purpose of all the mitzvot: To instill within us good character-traits such as compassion and to avoid cruelty.

Relating to Animals as Living Feeling Creatures
According to Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the mitzvah to send away the mother bird, the mitzvah, which prohibits us from killing a mother animal and her young on the same day, and the mitzvah to take the life of the animal in a humane way, all lead to the proper attitude towards animals. “We must take to heart that we are not involved with a random object that moves about like an automation, but with a living, feeling creature. We must become attuned to its senses, even to its emotions, to the feeling it has for the life of its family members, and to its compassion for its own offspring” (Chazon HaTzimchonut V’HaShalom). Judaism is filled with beautiful and powerful teachings about showing compassion to animals. Rivkah’s kindness of watering ten camels made her the worthy wife for the patriarch Yitzchak. Moshe and King David were selected to be leaders of the Jewish people because of their compassionate treatment of sheep. Many Torah laws mandate treating animals kindly. We may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and a weak animal together. Animals, as well as people, are to rest on Shabbat. We are prohibited from causing tza’ar ba’alei chayim – any unnecessary pain, including psychological pain, to living creatures. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains: “Here you are faced with G-d’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours (Chorev 60:416). Today, unfortunately, animals are treated cruelly in many ways. Rather than being treated as “living souls,” they are frequently treated as machines, as useful tools from which profits can be made. In fact, modern intensive livestock agriculture is often called, “factory farming.” In the US over a quarter-billion, male chicks are killed annually by suffocation instantly after birth, because they do not produce eggs, and they do not provide sufficient meat to justify raising them to maturity. This is just one symptom of how far we have moved from having compassion for birds (Dr.Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights).

Beyond Compassion
Although the ‘mother-bird mitzvah’ seems to derive from the noble consideration of mercy, we may not assume that we understand its true reason. All the mitzvot are Divine decrees, beyond human logic. The Mishna mentions that we must silence someone who prays to G-d to show him compassion, because G-d’s compassion extends even to a mother bird.
משנה מסכת ברכות פרק ה:ג
הָאוֹמֵר עַל קַן צִפּוֹר יַגִּיעוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ, וְעַל טוֹב יִזָּכֵר שְׁמֶךָ, מוֹדִים מוֹדִים, מְשַׁתְּקִין אותו
One who says [in prayer]: “Your compassion reach to the nest of a bird” and “Your name shall be mentioned on the good!” “Thank you, thank you” – silence him… (Mishna Berachot 5:3).

Rabbi Yossi bar Zvida explains that in highlighting the ‘mother-bird mitzvah,’the worshipper presents G-d’s laws as “springing from compassion, whereas they are only decrees” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 33b). The Rabbis ruled that we may not limit the reason for the mitzvah. In reality it may have many reasons, and compassion for the mother-bird is but one facet. (Tosfot Yom Tov Berachot 5:3). Nevertheless, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin goes along with the Rambam and stresses that G-d is known as the compassionate one. In the attributes of G-d indicated in the Torah (Shemot 34:6), the first attribute, after omnipotence, is mercy. There are numerous additional examples of G-d’s mercy in the Torah. He explains that the Mishna’s ruling is meant to prevent us from limiting Hashem’s great compassion, for sending away the mother bird is not a complete act of compassion. The true act of compassion would be to prohibit us from taking the eggs and the chicks as well. Permission to take the nestlings after sending away the mother- bird is a concession. The Torah’s ultimate goal is that we become so sensitive that we won’t want to disturb the nest at all. Yet, the Torah deals with reality, with the human instinct to take it all, mother and child. While the commandment to send away the mother bird aims to sensitize us to the feelings of animals, it can’t be invoked as an ideal of compassion based on which we can plead for G-d’s mercy.

The Pain of the Mother-bird Arouses Heavenly Mercy
The Zohar does not consider sending away the mother-bird as an act of compassion. When the mother bird is driven out of her nest, she cries bitterly over her separation from her young. The angel appointed over this species appears before the heavenly throne and complains: “Merciful One, why has Your Torah ordered such a heartless act?” The angels designated over the other bird species protest, objecting to their birds meeting the same fate. G-d then reprimands all the heavenly hosts saying, “Why do the angels in charge of the birds complain against the birds’ plight while none of you expressed concern over the anguish of My sons and the Shechinah (Divine Presence)? “The Shechinah is exiled. She is alienated from Her nest and home, the Holy Temple. My sons, the fledglings, dwell alone among their enemies, the nations of the world. Yet, none among you cry out to arouse My compassion for them! “For My own sake, then, I will redeem them!” (Tikunei Zohar 23a, cited by Chana Weisberg). Thus, this mitzvah has a profound cosmic impact by arousing heavenly mercy for the Jewish people. The mother-bird’s distress elicits Hashem’s compassion, and causes Him to shower His mercy on Klal Yisrael and individuals in need. In turn, Hashem then rewards the person who brought this about.

Mothers and Motherhood
We learned from the Zohar that the mitzvah of the mother-bird awakens the cry of the Divine mother for her children. Thus, motherly devotion is a Divine trait embodied by the Shechina – the Divine Female Indwelling presence. A mother’s love and self-sacrifice for her children extends from the highest Shechina to the lowest animal kingdom. As part of her motherly instinct, she will risk her life to save her young. It is therefore, specifically while the mother-bird is engaged in her activities of motherhood that she will be vulnerable to the hunter. Consequently, we must guard this noble character-trait and never exploit it. “If you are faced with the possibility of acquiring a bird which may be used for food, but you find it in free creation, serving its cosmic purpose – in that moment you should have respect for it as a servant of creation; do not appropriate it at the moment of its service to its species” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Chorev). In his commentary on the mitzvah which prohibits us from killing a mother animal and its young on the same day, Rabbi Hirsch comments: We venture to say that this idea reflects that aspect of animal life that shows the beginning of a resemblance to human character. Although egotism, love and concern for self is the powerful drive that stimulates animal life, the selfless love and care of the animal mother for its young comprise the first elevation to that selflessness that characterizes true human love – the godliest trait in the human character. We are to therefore emphasize and respect this elevated trait when we find it among other creatures (Rabbi Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen).

Earning a Long Life for Respecting the Mother
In spite of the limited compassion involved in the mitzvah of sending away the mother-bird, the Torah promises a great reward, a long life, to those who fulfill it (Devarim 22:7). Rashi comments that although it is a relatively easy mitzvah to carry out, involving little hardship or cost, we earn the tremendous reward of long life through its performance. We can, therefore, only imagine how great the reward will be for more difficult mitzvot. The only other mitzvah for which long life is promised is for honoring our parents in the Ten Commandments. Many are puzzled why the same reward is promised for the extremely difficult mitzvah of honoring parents and the relatively simple mitzvah of sending away a mother-bird. Kli Yakar explains that both of these mitzvot strengthen our belief in the creation of the world. They both teach us that no being comes into the world without a mother giving birth. This chain of motherhood leads us all the way back to Hashem – the original Mother, Who gave birth to the world. Had the world been eternal, without a Creator, there would be no reason to respect our parents. Yet, we believe that the first Mother shared her honor with all mothers emanating from her. Therefore, we must honor our parents, and send away the mother bird. Since both of these mitzvot strengthen our belief in the creation of the world, their reward is to live a long life in this world. This is the foundation of emunah, as it states, “…the righteous person lives by his faith” (Chavakuk 2:4). By means of emunah, we cleave to the source of life and therefore, the reward for this is to live a long life (Women at the Crossroads pp. 176-177). Simply, when a child sees his parents showing compassion to a mother-bird, she will be reminded of her obligations to her own parents. A number of Midrashim state that fulfillment of this mitzvah is a segulah (spiritual remedy) for having children. We learn this from the wording “that you may you take the young for yourself” (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 6:6, Yalkut Shimoni 930). The mitzvah is also a segulah for getting married and for acquiring a new house, since these two mitzvot are juxtaposed to the mitzvah of sending away the mother-bird (Devarim 22:8, 22:13).

Sending Away the Mother-bird Brings the Mashiach
There is an even more incredible reward associated with this mitzvah. “If you fulfill the law of kindness to birds (by sending away the mother bird), you will also fulfill the law of freeing Hebrew slaves… and you will thereby hasten the advent of Mashiach” (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 6.3). The connection between sending away the mother-bird and hastening Mashiach is also alluded to in the Hebrew letters that comprise the wording. “You shall surely send away the mother” – שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֵם. The last five letters which mean, “the mother” – א”ת הא”ם/et ha’em can be read as an acronym for א’ליהו ת’שבי המבשר א’ת מ’שיח – Eliyahu tisbi hamevaser et Mashiach – Eliyahu the Tishbite who will herald the Mashiach (Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dubno, Agra d’Kalah, Parashat Ki Tetze). How can the simple act of sending away a mother bird before taking the nestlings speed up the arrival of the Mashiach? In the Garden of Eden, there was harmony between people and animals. In spite of the Torah’s beautiful and powerful teachings about showing compassion to animals, this harmony no longer exists. The Torah relates that after the flood in the time of Noach, animals began to dread human beings (Bereishit 9:2). In the Messianic era, the harmony between people and animals that existed in the Garden of Eden will be restored. It will be a time when “…the wolf shall dwell with the lamb… the lion shall eat straw like the ox… and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of My (G-d’s) holy mountain” (Yesha’yahu 11: 6-9). In order to hasten the coming of Mashiach we must start to act out the conditions that will prevail during the Messianic times. When we show compassion to a mother-bird it will lead to greater concern also for people and one aspect of this will be freeing of slaves. For, as Rambam taught, the Torah mandates that we should not cause grief to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we do not cause grief to fellow human beings. Finally, this increased compassion for all of G-d creatures will lead to a greater appreciation of the Creator, and hence a greater commitment to performing all of G-d’s mitzvot, and finally to that ideal time of justice, compassion, and harmony embodied by the Messianic vision (Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Does the Torah Permit Tree-Hugging?

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Shoftim
Tree Worship or Tree Praise?
Rebbetzin Chana Bracha, Deer Park Forest, Denmark 1981
I must have been born a nature lover. Most of my childhood and early youth I lived near the famous Danish deer-park forest. We lived on “Along the Forest Fence Street” and the forest actually extended into our backyard where two awesome immense beech trees surrounded by natural grass, and flowers was a most welcome part of our garden. I loved to sit under these trees and meditate sensing their amazing energy. In this forest, there are huge beech trees almost a thousand years old I was told. It is not hard to understand why tree worship has been so popular for generations. Trees are great; they can be large and powerful, give shade, food, wood for furniture and clean the air by transforming carbon dioxide to vital oxygen. Aren’t trees Divine?

In myth and legends, trees appear as sources of life and wisdom, as ladders between worlds. With their roots buried deep in the earth, their trunks above ground, and their branches stretching toward the sky, trees served as symbolic, living links between this world and the beyond. During the iron age, Druidism were involved cultic practice in sacred groves, especially the oak. The term druid itself possibly derives from the Celtic word for oak. In the wake of the Celtic revival during the 18th and 19th centuries, Neo-Druidism was founded based on ideas about the ancient druids. Forests play a prominent role in many folktales and legends. In these dark, mysterious places, heroes can lose their way, face unexpected challenges, and stumble on hidden secrets. In Chassidic stories as well, forests and trees play a central role. The Ba’al Shem Tov used to go into certain forests to meditate, and Rabbi Nachman taught that the best place to do hitbodedut was in a field or forest, among the natural works of Hashem’s creation.

In this week’s parasha we are commanded to treat trees with utmost respect, being prohibited from cutting down fruit trees even for the sake of winning a war because trees are similar to humans. “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human that it should be besieged by you?” (Devarim 20:19). Why is “the tree of the field” compared to a person? What is the resemblance between the loftiest creature and lowly vegetation?” Furthermore, what is the difference between tree worship of the nations and the Torah’s reverence for trees?

Tree Huggers
As an avid environmentalist since childhood, I have often been called a ‘Tree Hugger.’ Now it has actually been scientifically proven that touching a tree can improve our health. Its different vibrational pattern affects various biological behaviors within our body. Matthew Silverstone in his book, “Blinded By Science” brings evidence confirming that trees have numerous healthful benefits on humans which includes alleviating depression, and headaches while strengthening concentration levels and working memory. The book cites a large variety of studies showcasing how children who regularly interact with plants and trees reap extreme psychological and physiological improvement in their overall health and well-being. One report even concluded the following: “safe, green spaces may be effective in treating some forms of mental illnesses.” Imagine doctors prescribing, an hour a day in a forest, instead of various pharmaceutical drugs with numerous side effects. In Japan, people practice ‘forest bathing,’ where they spend quiet time absorbing the wisdom of ancient forests, taking long walks among the trees to stimulate their immune system. Taoism encourages meditation among trees, to release negative energy, and it is believed that the trees will absorb negative energies, replacing them with healthy ones. Trees are seen as a source of emotional and physical healing, as meditators, absorbing universal energies. So what is the Torah view of trees, and tree huggers? Does the Torah agree that “Trees are the source of emotional and physical healing?”

Distancing Trees from the Altar of Hashem
This week’s parasha includes two different references to trees. The first is the prohibition of planting trees on the Temple mount in proximity with the altar where we sacrifice to Hashem.
ספר דברים פרק טז (כא) לֹא תִטַּע לְךָ אֲשֵׁרָה כָּל עֵץ אֵצֶל מִזְבַּח הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ
“You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of Hashem your G-d, which you shall make for yourself” (Devarim 16:21).

This prohibition simply comes to ensure that when we sacrifice to Hashem it shouldn’t look as if we are coming to worship the trees (Chizkuni). Throughout early Biblical history, the Israelites have not been immune to the Canaanite tree worship of the Asherah – the Amorite tree goddess. (The Ancient Near East Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 97). The main era of worshipping the Asherah spanned from 2000 BCE to 500 BCE (Michael Jordan, Encyclopedia of Gods (New York: Facts On File, 1993), p. 27). Ramban explains that planting trees by the altar was prohibited because it was the way of the idol-worshippers to plant trees at the entrances of their sanctuaries.

Bribing the Judge and Trees by the Altar
The Talmud learns from the juxtaposition between the first Torah verse in our parasha charging Israel to appoint judges and the prohibition to plant an Asherah or any tree by the altar that appointing an unfit judge is compared to planting an Asherah (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 52a). Meschech Chachma explains the connection as follows: Just as a proper judge cannot be bribed to make an unfair judgment; likewise Hashem cannot be bribed by our sacrifices, as He doesn’t need anything in His perfection. This stands in contrast to idol-worship where it is believed that the various gods need the sacrifices for their sustenance, and as an exchange, the gods provide their worshippers with their various needs. Yet, receiving Hashem’s blessings is not contingent upon the sacrifices, which are for our sake rather than for His. This is alluded to in the end of our Torah verse “…the altar of Hashem your G-d, which you shall make for yourself.” Hashem doesn’t need nourishment as He is unchangeable. For this reason, the altar must be made of inanimate stones that do not grow and don’t need anything from people. This is unlike trees, which need water and compost in order to grow. The name אֲשֵׁרָה /Asherah stems from the word התאשר/hitasher, which denotes their ability to increase and grow. Therefore, in order that it shouldn’t look as if Hashem is nourished by our worship, the Torah prohibits planting trees by the altar.

Walking on the Tightrope between Tree Worship and Veneration
In contrast to the prohibition of planting trees, this week’s parasha furthermore includes a prohibition against cutting down fruit trees, in respect of the tree which is compared to a human being (Devarim 20:19). The special quality of trees is their attachment to the earth, the source from whence they derive their existence and nourishment. A person’s emotional traits are likened to a tree that embodies growth and development. This is in contrast to Hashem who remains the same before and after creation. Judaism’s respect for trees thus derives from its respect of people. Trees are compared to people but not to G-d. So where does this concept take us in terms of connecting with trees? Is a G-d fearing Jew permitted to be a Tree hugger? I believe the answer to this question is yes and no. Because trees are so powerful and the Hebrew word for tree – אִילָן/ilan is related to the word for G-d – אֵל/El, the Torah warns us against mistaking a tree for a deity. Therefore, we must distance trees as much as possible from our worship of Hashem to instill within us that no matter how powerful, majestic and healing, trees are not gods. Judaism does not believe that “Trees are the source of emotional and physical healing?” Only Hashem is the source of all healing. Trees may be a vehicle through which Hashem’s healing energy manifest, but they are only the means rather than the source. This subtle difference cannot be emphasized enough. Judaism is not a pantheistic religion, which believes that G-d and nature is one. We do not believe that the tree, the flower or the mountain is G-d, but rather that they are all creations of G-d. “Hashem is the place of the world, but the world is not his place” (Tikunei Zohar 81:2). The world is part of G-d, but G-d cannot be contained within the world, not even within King Solomon’s glorious Temple (I Melachim 8:27). This panentheistic view is the fine line that separates us from the pantheistic idol-worship. Trees can be beneficial for us in many ways just as there are people who help us to heal, develop and grow. Trees derive their amazing specialness from G-d just like people to whom they are compared. When we master walking on the tightrope of differentiating between the holiness of a tree and the holiness of Hashem then we may even be permitted to hug a tree, just as we would hug a friend.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Shoulder of the Land

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Re’eh
Responsibilities, Control and Shoulder Pain
I often feel tension in my shoulders whenever I’m under pressure, like prior to my annual North America tour, before Pesach or when facing challenges within the family. A while ago, as I was getting a massage to alleviate the tension in my shoulders, it occurred to me that perhaps there is too much weight on my shoulders. Perhaps I’m taking too much upon myself. I have never been afraid to go against the grain and do the impossible such as having a child after the doctors pronounced it impossible or to start a women’s seminary all alone with only my husband’s support. I would never go back on any of these accomplishments, but perhaps I have a lesson to learn about doing my part in the world without it weighing so heavy on my shoulders. I was inspired by a certain Rabbi, who is in charge of a multitude of institutions. The only way he is able to survive all of this responsibility is by approaching the tasks as a worker rather than as the contractor. I’m working on fine tuning my attitude to integrate taking on responsibility while trusting that only Hashem is truly in charge. Although we are responsible to choose the tasks that can benefit others and the world even if they are big and impossible, we must never forget that while we are in charge of our actions, we have no control over the outcome, which is ultimately in Hashem’s hands. With this kind of attitude, we can keep serving Hashem with happiness while removing the heavy pressure from our shoulders. In this week’s parasha the Israelites are charged with entering the land of Israel and the immense responsibility to conquer it. The very first day that they were to cross the Jordan river, their immediately layover was to be the mountains of Gerizim and Eval in the city of Shechem. It is not by chance that the first place the Israelites enter is Shechem – the shoulder of the land. One of the main meanings of the word שֶׁכֶם/shechem is shoulder as in “…the government is upon his shoulder –שִׁכְמוֹ/shichmo” (Yesha’ayhu 9:5), and “The key to the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder שִׁכְמוֹ/shichmo” (Ibid. 22:22). Without going deeper into the spiritual energy of the place of Shechem it doesn’t make sense that it is selected to be the first place that both Avraham, Ya’acov and the Israelites entered when arriving in the Land of Israel. For it is located some 60 mil (a little more than 60 km) from the border of the Land marked by the Jordan River.

A Portion of High Self-Esteem
It turns out that I have much to learn from the nature of the place called Shechem about humility versus self-importance when it comes to taking on responsibilities.
ספר דברים פרק יא
כט: וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָתַתָּה אֶת הַבְּרָכָה עַל הַר גְּרִזִּים וְאֶת הַקְּלָלָה עַל הַר עֵיבָל
 ל: הֲלֹא הֵמָּה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בְּאֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיּשֵׁב בָּעֲרָבָה מוּל הַגִּלְגָּל אֵצֶל אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה
לא: כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן לָבֹא לָרֶשֶׁת אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם נֹתֵן לָכֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֹתָהּ וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ
לב: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם
“When Hashem your G-d brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Eval. Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Aravah near Gildgal, by Alon Moreh. For you are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land that Hashem your G-d is assigning to you. You shall possess it and settle it. Take care to observe all the statutes and laws that I set before you this day” (Devarim 11:29-32).

On the verge of entering into the Promised Land, the Israelites received a peculiar command: To stand between two mountains situated near each other at Shechem in the Shomron, north of Jerusalem. This place was where Avraham first stopped when he entered Canaan and G-d first promised him, “to your seed will I give this land” (Bereishit 12:7). When Ya’acov returned from his 22 year exile from the land it was also the city of Shechem that he entered first, “Ya’acov arrived in peace in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan when he came from Padan-aram; and encamped before the city” (Bereishit 33:18). What is so special about the city of Shechem that it was selected to be entry point of the patriarchs and the Israelites? The Shem M’Shemuel explains that the word שֶׁכֶם/shechem also means ‘portion’ as when Ya’acov told Yosef, “I assign to you one extra portion (שֶׁכֶם/shechem) more than to your brothers…” (Bereishit 48:22). This implies a special portion that cannot be nullified, like in the laws of the prohibition to mix meat and milk where one drop is nullified if it is less than one sixties of the mixture unless it’s a special worthy portion which never can be nullified. The place who bears the name Shechem has this nature of importance and causes the people who dwell in it to share the nature of self-importance. This is why Shechem had the nerve to think himself important enough to marry “the daughter of Ya’acov” (Bereishit 34:7).

The “Shechem Mindset” for Good or for Evil
Each person in the city of Shechem wanted his own portion in life to be significant in itself, and not just part of a larger entity. It was a place that influenced its dwellers and those who came through it to feel their own self-importance. If we misuse this characteristic, we become completely self-oriented, clinging to our goals, despite the opposition by society and even by G-d. On the other hand, when our high self-esteem leads us to feel that the world is created for me, and I must “be bold as a tiger” (Pirkei Avot 5:20) it boosts our drive to achieve good things in the face of adversity. We need to feel strong and independent to begin any activity, and fulfill challenging mitzvot especially if everyone else work against us. I know someone who stands up against her entire family and their plans to force one of her parents into a home for the elderly. She is the only one trying to find an alternative solution with home care in order to keep the mitzvah of honoring her parents and save them from absolute misery. It is only the character trait of the empowerment of “Shechem” that keeps her going in the face of being mocked and put down by the rest of her family. Adopting this attitude of taking ourselves serious strengthen our commitment to keep all the mitzvot meticulously. The “Shechem mindset” reminds us about the importance of each and every mitzvah that we perform, and the effect our words can have on the entire world. Of course, we must control this feeling of personal empowerment and independence to avoid going to the opposite extreme of arrogant self-importance. This is the character trait of the wicked Esav, whose haughtiness has no remedy. This character trait is the husk compared to dark clouds that won’t let in any light (Zohar 3:251). We experience this negative trait of self-importance for example through the young neglecting to give a seat in the bus to an elder or pregnant woman, or through a daughter-in-law who yells at her mother in law. When we act as if we are the only ones in the world that matter without taking others into account then we are smitten by the husk of Shechem. This explains the statement that “Shechem is designated for troubles, there they afflicted Dina, there the tribes sold Yosef and there the kingdom of the house of David was split” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a). We cannot, G-d forbid, say that our Sages spoke derogatively about any city in the Land of Israel, especially not a city that Ya’acov gave as a gift to his favorite son, Yosef. It can’t be that the city of Shechem in itself is evil. Rather, it causes those who pass through it the awareness of being a specially selected, which can either lead to the greatest accomplishments or become the worst of the worst, depending on our attitude.

Balanced Boosting of Our Self-image
If we are not careful and use the energy of Shechem in a good way, it turns against us to our detriment, as it did to all those who attributed too much importance to themselves. Shechem thought he was on the same level as Ya’acov, the tribes refused to nullify themselves to Yosef – the Tzaddik and many generations later they refused to nullify themselves to the kingdom of David with the Temple in its midst. We learn from these instances to balance our great self-image with the greatest humility, letting go of control. Each of the three events, which occurred in Shechem were cases of one group trying to control or gain influence over another. By understanding this nature of Shechem, we can appreciate why Avraham, Ya’acov, and eventually the Israelites needed to begin their dwelling in the land of Canaan at precisely this location. It was in order to balance the pride of Shechem with their modesty, as both exemplified the greatest humility. Avraham said about himself, “I am dust and ashes” (Bereishit 18:27), whereas the word Ya’acov derives from ekev, which refers to the heel – the lowest part of the body. Both were masters at using the Shechem element when necessary while mitigating it with the utmost humility, retaining a proper prospective on life and their own worth without going overboard. They passed on this ability to their descendants, the Israelites as a whole, who were able to derive inspiration from Shechem as they entered the land while walking on the tightrope of balance between self-confidence and arrogance. In the youth of our life we need to feel empowered and believe in ourselves, since the yetzer hara weakens us when a holy task is before us, as in the case of the spies that became afraid to conquer the land. Coming from the desert, the entry to the land and the capture of the cities was the greatest venture the Israelites would ever undertake. Although G-d was with them at every step, it must have been terrifying to take over such a new and unfamiliar land. They needed a tremendous boost of strength and confidence to launch their task in the correct frame of mind. This, of course, was the power of Shechem. As they began their conquest of Canaan, they stopped there, which gave them the boost of confidence they surely needed at that historic moment (Shem M’Shemuel, Parashat Vayishlach, year 5672).

The Mountains of Blessings and Curses
The land of Israel is unlike other countries, a place of holiness where Israel enters into a covenant with Hashem. Therefore, upon entering the land of Israel, they needed to consciously confirm and take upon themselves the responsibility of keeping all the mitzvot of the Torah. This was accomplished in Shechem – the shoulder of the land that carries Israel’s responsibilities. While turning their faces to Mount Gerizim the Israelites were to pronounce blessings like for example, “Blessed is the person who doesn’t make a molten idol.” Then they would need to turn their faces toward Mount Eval and pronounce the corresponding curse, “Cursed is the person who makes a molten idol.” According to this procedure, they would continue with the rest of the blessings and the curses. First they would pronounce the blessing, then the corresponding curse (Rashi, Devarim 11:29). Why was Mt. Gerizim chosen for blessing and Mt. Eval for curses? It seems like it could just as easily have been the reverse. The Torah doesn’t give a reason why one mountain should be chosen for blessings, and the other for curses. Ramban suggests that Mt. Gerizim is to the south and Mt. Eval to the north and in biblical geography the north is often identified with evil as in, “From the North shall evil break lose” (Yirmiyahu 1:14). Furthermore, throughout Tanach directions are given relative to the east, making south the right and north the left; and again, the right is seen as the side of goodness and the left as the opposite, as for example in Kohelet 10:2. Tiferet Yehonatan expounds this concept and explains that a long life is attributed to the right, whereas wealth and honor to the left (Mishley 3:16). Pursuing wealth and honor is not the Torah way. This explains why evil is attributed to the north (left). “He who wants to become wise should turn south (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 25b). This is because the south of Israel is uncultivated desert. “He who wants to become rich should turn north,” toward the lush green fruitful pastures. The name for Mt. Gerizim is connected with the Hebrew word גזרה/gezera, which means, “cut” for the blessed mountain is cut off from the material. The name for Mt. Eval is connected with the Hebrew word עב/av, which means dense, for pursuing the material causes us to become denser, coarser and desensitized to spirituality. However, Mt. Gerizim was located on the south side of Shechem. It had stunning landscaping, beautifully grown grass and many types of foods grew on it; it was full and prosperous with an abundance of flora. On the other hand, Mt. Eval was located to the northern side of Ephraim’s portion. It was empty and barren. Nothing grew on this mountain and it seemed to be void of any plant life. These two mountains, which stood side by side, presented the most striking visual contrast of blessing and curse. They are both being nourished by the same soil, the same water and the same wind. Yet, Mt. Eval was barren of all shrubbery while Mt. Gerizim was full of lush vegetation, all the way up the mountain. We see that blessing and curse are not dependent on external appearances; they lie within a person’s heart (Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsh). Indeed, based on Wikipedia, we can see that Mt. Gerizim is lush with grass In contrast, Wikipedia says that Mt. Eval is composed primarily of limestone. Another possibility for why the blessing was on Mt. Gerizim is that when you’re standing in the valley between the two mountains, looking towards Mt. Gerizim you are facing Jerusalem, while looking towards Mt. Eval places your back towards Jerusalem. Perhaps, then, it was also meant as a veiled message that Hashem’s blessings come when we make Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash the center of our aspirations, and the opposite when we abandon them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Eikev
Sacred Fruits
The Land of Israel is described as “A land of wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey” (Devarim 8:8). The Sages understand the verse’s mention of honey to be date honey (Mishna Berura 202:44). These seven species were the staple foods consumed by the Jewish people in the Land of Israel during biblical times. They contain special holiness, as reflected by the unique blessing recited after eating them, thanking Hashem for the goodness of the land.

Fruits of Redemption
The praise of the land of Israel for its fruit-trees is a deep environmental lesson in itself, testifying to the importance of nature and trees in Judaism. The Torah paints the shade of the grapevine and fig tree as a metaphor for the idyllic world-peace we await. Our ultimate trust in G-d is expressed through the serene environment where “Yehuda and Yisra’el will sit securely, each person under his vine and fig tree…” (I Melachim 5:5). As we munch on juicy grapes, we are reminded that there is no greater sign of the coming redemption than when the Land of Israel produces fruits in abundance (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a).

Expressing Emuna through the Seven Fruits
The offerings of the בִּכּוּרִים/bikkurim – first fruits brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot were only from these seven species. On what merit are these fruits selected? Nogah Hareuveni, the founder and chairman of Neot Kedumim, The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, and author of numerous books on Judaism and nature explains that the flowering and fruiting of the seven species take place during the period between Pesach and Shavuot, a season depending on the delicate balance between contradictory forces of nature. It is characterized by climatic contrasts between extreme dryness and heat on the one hand and cold rainstorms on the other, which could easily be misconceived as battles between opposing deities. Therefore, our pure faith in the One and only G*d is tested specifically through expressing thanks to Hashem for these fruits of the Land.

Fruits of Spiritual Self-Improvement
The season between Pesach and Shavuot is furthermore characterized by self-improvement and spiritual preparation for receiving the Torah. As we count the Omer during the forty-nine days following Pesach, we turn to Hashem in repentance and prayer. Since the fate of the seven fruits is linked to our own spiritual achievement and merit, it is not surprising that these seven kinds comprise a wealth of nutrients and medicinal properties.

Mystical Spiritual Energies and Medicinal Properties
The fact that the seven species reflect our refinement during the Omer period sheds light on why the great Kabbalist Arizal[1] attributes the spiritual energies of each fruit to one of the seven lower sefirot (spiritual emanations) that we count during this time (Ariza”l, Sefer Halikutim, Parashat Ekev, chapter 8). Their correspondence is according to the order they occur in the Torah verse. It is interesting to note how the medical properties of the seven species are synchronized with their spiritual energies.

Wheat of Kindness
Wheat corresponds to חֶסֶד/chesed – Loving kindness, the first of the seven lower sefirot. The characteristic of chesed is expansion, to reach out and extend oneself towards others. Wheat likewise reflects the nourishing food of kindness and to this day remains our main sustaining food stable. According to the renowned Rabbi and physician Maimonides[2] wheat strengthens the body and increases mother’s milk, the ultimate nourishment of chesed.[3]

Barley of Self-control
Barley corresponds to גְּבוּרָה/gevurah –restraint. Its characteristic is contraction, reduction and setting boundaries. This is reflected by each barley seed being enclosed in a strong hull (boundary), which remains intact even during threshing. Moreover, the prophet emphasizes that specifically barley must be sowed within the boundary of the marked spot (Yesha’yahu 28:25). Due to its contracting quality, barley is highly effective in reducing liquid when added to soup.[4]

Grapes of Beauty
Grapes grow in beautiful clusters and correspond to תִּפְאֶרֶת/tiferet – beauty. This trait is characterized by the balance between its different and sometimes contrary components. Since tiferet is the perfect balance between chesed and gevurah, grapes include both nourishing and eliminating qualities. Grape-seed oil nourishes the skin, while also containing a very high content of antioxidants[5] for eliminating free radicals.[6] Grapes are known to promote weight loss[7] because of their diuretic quality, yet they are very nutritive replete with vitamins A, B, and C while also treating blood and energy deficiency.[8]

Figs of Endurance
Figs correspond to נֵצַח/netzach – endurance, which engenders longevity. The fig-tree reflects everlasting fruitfulness as it has one of the longest periods of ripening, spanning more than three months. Malbim[9] explains that we need to watch the fig-tree very carefully by picking its figs daily, since they ripen one after the other. Likewise, we need to guard our teachers daily in order to glean the fruits of their wisdom. “Figs, grapes and almonds are always the best fruits whether fresh or dried” (Rambam, Hilchot Deot, 4:11). They are very rich in minerals, especially iron. Figs soften the liver and help alleviate constipation, which is one of the main tenets of longevity and health (Ibid. Halacha 13). They are very good for old people,[10] by strengthening the blood and arousing a person’s vitality (Ibn Ezra, Chabakuk 3:17).

Pomegranate – the Immune Booster
Pomegranate, a very beautiful and majestic fruit, even has a crown. It corresponds to הוֹד/hod, which means majesty and glory. Hod is also related to the Hebrew word תּוֹדָה/todah, which means thanks and recognition. According to Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh,[11] hod corresponds to our immune system (Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Body Mind and Soul, p. 96). A healthy immune system is able to recognize our friends from our foes. The pomegranate boosts our immune system. Pomegranate seed oil causes the cancer cells to self-destruct. The juice of the fruit is toxic to most breast cancer cells, yet has almost no effect on healthy cells.[12] Pomegranate juice has also been proven to decrease heart disease by decreasing LDL (bad cholesterol) and increased HDL (good cholesterol).[13]

Olive – The Foundation of Life
Olive oil corresponds to יְסוֹד/yesod – foundation. Olive oil is the foundation of most Mediterranean foods. Rambam explains that olive oil cleans the liver and loosens stools.[14] It is helpful against stones in the urinary tract to drink a teaspoon of olive oil every morning before eating.[15] Olive oil protects against heart disease by lowering the blood pressure, and coats the stomach to protect against ulcers. Several molecular components of olive oil, called phenols, have the potential to protect against cancer,[16] especially of the bowels.[17] Thus, olive oil can truly be called the foundation of life.

Dates of Unification
Dates correspond to מַלְכוּת/malchut –kingdom. The role of the king is to unify his people. The stickiness of the dates can serve as a unifier when mixed with other substances. Malchut is the channel that allows everything to manifest below. Therefore, malchut is connected with the digestive system. The Talmud teaches that dates heal intestinal illnesses (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 10b). The palm tree has no waste, its lulavs (hearts) are used for prayer, its fronds for shade, its fibers for ropes, its twigs for a sieve, and its beams for houses. Likewise, the people of Israel have no waste: They each master their own particular part of Torah learning or perform mitzvoth and charitable deeds (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 41:1). The righteous person (tzaddik) is compared to the date palm (Tehillim 92:13), which is tall and strong, pleasant and fruitful.

Conscious Consumption
The Torah’s mention of the seven species is not incidental. Rather, these foods are central to a Jewish spiritual path that endeavors to elevate the physical through intentional living. Eating the seven species in a conscious way can promote our well-being, help us connect to the land of Israel, and deepen our relationship with G*d. Each of the seven species contains deep lessons about G*d and our spiritual lives. Every time we eat them, we have the opportunity to tune into their spiritual messages, eat consciously, and bring the world a step closer to its perfected state.

This essay is the foundation for the award-winning book The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel with their Mystical & Medicinal Properties, the Wholesome Spirited Cookbook Nutrition & Health Series with Torah Teachings & Recipes. If you are interested in detailed information on the Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel you may order your personal copy in Israel by contacting Elana, USA, rest of the world

From the Back Cover
"The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel with their Medicinal and Mystical Properties by Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum is a fascinating, informative book based on extensive research and containing many original ideas. I highly recommend this well-written, innovative, interdisciplinary work. The book makes connections between the most diverse modalities of knowledge, from Biblical, Talmudic, Kabbalistic, and Jewish legal scholarship to modern medical research. In addition, the writing is interspersed with original recipes and practical tips relating to the Seven Fruits of Israel.

The book is filled with the redemptive spirit of the Land of Israel and will appeal to a wide range of readers, including Jewish educators, those with a special interest in the Land of Israel, nutritionists and health-care professionals, as well as anyone interested in discovering and trying out new recipes. The book is suitable for both Jews and non-Jews." Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum Director, AZAMRA

[1] Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi, Tzefat 1534-1572.
[2] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, 1135–1204.
[3] Nature’s Wealth, Health and Healing Plants Based on the Teachings of the Rambam p. 278, Rabbi Moshe Cohen Shaouli and Rabbi Ya’akov Fisher, translated by Ruth Steinberg from the Hebrew editition, Beit Kneset Shauli, Ashdod, 1997.
[4] A recent study by the FDA evidenced that barley reduces cholesterol and risk of coronary disease FDA News, December 23, 2005,
[5] Joshi SS, Kuszynski CA, Bagchi D. The cellular and molecular basis of health benefits of grape seed proanthocyanidin extract. Curr Pharm Biotechnol. 2001;2(2):187-200, as referenced on online at
[6] Purple grape juice improves endothelial function and reduces the susceptibility of LDL cholesterol to oxidation in patients with coronary artery disease. See Stein JH, Keevil JG, Wiebe DA, Aeschlimann S, Folts JD. Circulation 1999.
[7] Rabbi Binyamin Moshe Kohn Shauli, Nature’s Wealth, p. 130.
[8] Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D., O.M.D., Planetary Herbology, Lotus Press, 1988, p. 317.
[9] Rabbi Meir Loeb Ben Jehiel Michael, 1809–1879, in his commentary on Proverbs 27:18.
[10] Nisim Krispil, Medicinal Herbs of the Rambam (in Hebrew), Arad, Israel, 1989, p. 211.
[11] One of the greatest contemporary Kabbalistic masters, author of numerous books, Rosh hayeshiva of Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai.
[12] Research directed by Dr. Ephraim Lansky, at Technion, The Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, 2001.
[13] Research by a group of scientists in Israel, 2000, headed by Professor Michael Aviram, an internationally recognized authority on the effect of food on heart disease.
[14] Nisim Krispil, Medicinal Herbs of the Rambam, p. 109.
[15] Rabbi Binyamin Moshe Kohn Shauli, Nature’s Wealth, p. 188.
[16] Casaburi I, Puoci F, Chimento A, Sirianni R, Ruggiero C, Avena P, Pezzi V. Potential of olive oil phenols as chemopreventive and therapeutic agents against cancer: A review of in vitro studies. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013 Jan;57(1):71-83.
[17] Stoneham M, Goldacre M, Seagroatt V, Gill L. Olive oil, diet and colorectal cancer: an ecological study and a hypothesis. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2000 Oct;54(10):756-60. This study shows new evidence of olive oil’s protective effect on colonic mucosa, and positive signs that olive oil indeed prevents the commencement of rectum and bowel cancer.