Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In Which World Do We Receive Our Ultimate Reward?

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Bechukotai
Living Mindfully in the Present or for the Sake of Future Reward?
Drama on Megillat Ruth
The other day, I was learning Rambam’s 13 Principles of Belief with my students as part of my weekly ‘Basic Jewish Concepts’ class. When discussing principle 11, “The belief in Divine Reward and Retribution,” students felt assured to know that every one of our good deeds is recorded and that ultimately, we will reap its reward. Conversely, the fact that “there is a judge and there is judgment,” and that even when nobody sees, we will eventually be held accountable for not acting in accordance with Hashem’s mitzvot, fills us with awe. Yet, it is not always easy to truly believe in the principle of ‘reward and punishment.’ One of my students asked, “Why do some girls find their soulmate immediately without a word of prayer, whereas, the kindest women must cry their eyes out, and year after year dance at their friends’ weddings, celebrate the birth of their friends’ children while they remain single and forsaken?” A lively discussion began. One way to explain why the righteous suffer is that immediate reward and punishment in this world would jeopardize ‘Free Choice’ – the very condition of human existence. If, for example, every time a person performs the mitzvah of welcoming guests, he would win the lottery, and each time he spoke a word of lashon hara, his nose would grow long, then the importance of keeping all the mitzvot in the Torah would be obvious to everyone. “Therefore,” I explained, sharing the traditional explanation with my students, “Hashem grants the wicked the reward for their few good deeds in this world, but they will suffer in the hereafter, whereas, the righteous receive their retribution in this world for their few sins, and will experience the highest spiritual pleasure in the eternal World-to-Come.” Likewise, our sages teach, “This world is like a corridor to the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.…” (Pirkei Avot 4:16). This view, echoed by the Ramchal, has become one of the most central of Jewish beliefs: The purpose of our Torah and mitzvot in This World is only a means towards the ultimate goal in the World-to-Come (The Path of the Just chapter 1). Yet, when I returned from teaching, I pondered further on this concept, asking myself: “Don’t we want to live here and now in this world with our full consciousness and mindfulness in the present moment, rather than to be halfhearted in our current action, while striving towards some future goal in the unknown eternal world? Moreover, doesn’t all this focus on eternal reward in the next world make our doing the mitzvot only in order to gain brownie points? Don’t our sages teach, “Do not serve the Master for the sake receiving a reward; rather serve Him with no reward in mind” (Pirkei Avot 1:3)?

The Torah Focus on Living Fully in This World
Interestingly, this week’s parasha seems to be in line with the notion of living fully in This World. When discussing the reward and punishment for those who observe or disobey the mitzvot, both Parashat B’Chukotai and Parashat Ki Tavo describe the blessings and curses. Yet in neither of them do we find the faintest reference to a reward in the World-to-Come. In fact, there is no explicit mention of Olam Haba in the entire Bible! Why does the Torah completely ignore the concept of the-World-to-Come when mentioning the blessings for keeping Hashem’s mitzvot and curses for transgressing them? From the words of our parasha, it seems that the goal of the mitzvot is primarily to receive our physical reward in This World:
ספר ויקרא פרק כו (ג) אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם: (ד) וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ וְעֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה יִתֵּן פִּרְיוֹ: 
ספר ויקרא פרק כו (יד) וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת הָאֵלֶּה: (טו) וְאִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תִּמְאָסוּ וְאִם אֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּגְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתַי לְהַפְרְכֶם אֶת בְּרִיתִי: (טז) אַף אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה זֹּאת לָכֶם וְהִפְקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם בֶּהָלָה אֶת הַשַּׁחֶפֶת וְאֶת הַקַּדַּחַת מְכַלּוֹת עֵינַיִם וּמְדִיבֹת נָפֶשׁ וּזְרַעְתֶּם לָרִיק זַרְעֲכֶם וַאֲכָלֻהוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶם:
“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rain in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit (Vayikra 26:3-4). “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments. If you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant. I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish. You shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it” (Vayikra 26:14-16).

Physical Blessings – A Means for Achieving Ultimate Spiritual Reward
Rambam explains that all the physical rewards described in the Torah are only to give us the means to continue performing the mitzvot, in order to gain our reward in the Coming World. He explains, “...If we fulfill [the Torah] with joy and good spirit and meditate on its wisdom at all times, [G-d] will remove all the obstacles which prevent us from fulfilling it, for example, sickness, war, famine, and the like. Similarly, He will grant us all the good, which will reinforce our performance of the Torah, such as plenty, peace and money, so that we don’t need to be too involved in physical matters. Rather, we will be free to sit unburdened and study wisdom and perform mitzvot, in order to merit the life of the World-to-Come... (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 9:1). Conversely, Rambam explains that, if we consciously abandon the Torah (G-d forbid) the curses will make it harder for us to perform the mitzvot and earn our eternity.

Closeness to the Divine and Higher Consciousness – The Greatest Reward
Yet, there is a view among our sages that focuses on the importance of mindful living in the present moment, gleaning the reward for the mitzvot in This World. Unlike the Rambam, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi emphasizes that the goal of keeping the Torah is to become close with Hashem in This World. The Torah’s description of peace and prosperity in This World is not merely a means but rather a depiction of G-dly, holy existence on earth. Although, he predated Rambam from the early Middle Ages, Yehuda HaLevi’s view is surprisingly progressive and in line with seeking connective consciousness, so popular in our New Age. “All the promises imply that we shall become connected with the divine influence by means of prophecy, or something nearly approaching it, and also through our relation to the divine influence, as displayed to us in grand and awe-inspiring miracles. Therefore, we do not find in the Bible: ‘If you keep this law, I will bring you after death into beautiful gardens and great pleasures.’ Rather it states, ‘You shall be my chosen people, and I will be a G-d unto you, who will guide you.’ …how can they boast of expectations after death to those who enjoy the fulfillment already in life? Is not the nature of the prophets and godly men nearer to immortality than the nature of him who never reached that degree?” (The Kuzari 109).

Communal Reward in This World
How do we resolve the apparent contradiction between the various approaches to the purpose of keeping the Torah and the mitzvot? It seems that the divergent views reflect the different emphasis between the Written Torah, which describes the rewards in This World and the Talmud, which highlights the attainment of ultimate bliss in the World-to-Come as our final goal. These perspectives can refer to the community and the individual respectively. Rav Ahron Soloveitchik explains that on the individual level, “There is no reward for doing a mitzvah in this world” (Kiddushin 39b), so as to ensure Freedom of Choice, since, otherwise no one would want to miss a mitzvah. However, a communal reward does not compel individuals to act properly. Therefore, reward and punishment operates on a collective level in This World without detracting from Freedom of Choice. Therefore, when we do a mitzvah, the larger community benefits. Equally, our negative actions affect our community negatively. This is why all the blessings and curses in the Torah are written in plural (Rabbi Avi Weiss, Parashat Bechukotai, Why Do the Good Suffer?).

The Return of the Light of the Divine into the National Vessel
Rav Kook extends this concept further in resolving the various views on the purpose of keeping Torah and mitzvot. In an essay called, Concerning the Process of Ideas in Israel, he explains that Jewish existence consists of two basic elements: The ‘National idea’ and the ‘Divine idea.’ The ‘National idea’ propels us to create a society, whereas, the ‘Divine idea’ is the spirit that moves us to engage the Infinite and bring the presence of the Shechina within the nation. These two concepts are completely interdependent. The spirit of the ‘Divine’ imbues the ‘National’ with meaning and height, while the ‘National’ provides a proper vessel for the nation’s mission. However, even when the nation as a whole dwelled in the ‘Divine idea,’ there were individuals who engaged in idolatry and other spiritual poisons, which caused the ‘Divine idea’ to rot from within, causing the ‘National idea’ to become divorced from its G-dliness, so that it eventually fell apart. However, the Divine spark still rested, deep in the recesses of the nation’s psyche, waiting to re-emerge. Exile extinguished the ‘National idea.’ This caused a focus on individualistic tendencies and the obsession with individual salvation and guarantee of personal immortality. The minutiae of law and custom replaced the joy of national experience. After the destruction of the Temple, when the Jewish people no longer lived in their intended environment and capacity as a nation, which sanctifies life on earth and brings divinity into the human experience, the concept of the afterlife of the individual became a major focus in Judaism. In our parasha, the Torah describes the ideal of the Jewish nation (Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz, Bechukotai 5772). Now that we have finally returned to our homeland, it is time to focus on recreating the ‘National idea’ of Israel in which Hashem’s prophetic spirit will once again dwell among us. It is time to achieve ‘Connected Conscious Community,’ reconnecting the ‘National’ with the ‘Divine idea’ and thus bridge the worlds by bringing the light of the World-to-Come down into This World through the vessel of the perfected community of Israel.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why We Deserve This Land

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart  - Parashat B’Har 
Anywhere but in Israel
Celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, here in Bat Ayin, Gush Etzion, was filled with special meaning. For starters, we picked delightful, shiny שסק/shesek – loquat, from my bursting trees, took tithes and relished them while learning about our connection to this holy land. In the Chareidi Yeshiva in which I was raised, they didn’t celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. In general, the Chareidi community does not recognize the State of Israel as the beginning of Geulah. Conversely, I remember a very powerful statement by Rabbi Yehuda Cooperman, z”l, the founder of Michlalah – the first Torah college for Women in Jerusalem, where I later had the zchut (merit) to learn. He compared the gift of the land of Israel with receiving the Torah. “Just Because the Israelites fabricated the Golden Calf, does that imply we shouldn’t thank Hashem for giving us the Torah? Likewise, just because the founders of the State of Israel created a secular state, not based on Torah laws; do we not owe gratitude to Hashem for returning the Land of Israel into Jewish hands after more than 2000 years of exile?” The impression of these words were deeply engraved into my heart, and resonated with my innate gratitude to Hashem for returning the Land of Israel to its rightful people. Even if I don’t always agree with our government and how the secular state deviates from Torah in many ways, I, for one, can testify that I would never be living a Torah life if it wasn’t for the State of Israel. If you think it may be dangerous to live in Israel today, just think back a few decades, prior to 1948, when we didn’t have any army to protect us. I definitely would not have risked my life to come to some vaguely known Palestine filled with aggressive Arabs and biased Brits, where my Jewish ancestors may have lived millenniums ago. Without the State of Israel, I may have remained a secular, confused, Danish, hippy girl forever! I am positive that I’m not the only one who wouldn’t have discovered the light of Torah anywhere but in Israel.

Celebrating Sunrise
Although the secular state, in its initial years, secularized many faithful Torah Jews and committed terrible crimes against the Yemenite Jews, today there are more centers of Torah study in Israel than in all the rest of the world. When I recently took a bus-ride in Jerusalem and looked around at my fellow travelers, I couldn’t help but noticing how the bus-population consisted predominantly of religious looking Jews: from the head scarfed elderly woman reciting tehillim, to the Chassid in his fur hat. It seems that Israel’s population is gradually becoming more and more Torah observant. “Redemption doesn’t come in one shot, but rather little by little. Redemption is compared to a sunrise. There is no greater darkness than the hour before dawn, but after that, the light gradually grows. First, the ray of dawn rises and illuminates the world. Then the sun itself rises and grows progressively brighter and stronger until all is flooded by daylight…” (Midrash Tehillim 18). With any growth, there are always setbacks. In the case of the State of Israel, one of the greatest setbacks was the dismantling of the thriving Jewish communities of Gush Katif z”l in year 2005. This tragic expulsion caused many prior devoted Zionists to stop celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut. Although, I can identify with their disillusionment, I do not agree. Thanking and praising Hashem for miraculously returning us, the rightful owners, to our Promised Land cannot be depreciated by any Israeli, anti-Torah action. The celebration of the Fifth of Iyar is not about what the people of Israel did or didn’t do with this land. It is not about us, but rather, about Hashem and His tremendous gift that we awaited for more than 2000 years.

The Strings of Torah Attached to the Land
When the entire world, including many Jews, doubt the Jewish right to the Land of Israel, we, too, cannot evade asking ourselves whether we really deserve this land. The Torah clearly promises the Land of Israel to Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’acov and all of his children – the Israelites, but is this a promise without any strings attached? This week’s parasha clearly teaches that we have to earn the right to live securely in our Promised Land.
ספר ויקרא פרק כה (יח) וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וִישַׁבְתֶּם עַל הָאָרֶץ לָבֶטַח: (יט) וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ פִּרְיָהּ וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לָשׂבַע וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח עָלֶיהָ:
“You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security. The land shall yield its fruits and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security” (Vayikra 25:18-19).

We surely have the inherent right to the Land of Israel, because Hashem promised it to our forefathers for an eternal inheritance, as mentioned multiple times in the Torah (See for example Bereishit 13:15). However, living securely on this land is another story. Hashem granted us the Holy Land because it is the only place on earth where we can observe the Torah fully. This is why, Hashem “brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan to be your G-d” (Vayikra 25:38). In my personal experience, only in Israel did I feel the connection to Hashem as my G-d. Our parasha emphasizes that Hashem is not just the Creator but He is our G-d. We have a personal relationship with Hashem, and because of this, we are charged with the responsibility to observe His statutes. Eventually, we will fulfill this responsibility. Hashem will ensure that we all repent, stop throwing garbage in the streets of the holy cities, cease from Shabbat desecration, and from speaking lashon hara, and unholy speech.

Abstaining from the Speech of the Spies
The land of Israel is like a wife whose love must be earned. While our parasha makes it clear that living securely in the Land of Israel depends on our keeping the Torah laws in their totality, I found it interesting that Parashat B’Har singles out the mitzvah of keeping Shemitah and Jubilee, and the importance of abstaining from verbal abuse (Rashi, Vayikra 25:17). These laws are expressions of how a husband must treat his wife respectfully. Just as the husband has to wait for his wife to count seven-clean-days before she immerses in the Mikvah, so must the people of Israel honor the land’s seven-year cycle and abstain from physical relations every sabbatical year. The first step towards marital fulfillment is to consummate the marriage. The consummation of our relationship with the Land of Israel takes place through taking possession of it, which implies the recognition of the Divinely ordained State of Israel as part of our ultimate redemption. The subsequent steps are to build it up and plant in the land as it states, “Return to your cities, build Jerusalem,” (Yirmeyahu 31:20). “It is the time to favor her” (Tehillim 102:14). “To favor” refers to planting as it states, “…he will favor her dirt” (ibid. 15), (Kol HaTor 1:6). Finally, we must abstain from the speech of the spies, who lacked commitment, faith and devotion, so vital for a marital relationship. Our successful relationship with the Holy Land is expressed through speaking respectfully to her with words of praise for the Land. Just as when a husband and wife live together in peace, the Shechina (Divine Presence) dwells between them, so when we put the Divine Presence between us and the land, we will be able to live peacefully in it. Terrorism will become history the moment we unite as a people to “faithfully keep Hashem’s laws and rules” in the land!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Controversy of Women and Counting the Omer

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Emor
Counting the Ascending Pattern of Lights
I love the healing month of Iyar when the roses raise their glorious heads in full bloom and the lovely sun smiles down at us with its gentle, yet radiant face. Rosh Chodesh Iyar is traditionally the first day of the new Yeshiva semester, and I relish starting anew with increased energy and excitement after the extended Pesach vacation. Although we are back on track, we are reminded of the holiness of this season by how the month of Iyar is dotted with many special days dedicated for praise, prayer, nature enjoyment, bonfires and dance. At this time, we receive spiritual alignment and tune-up as we continue to integrate the holiness of Pesach by counting the Omer, which connects the dots and integrates the high surrounding lights of the Exodus into our everyday routine. What is counting the Omer all about? Counting of the Omer (ספירת העומר/Sefirat HaOmer), is a verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Pesach and Shavuot. This mitzvah derives from the Torah commandment to count from the day following Pesach when the Omer (a sacrifice containing an Omer measure of barley) was offered in the Temple, until Shavuot when two wheat breads were offered. Moreover, counting the Omer is a spiritual preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Counting the Omer heightens our sensitivity to the ‘invitations of time.’ At this time, we have the opportunity to integrate how each day of the calendar invites us to a particular depth and joy.

Making Every Day Count
The word ספירה/Sefirah, which means to count, is linked with the Hebrew word מספר/mispar – number, סיפור/sipur – story and ספיר/sapir which means sapphire, brilliance and luminary. The fifty-day counting sprint begins on the night immediately following the Pesach storytelling. In an incredible chain of meaning, this סיפור/sipur – storytelling ritual is followed by the ספירה/sefirah – counting ritual, when we not only count the מספר/mispar – number of the day, but moreover relate to the unique illumination of each day’s special ספירה/Sefirah permutation from the last seven Sefirot. Counting the Omer teaches us the concept of the ascending pattern, where one day builds upon the next. In effect, the whole point of the ritual is to collect days. By using a simple and short act of consciousness, we prevent our days from blurring into each other. We can make every day count, and remind ourselves that, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Reliving the Purification Process of the Omer Offering
Each day of counting the Omer, from Pesach to Shavuot, we have the opportunity to add a new layer of refinement to our character. Counting the Omer is an elevating ripening process that culminates on Shavuot in our ability to receive the Torah and become complete. This time-period reflects the process of the budding and flowering of the surrounding nature, here in Israel where we, like the fruits, are gradually ripening to become the perfect crop, ready to be picked on Shavuot as Hashem’s holy bride. This refinement process is embodied in counting from the Omer of barley, considered animal food, (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a), until the holiday of Shavuot, which is also called the First Fruit Festival (Bamidbar 28:26), when we would bring two whole-wheat challot, as it states in this week’s parasha. By Divine guidance, while being in the midst of this purification process, we read about the counting of the Omer:

ספר ויקרא פרק כג  (טו) וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה: (טז) עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַהָשֵׁם: (יז) מִמּוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם תָּבִיאוּ לֶחֶם תְּנוּפָה שְׁתַּיִם שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים סֹלֶת תִּהְיֶינָה חָמֵץ תֵּאָפֶינָה בִּכּוּרִים לַהָשֵׁם:
“You shall count for yourself seven complete weeks from the day after Shabbat from the day that you brought the Omer of elevation offering. You shall count fifty day until the seventh Shabbat. Then you shall offer a new meal offering to Hashem. You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering. Each shall be made of one tenth of a measure of choice flour; baked after leavening as first fruits to Hashem” (Vayikra 23:15-17).

During the seven weeks between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, an Omer of barley was offered at the Temple daily. The word עמֶֹר/Omer is a biblical measure, roughly equal to two quarts or two liters. It is sometimes translated as ‘sheaf,’ as it was a large enough amount of grain to require bundling. When,the Israelites, had just left Egypt on Pesach,, they were still being purified from the influence of the animal-worshipping Egyptian culture. The barley offering reflects the low spiritual level of the Jewish people leaving Egypt, who were only fit to eat the less refined barley grain. (Rabbi Nachman, The Outpouring of the Soul, Ot 71). It would take the Jewish people forty-nine days of elevating themselves until they reached the level of wheat during the festival of Shavuot. This was the time to offer two wheat challot, reflecting the holy Torah received on this day, after being redeemed from the animal soul and yetzer hara (negative inclination). (Shem M’Shemuel, Bamidbar, Shavuot, year 5670 (1909). Every year, during the period of counting the Omer of barley, we relive this purification process until we reach the level of wheat. (The above paragraph is taken from my award-winning book The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel with their Mystical & Medicinal Properties).

Women and the Mitzvah of Counting the Omer
Truthfully, I feel a bit as though I am missing out on this purification process since for the last several years, I no longer count the Omer. Beforehand, I would begin to count but never made it through the entire counting without missing a day. As the Chafetz Chaim writes, 

משנה ברורה סימן תפט  מתחילין לספור וכו' - ונשים ועבדים (א) פטורות ממצוה זו דהוי מ"ע שהזמן גרמא וכתב המ"א מיהו כבר שויא עלייהו חובה (ב) וכמדומה דבמדינותינו לא נהגי נשי כלל לספור וכתב בספר שולחן שלמה דעכ"פ לא יברכו דהא בודאי יטעו ביום אחד וגם ע"פ רוב אינם יודעים פירוש המלות:
Women are exempt from the mitzvah of counting the Omer, since it is a positive time-bound mitzvah. Likewise, in our countries the women weren’t accustomed to count the Omer at all. Shulchan Shlomo writes that in any case, they should not recite the blessing, since they surely will miss one day… (Mishna Berurah 489).

Nevertheless, according to most halachic authorities, although women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot, if they wish they may perform them, such as counting the Omer. Thus it is the custom of many women to perform the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah as well as other time-bound mitzvot, from which they are exempt. This teaches us that women are absolutely permitted to perform the mitzvah of counting the Omer, just as they are permitted to shake the lulav and do other mitzvot. However, whereas generally Ashkenazi Halachic authorities hold that women recite the blessing before performing these mitzvot from which they are exempt, there is a difference of opinion among them whether women may recite the blessing before counting the Omer. In any case, according to the Mekubalim, it is preferable for women not to count the Omer at all, even without reciting a blessing, as there is a Kabbalistic reason for them to abstain from doing so. Therefore, our custom is that women do not count the Omer at all (Halacha Yomit derived from the halachic rulings of our leader, glory of the generation, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l, Halacha Date: 24 Nissan 5771 April 28 2011).

Counting the Omer – Entering the Masculine Realm
Several years ago, after reading an article by Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman about the Kabbalistic Perspective on Women & the Omer, I decided to stop trying to count the Omer, because I connected with the notion that counting of the Omer is primarily a male process. This explains why the Kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (Ben Ish Chai) prohibits women from counting the Omer (Rav Pe’alim, vol. 1, Sod Yesharim, para. 12). His ruling is possibly based on the following Zohar, “Since these days [of Sefirah] are days from the realm of the masculine this counting [of the Omer] was given over to males alone” (Zohar, Parashat Emor 98b). What is masculine about counting the Omer? Counting the Omer each week corresponds to one of the seven lower sefirot in the order of Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut. The first six of these sefirot embody the masculine archetype, Ze’ir anpin, while the last Sefirah of Malchut corresponds to the feminine (nukvah). Thus, the counting of the Omer includes the feminine Malchut as part of the archetype of the masculine Ze’ir anpin, rather than the union of the masculine and the feminine as two separate archetypes. (Kabbalah online, Counting on the Torah, from the Teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). Even Ashkenazi halachic authorities hold that “Since these are the days of the male world this counting is incumbent upon men only (Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim, siman 489).

Arizal explains that during the counting of the Omer, the intention is to draw down spiritual energy from the masculine into the feminine Malchut… (Arizal, Sha’ar Hakavanot Inyan Sefirat HaOmer Derush 11). I’m in no way sharing these sources in order to denigrate the holy Torah women who meticulously count the Omer and work on elevating themselves spiritually. I’m positive that they receive great reward for their pure intention. My purpose is only to disseminate information, which may be less well known, so that we can all make our own informed choices.

Male Mission of Removing Impurity
I was thinking about a deeper mystical reason as to why women are exempt from many of the positive mitzvot, while charged with the negative mitzvot no less than men. The purpose of the positive mitzvot is to rectify and change reality, whereas the underlying reason for the negative mitzvot is to protect the holy and prevent the destruction of what is inherently worthy and good. Perhaps, we can say that it is the masculine mission to change reality and purify themselves. They must harness their inclination towards pride, anger, violence and excessive sexuality, while, the role of women is rather to guard and protect their inherently good and virtuous nature. This concept is reflected in the mitzvah of the male circumcision versus the female blessing where we give thanks for being created in accordance with the Divine will. Rather than refining ourselves by cutting off and breaking our nature, women’s perfection consists in clearing the spiritual and emotional blocks, such as self-hatred, lack of confidence and various insecurities, in order to reveal our innate goodness. There is a subtle difference between unblocking the innate good nature and removing the bad. This may define the differentiation between masculine and feminine spiritual nature. The prayer that follows the counting of the Omer reflects the male mission to remove their impurity. As the prayer reads, “Master of the universe, You have commanded us through Moshe Your servant to count Sefirat HaOmer, in order to purify us from our evil and uncleanness. As You have written in Your Torah…” This prayer may refer to the impurity of keri (seminal emission) which the mitzvah of counting the Omer possibly purifies. Likewise, the Omer of the barley seed offering, that we count at this time, may represent the rectification of emission of seed. Luckily, women don’t need this kind of purification! Interestingly, the Hebrew word עמר/Omer has the numerical value of 310, which is the exact same gematria (numerical value) as קרי/keri – seminal emission.

Feminine Focus During the Omer Period
In conclusion, I believe it is important also for women to “live with the times” and connect with the progression of the purification process engendered by each of the Sefirah permutations that we count during the seven weeks between the physical freedom of Pesach and the spiritual freedom of Shavuot when we receive the Torah. This is especially true today, when working on integrating and balancing the various sefirot has become such a widespread and vital part of our emotional and spiritual healing and self-development. The many smartphone apps also aid us on our spiritual journey of character perfection through integration of the array of the sefirot illuminations. So, rather than being preoccupied with counting the numbers of days and weeks, I believe that the feminine focus during the Omer season is to meditate on the daily Sefirah combinations and internalize their messages. Instead of being immersed in מספר/mispar – number, women’s rectification during the Sefirah period is to get in touch with our innate ספיר/sapir related to sapphire, brilliance, and the illumination of each of the daily forty nine sefirot combinations. Isn’t this, anyway, the best part of the סיפור/sipur – story?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Coming Out of Pesach and Keeping the Flames of Holiness Burning

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Kedoshim
Breaking Our Nature to Become Our True Selves
Coming out of Pesach offers a new beginning in our life routine. I indeed feel more pure, with a greater desire to serve Hashem and increase Kedusha – Holiness. The first day after Pesach, I got up excited to give tzedaka and pray, feeling so happy to start anew and work on holiness in every sphere of life, such as holy eating, more talking with Hashem and increased kindness toward others. Having a total break from our routine helps us get back on track in a new and better way. Today, I received a phone call from one of my very good friends here, in Israel. Her elderly father was hospitalized in the US and she immediately decided to fly out to visit him, despite having scheduled courses to begin this week. “It would have worked out much better for me to visit my dad in the summer, after I have completed teaching my courses,” she told me. “Yet, I feel I have to go now, as now is when my father needs me,” she explained. I was very impressed with my friend, for it is not easy to drop everything you have planned and suddenly pick yourself up and do the opposite of your routine because someone else needs you. This reminds me of a beautiful Torah I learned from Rav Shlomo on the last day of Pesach about the splitting of the Sea.

ספר שמות פרק יד (כז) וַיֵּט משֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַיָּם וַיָּשָׁב הַיָּם לִפְנוֹת בֹּקֶר לְאֵיתָנוֹ...

“Moshe stretched forth his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned לְאֵיתָנוֹ/l’eitano – to its strength” (Shemot 14:27).

According to the Midrash, when Hashem originally created the sea, He made a condition with the sea that it would split for the Israelites. We learn this from the phrase, “…the sea returned לְאֵיתָנוֹ/l’eitano – to its strength,” which can be unscrambled to read לִתְנָאוֹ/l’te’nao – to its condition (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 5:5). Rav Shlomo asks, why is the sea described as returning to its condition only when it returns from being dry land to become the sea again? The condition was that it would split and become dry land, so it should have said, “It returned to its condition” when it split, rather than when it returned back to being a normal sea again. In his answer, Rav Shlomo explains, that in order to become who we truly are, and what we are meant to be, we need to be able to change ourselves 180 degrees when it is necessary to help someone else. The sea could only become the true sea it was created to be, in all of its strength, after it had split and transformed itself to become dry land – the very opposite of its nature. This is why it only states after the sea returned to become the sea again that it returned to its condition for which it was created. We are all created to be our true selves – to be who we are supposed to be. However, we can only truly be ourselves after we show that we can also become the opposite of our nature. Only then, can we return to become our very truest selves in all our strength.

Returning Back to Normal after Our Sea-Splitting Pesach Experience
This is exactly my experience from the entire weeklong holiday of Pesach, when we go out of our personal Egypt – the narrow, limiting routines that pull us down. We pack away half our kitchen and cover the rest. Then we take out new utensils, pots, pans and knifes that we are unaccustomed to using- as if we are guests in our own kitchens. Now in the aftermath of Pesach, with my regular, familiar cook wear and paraphernalia back on their shelves, I feel like the sea that split and reverted back to become sea again in its normal state. Now, I’m ready to be a truer and better me – a holier me- ready for this week’s Torah reading – Parashat Kedoshim.

Simple Recipe for Holiness

ספר ויקרא פרק יט (ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and tell them, You shall be holy for I the Eternal Your G-d is holy” (Vayikra 19:2).

So, what does it exactly mean to be holy? Some people may think that holiness is only appropriate for a select elite of ascetic individuals. Yet, any Jew who so desires is able to achieve holiness. This is why the opening Torah verse in Parashat Kedoshim is told to the entire congregation of Israel (Alschich, Vayikra 19:2). This parasha, about becoming holy, relates equally to all Jews, regardless of different social states, backgrounds and ages; whether a Kohen, a judge, a ba’al teshuva, a farmer, a FFB (frum from birth) etc. Whereas, the commentators give several possible definitions of holiness, such as: separation from anything impure (Vayikra 11:44); keeping aloof from forbidden sexual relations (Rashi); keeping all the positive mitzvot and refraining from the prohibitions (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 4); I want to suggest that true holiness is to go against our inert nature and change ourselves in order to serve Hashem. This is what made Avraham, our Father, the first Jew. His nature was complete chesed (kindness), yet all his tests were in gevurah (severity). Only when he had proven himself ready to sacrifice his favorite son to Hashem and go against everything he had been teaching others, did he become worthy of becoming the progenitor of the Jewish people. Working on our midot (character) to go against our natural inclination to be gluttonous, jealous, and honor seeking fulfills the directive: לָךָ: קַדֵּשׁ עַצְמְךָ בְּמֻתָּר/“Kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach” – Sanctify yourself through that which is permitted (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 20a).

The Piety-Personality-Twist that Keeps the Pesach Spark Ignited
While it is easy to measure particular actions and determine whether they are permitted or forbidden, the development of genuinely good character traits is harder to define as it goes beyond the letter of the law and. Yet, it is exactly the piety of this immeasurable temperament twist that engenders holiness. “Piety leads to Ruach HaKodesh” (Divine Holy Inspiration) (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 20b). Netivot Shalom explains that the entire purpose of our coming into this world is in order to perfect our character traits (Introduction to Pirkei Avot). This explains why we begin studying Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on the first Shabbat following Pesach. Now that we have gotten a ‘kick-start’ of holiness by emerging from our limiting routines, transforming our natural inclinations, we have the opportunity to anchor our newly achieved freedom to become holy in our daily routines. After igniting the initial spark on Pesach, the challenge is to keep the fire going. Working on overcoming our natural inclination in order to perfect our character is the fuel that keeps the flames of holiness burning.