Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Was Jesus a Kind Spiritual Healer or a False Prophet?

Life Lessons from Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Re’eh
The Rise of Messianic Judaism
In Medieval Spain, many Jews hid their Jewishness in order to survive. They concealed their Siddur and Chumash (Pentateuch) behind secular books in their library. Today, we have a converse kind of crypto Jew. Behind their ArtScroll and Feldheim books, they hide the New Testament. Outwardly, they act as devout Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, Kosher, modesty etc., and are the nicest and the kindest people, always happy to lend a helping hand. Some are actual Jews. Others seek to convert to Judaism, or pretend that they are Jewish. Perhaps, they have convinced themselves that some ancestor’s Jewish name imbues them with Jewish blood. While they behave Jewishly on the outside, they secretly worship Jesus on the inside. Yes, you have guessed it. I am referring to Messianic Judaism – a movement of people who identify as Jews and embrace Jewish culture and religious tradition, while at the same time maintain a belief in the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the authority of the New Testament. According to the estimates as of March 2016, there are 262 Messianic organizations operating in Israel (Kehila News Directory). The estimated number of Messianics (alleged Jews proclaiming belief in Jesus) amount to almost 20,000 in Israel, while globally the reports range as high as 300,000 Messianic Jewish believers (Charisma Magazine, October, 2013).

It is no wonder that Israel’s Ministry of the Interior denies visas for many conversion candidates, out of concern to screen out Messianics. Likewise, trip organizers for Birthright have begun screening candidates interested in free trips to Israel to prevent Messianic Jews from participating. The number of Messianics is rising in Israel and the world. The fervent worship with heartfelt singing and easy access to ‘the lord’ attract many Jews and non-Jews alike. Without the heavy burden of the Oral Torah, with its strict halachic requirements, this movement entices the intuitive, spiritually seeking type. For some, being a Messianic is a stepping-stone towards full-fledged conversion or return to Halachic Judaism. While I do not harbor any negative feelings on a personal level towards anyone who believes in Jesus – on the contrary, several such women are very close to my heart – I would like to clarify what the Torah has to say about Jesus, based on this week’s parasha.

Worshipping Separate Existence
First of all, it is interesting that the name Jesus (יֵשׁוּ/Yeshu in Hebrew) is related to the word יֵשׁוּת/yeshut – existence or separate existence. The Torah teaches that there is no separate existence from G-d; we are all part of His Oneness. Chassidut emphasizes how we must work on freeing ourselves from the ego that claims יֵשׁוּת/yeshut and separate existence from Hashem. We are called upon to transform our יֵשׁוּת/yeshut to אַיִן /ayin – nothingness, for אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ/ein od milvado – there is nothing besides Him (Devarim 4:35). This is the constant challenge of a Jew – to overcome the pride of our ego and realize that nothing exists but Hashem. We are all part of Him, and no human being ever, has a claim to being more a son-of-G-d than anyone else. Messianic Judaism provides its worshippers with a feeling of concrete closeness to ‘the lord,’ saturating them with more instant gratification than the abstract worship of the incorporeal Hashem. The attraction of worshipping a human being is that it offers a physical anchor to hold onto, allowing people to feel spiritual without giving up independent existence. In spite of the spiritual devotion of the Messianics, unconsciously, their service actually serves the spiritual part of the ego, giving the sweet feeling of being concretely connected to the divine. Yet, in reality, this feeling of ‘connectedness’ stems from an illusion of being able to commune with the lord while still holding on to the separate existence of the ego.

The Test of Dream-Diviners & False Prophets
This week’s parasha describes the false prophet and the dream-diviner. A false prophet is someone who claims that Hashem spoke to him, and appointed him to forward his ‘divine message’ to others. In our time, the world is replete with enticing ‘Spiritual Intuitives,’ Transcendentalists, Occultists, Wiccans and Witchcraft. This varied spirituality menu is meant to test whether, despite all the attractive alternatives, we keep holding on to the Torah, worshipping nothing but G-d.
ספר דברים פרק יג
(א) אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ: 
(ב) יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵת: (ג) וּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵם: (ד) לֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא כִּי מְנַסֶּה הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶתְכֶם לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם: (ה) אַחֲרֵי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן: (ו) וְהַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ חֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא יוּמָת כִּי דִבֶּר סָרָה עַל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וְהַפֹּדְךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לְהַדִּיחֲךָ מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בָּהּ וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ:
“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you. Neither add to it, nor detract from it. If there rises among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, let us follow and worship another god, whom you have not experienced, even if the sign or the portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem your G-d is testing you to see whether you really love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul. Follow none but Hashem your G-d and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders. Worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him. As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death; for he urged disloyalty to Hashem your G-d, Who freed you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to make you stray from the path that Hashem your G-d commanded you to follow. Thus, you must remove evil from your midst” (Devarim 13:1-6).

False Prophet Features
We must believe in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher; no other prophet –past or future – can ever reach his level (Rambam, The Thirteen Principles of Faith, Principle Seven). Therefore, nothing may be added or detracted from the Divine Torah that Moshe received through His supreme prophecy. Anyone who claims that Hashem told him to abolish one of the mitzvot of the Torah or to add a new mitzvah to the Torah is bound to be a false prophet (Devarim 13:1). According to the uncensored version of the Talmud, Jesus was a false prophet who instigated Israel away from doing the Mitzvot. It is, furthermore, undeniable that the New Testament goes against the injunction not to add to the Torah.

תלמוד בבלי, סנהדרין מג ע”א
והתניא בערב הפסח תלאוהו לישוע הנצרי וכרוז יוצא לפניו ארבעים יום ישוע הנצרי יוצא להיסקל על שכישף והסית והדיח את ישראל כל מי שיודע לו זכות יבוא וילמד. לא מצאו לו זכות ותלאוהו בערב הפסח: אמ’ עולא ותסברה ישוע הנצרי בַר הְפוכֵי לֵיה זְכות הְוָה, מסית הוא...

They hanged Jesus the Nazarene on the eve of Pesach. The proclamation went forth before him for forty days heralding: “Jesus the Nazarene is going to be stoned because he practiced sorcery, instigated and seduced Israel to Idolatry. Whoever knows anything in his defense may come and state it.” Since they did not find anything in his defense, they hanged him on the eve of Pesach. Ula said, “Do you suppose that Jesus the Nazarene is worthy to be given the opportunity to have his cause pleaded? Behold he was a מֵסִית/mesit – an instigator, concerning whom the Merciful [G-d] says, ‘Show him no compassion and do not cover up for him’” (Devarim 13:9)… (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, uncensored edition).

The Torah’s Safeguarding of Physical and Spiritual Life
These fierce words of the Talmud are not so politically correct in a time when the Western World is largely against capital punishment. I, too, feel appalled by the notion that a human being would have the authority to execute another. We grew up being tolerant and accepting of everyone. The result is a world filled with terrorism and confusion. No human being may take the law into his own hand and take someone else’s life. Only Hashem, in His Torah, has the power to command the death penalty in specific, very limited cases. The rabbis have always been extremely cautious to implement capital punishment: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed;’” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10). The Torah sanctions human life by all means, and murdering a human being is one of the only three cardinal sins for which the Torah requires one to give up his life. A person, who takes the physical or spiritual life of another, forfeits his own right to exist. This is precisely due to how much the Torah values and safeguards human life on all levels.

Rabbinic Reliance
The teaching of the Talmud regarding Jesus is a hard pill to swallow, since he is generally portrayed as the embodiment of love and kindness, and as a spiritual healer who uplifted the poor and weak. Even many of those who do not believe Jesus is the son of G-d or the Messiah, still feel he was a good person, based on artwork, pictures, books and articles. . Truthfully, no one really knows what kind of person Jesus actually was, as he lived more than 2000 years ago. We will have to choose between relying on the testimony of the Christians or of the Rabbis. As a Torah Jew, whom do you choose to believe?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How Does the Torah Require Us to Treat Converts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Blessings of Rebuke

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Appreciating Our Promised Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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