Thursday, September 19, 2019

Why is it so Hard to Serve Hashem with Happiness?

Parshat Ki Tavo
Printable Version

Why is it Such a Challenge to Rejoice Through Abundance?
King David urges us to “Serve Hashem with joy [and] come before Him with exuberance” (Tehillim 100:2). Yet, more and more people seem to be suffering from depression and anxiety, nowadays. It’s quite common to be on antidepressant meds. Even regular, drugfree, mentally healthy individuals tend to have mood swings. Much research is invested to uncover the reasons for depression. The experts enumerate many possible causes such as: faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications and chemical imbalance. You would think that previous generations, who lacked the high standard of living we enjoy today, would have much more reason to be sad. Paradoxically, it appears that the more we have, the more we feel lacking and depressed. This principle is exactly what this week’s Torah portion teaches us:

ספר דברים פרק כח פסוק מה, מז וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַקְּלָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וּרְדָפוּךָ וְהִשִּׂיגוּךָ עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ ...תַחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל:
“All these curses will befall you, pursuing you and overtaking you to destroy you…Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy and a good heart, from everything in abundance” (Devarim 28:45-47).

According to the simple meaning, this verse admonishes us for not serving Hashem joyfully, even when He has blessed us with abundance. Yet, it can also be understood to mean that specifically, when we have an abundance of everything, we often lack happiness and gladness of heart. In the old country, when we suffered privation, and bare survival was at stake, receiving a tenth of an orange was occasion for celebration. Today, Tropicana freshly squeezed orange-juice is taken for granted. Why is it such a challenge to rejoice through affluence?

The Half-Empty-Cup Syndrome
The following Midrashic statements about the darker side of human nature may shed light on our question: “He who has one hundred will want two hundred…” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1:13); “A person doesn’t leave this world having fulfilled half of his desires” (Ibid. 32). Rabbi Yonatan Eibshitz noticed a miniscule contradiction between these two assertions. The first saying indicates that a person achieves 50% of his wants, whereas, the second implies that the person doesn’t even receive 50% of his desires. He resolves the contradiction by explaining that the part that we don’t have is more important to us than the part we do have. In other words, we notice specifically that our cup is half-empty. This explains the challenge of feeling fulfilled during times of wealth. The bigger our cup, the more volume is lacking when half-empty.

There is no Greater Recipe for Happiness than Gratitude
Today, we grow up so pampered that we expect instant gratification and fulfillment of our every wish. People have way too much sense of entitlement. There is an attitude of ingratitude expressed in the Hebrew words: “מַגִּיעַ לִי!” which literally means, “Its coming to me” or I deserve it! – I deserve to be taken care of, respected, loved etc. This attitude causes a lot of pain, both for those who extend themselves for us without receiving recognition and for ourselves. If we don’t get what we want right away, we may become resentful, angry or depressed. There is no greater recipe for happiness than gratitude. In order to become truly happy with our lot in life, we need to learn to release attachments to certain privileges, as well as to let go of expecting favors from others. Happiness is a result of cultivating an attitude that everything is a gift. The more we recognize that our life, our body, the roof above our heads, our clothes and food, are all gifts from Above, not to be taken for granted, the more we will be able to rejoice when our cup overflows or even when its only half full!

Happiness is a Choice
I used to think that the main thing is to serve Hashem by keeping His mitzvot. Serving Hashem with happiness would be an extra level of hidur, doing more than required. Yet, Parashat Ki Tavo enumerates a long list of curses that occur because we didn’t serve Hashem with joy. Why isn’t it enough to keep the mitzvot?  Why is serving Hashem without happiness such a deal-breaker? Isn’t the main thing to do the right thing, period? Rabbeinu Bachaya learns from our Torah verse that Hashem requires both that we perform His mitzvot and that we perform them happily. Thus, there are great rewards, as well as severe consequences, for missing either of these requirements. Therefore, we must strive to serve Hashem through complete intention and joy (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Devarim 28:47). Yet, what can we do if we aren’t happy? Perhaps, we suffer from a chemical imbalance in our brain, lacking the happiness hormone, serotonin? What if we were abused or we grew up with a miserable childhood? How can we be held responsible for experiencing a feeling which is not in our control? Although modern psychology may teach that our feelings and moods are affected by a combination of our life incidents and brain-chemistry, if the Torah commands us to “Serve Hashem with joy” (Tehillim 100:2), it implies that our feelings, indeed, are in our control. Human freedom of choice extends to the ability to cultivate happiness no matter what kind of brain is on our shoulders and how much devastating suffering we may have undergone. We need to emerge from our victim script of “poor me” and start taking responsibility for our attitudes and feelings, meditating on the half-full cups in our lives.   

Rising Above our Circumstances
Why remain helpless victims of our circumstances when we can rise above them? Whenever we painstakingly review, renew and refresh our dire circumstances, we are taking ownership of them and reliving them instead of releasing the old limiting baggage that no longer serves us. Anxieties, worries and concerns may seem like products of our circumstances. Yet, we can make a spiritual transfer, releasing all of them by “casting our burden on Hashem” (Tehillim 55:22). Circumstances don’t hinder our blessing flow. No matter what we’re facing, how disturbing or distressing it may be, we must develop emunah that Hashem will take care of it. When we give over our past hardships to Hashem we can begin to praise Hashem in happy song!

Sing Out Your Heart in Joy
Returning to our original Torah verse. The Talmud comments that the way to serve Hashem with joy is specifically through ‘song:’

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ערכין דף יא/א רב מתנה אמר מהכא תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלהיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב איזו היא עבודה שבשמחה ובטוב לבב הוי אומר זה שירה...
...Rav Mattana said [that the source for the requirement to accompany the Temple offerings with song is derived] from here: “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joyfulness, and with goodness of heart” (Devarim 28:27). What is this service of G-d that is performed with joyfulness and with goodness of heart? You must say that this is song (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 11a).

If we at times may feel depressed, music is one of the best ways to lift ourselves out of our sadness. Rebbe Nachman explains that music has the ability to cleanse and clarify the spirit, since the sound of music emanates from airwaves connected with ruach – meaning both air and spirit. In this way, music can cleanse us from evil spirit, extract the good spirit from the bad and bring us closer to the highest spirit of happiness: simcha (Likutei Mohoran, Mahadura Kama, Siman 54). Therefore, music therapy was often used in the Torah, as for example, when David would play his harp for King Saul and alleviate his bad spirit (I Shemuel 16:23).

תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף קיז/א לדוד מזמור מלמד ששרתה עליו שכינה ואחר כך אמר שירה מזמור לדוד מלמד שאמר שירה ואחר כך שרתה עליו שכינה ללמדך שאין השכינה שורה לא מתוך עצלות ולא מתוך עצבות ולא מתוך שחוק ולא מתוך קלות ראש ולא מתוך דברים בטלים אלא מתוך דבר שמחה של מצוה:
When a psalm begins: “Of David mizmor,” this teaches that the Divine Presence rested upon him first and afterward he recited the song. However, if a psalm opens with: “A mizmor l’David,” this teaches that he first recited the song, and afterward the Divine Presence rested upon him. This teaches that the Divine Presence rests upon us neither through laziness, sadness, laughter, frivolity, nor from idle chatter, but rather from the joy of a mitzvah (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 117a).

Whenever David would feel in low spirits, he would raise himself up though song, and so can we! Through singing our heart out we can learn to celebrate both the ups and down of our lives. It all depends on our attitude as King Shlomo proclaimed:

ספר משלי פרק טו פסוק טו כָּל יְמֵי עָנִי רָעִים וְטוֹב לֵב מִשְׁתֶּה תָמִיד:
“For the despondent, every day brings trouble; for the happy heart, life is a continual feast” (Mishlei 15:15).

If we are negative and gloomy, everything seems to go wrong; yet when we are cheerful, everything seems right! Feeling happy is surely in our hand: No matter what our circumstance, we can find a reason to be thankful and joyous.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Exposing the Lesser Discussed Modesty Issue

Parshat Ki Tetze
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To Camp or Not to Camp?
During school vacation we took our granddaughters camping. We wanted to expose these three princesses to the un-pampered experience of roughing it close to nature. Truthfully, I also wanted to challenge my own pampered existence and enjoy the satisfactory feeling of still being a youthful camper! It had been at least a decade since we last went camping with our sons when they were children. So, we had to buy all new tents for the occasion. To our disappointment, two weeks before our planned trip, our oldest granddaughter who had just celebrated her Bat Mitzvah announced that she was not a camping girl and she didn’t want to join. Out of solidarity, her younger sisters too decided to stay home. There was a bit back and forth about the issue, followed by a final ‘no.’ Although I initially was disappointed by the rejection, I decided to look at the bright side of how much easier a camping trip would be with just my husband and adult, single son. We had already spent some meaningful days with our granddaughters the week before. While we offered to do more, “you can only take the horse to the water…” if it wants to follow you. So, I looked forward to a quiet intimate excursion with lots of visits to the graves of holy Rabbis in Tiberias. To my dismay my husband brought home three brand new tents. I guess it wasn’t clear to him that the girls weren’t joining us. I withheld myself from scolding him, seeing that the tents had their receipts tagged on them so they could easily be returned. Later that afternoon, my Bat Mitzvah granddaughter took me by surprise by declaring that she had changed her mind and decided to join the camping trip after all. “But why? What made you change your mind?” I asked. “Seeing the new tents, they look cool!” She replied! This story taught me two principles: 1. If you detach yourself from wanting something so badly from others, letting go and accepting, then they are more likely to come along. 2. Respecting your husband including his extravaganzas and refraining from criticizing him brings blessings to the family.

Torah Rules for Proper Toilet Manners
We finally arrived at my favorite camping site, the northern seaside of the ‘Lake of the World.’ Yes, you guessed it, it’s the Kineret or Sea of Galilee. There is no other lake like it. Especially, this part of the Kineret has captured my heart. Its 20-30 minutes’ drive from Tiberias city so there are no motorboats, smoke, city towers or buildings in sight of the sea. When you are in the water, all you see is the spectacular view of the blue sky reflected in the ripples of the water caressing you and the awe-inspiring towering mountain ridges. So peaceful and serene! Just love to dip, float and swim in the gentle, cool waters of the Kineret! The amazing thing about this particular place is that all the women are modestly dressed and there are minyanim for the men around the clock. It was lovely how our entire family reveled in the lake for hours, playing with frisbees and tumbling in our rubber boat. The downside of my camping experience consisted of the bathrooms. I will refrain from going into details. It is perhaps less known to most people that the Torah has laws about everything in life, including proper toilet manners. These things, that even a garbage cat knows, would seem evident, but apparently, they aren’t.

Modesty Includes Properly Covering Our Body and its Waste
ספר דברים פרק כג פסוק יד וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ עַל אֲזֵנֶךָ וְהָיָה בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ חוּץ וְחָפַרְתָּה בָהּ וְשַׁבְתָּ וְכִסִּיתָ אֶת צֵאָתֶךָ: (טו) כִּי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ וְלָתֵת אֹיְבֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא יִרְאֶה בְךָ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְשָׁב מֵאַחֲרֶיךָ:

“You shall keep a stake in addition to your weapons; and it shall be, when you sit down outside [to relieve yourself], you shall dig with it, and you shall return and cover your excrement. 15) For Hashem, your G-d, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. [Therefore,] your camp shall be holy, so that He should not see anything unseemly [literarily nakedness] among you and would turn away from you” (Devarim 23:14-15).

These Torah verses are often quoted in defense of modesty, asעֶרְוַת דָּבָר /ervat davar means ‘nakedness.’ Exposing skimpy bathing-suits to unrelated men does indeed drive the Shechina away. How wonderful to have the privilege of living in the Holy Land with separate beaches or hours for men and women at seashores and swimming pools. At our campsite there were something for everyone: A women’s beach, a men’s beach and a mixed beach for the family to be together where the women were fully covered. I’m still wanting to take the campsites to the next level where not only our bodies but also our excrements are properly covered.

The Torah Mandate to Cover Your Excrements
The context of the Torah verses quoted above is referring to a military camp. If even during the emergency of war, along with “your weapons” the soldiers are required to put effort into proper toilet manners for keeping their camp clean and holy, how much more so in our camps of leisure. Put simply, this entails to include in our camping gear a stake or a shovel to dig with in nature places where there are no modern toilets. Whenever a camper needs to relieve himself, he must go as far away from the campsites as possible to a secluded place, dig a hole, move his bowels and then cover everything up well with dirt including any stray toilet paper. Please permit me to extend this Torah mandate into the sphere of the more common modern toilets of our time. Surely flushing the toilet is a way of fulfilling the mitzvah to “cover your excrement.” However, this is not always completely so. Often traces of feces remain on the side of the toilet bowl after the flush. From the age of three a child can be trained in the important mitzvah to develop awareness of the laws of modesty that includes covering or cleaning the traces of his personal waste each time he visits the toilet. To take care of this matter we have a toilet brush! Such a device is not exclusively for the cleaning lady or the housewife to use once a week. If we wouldn’t want to expose your private parts to the cleaning lady, why would anyone want to expose the traces of their private bowel movements?

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What Would it be Like to Once Again Have a King in Israel?

Parshat Shoftim 
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What is the Role of a Monarch in the Western World?
I’ve never experienced having a king. Actually, that’s not exactly true, as King Frederik IX passed away when I was 12 years old. He was the son of the legendary King Christian X, king of Denmark, who used to ride through the streets of Denmark on his horse and wave to the people. One day, a German soldier remarked to a young boy, that he found it odd that the King would ride with no bodyguard. The boy replied, “All of Denmark is his bodyguard.” This is reportedly a true story, unlike the legend about the king wearing the yellow star in order to support the Jews during the German occupation of Denmark (9 April 1940 - 5 May 1945). This story was invented to disprove the slander that the Danish King was afraid to oppose the German occupation with arms (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). In an attempt to prove the contrary, Danish Americans made-up several stories in defense of the Danish Monarch, the yellow-star-story being the most successful. King Christian X was among the last generation of kings who attempted to exercise legislative power. This happened in 1920, during a conflict between the king and the cabinet over the reunification with Denmark of a city in south Jutland which had been lost to Prussia. When King Christian X asserted his royal power to dismiss part of the Danish cabinet and replace it with his chosen officials, it created an almost revolutionary atmosphere in Denmark. Faced with the potential overthrow of the Danish crown, Christian X stood down and accepted his drastically reduced role as a symbolic head of state. This was the last time a Danish monarch attempted to take political action without the full support of parliament. Since then, the monarchy in the entire Western world has been reduced to a mere puppet, whose main tasks are to represent the Kingdom abroad and to be a unifying figure at home. I recall Queen Margrethe, who inherited the throne of Denmark in 1972, as a beloved traditional figure giving a yearly New Year’s speech, which we all watched on T.V.

Replacing the Parliament with the Sanhedrin and the Prime Minister with the King
Today we hardly have any models of the awe-inspiring kings of generations bygone. This makes it harder to foster the required feeling of awe of the King of Kings, especially as we approach the Days of Awe. Since the main role of the king is to unify the people, without a true king, we suffer from the lack of unity among our people. Confusion and disunity reigns everywhere as political parties split up into fragmented fractions. I felt this strongly during the Israeli elections in April this year. Sadly, the two main leaders of HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home), Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left the mainstream religious party – that defends the rights of Jewish settlers – to establish their own new splinter party. I knew then that they were doomed, and so it happened. The party that achieved 12 mandates in the 19th Knesset elections in 2012, didn’t even get enough votes to enter the 21th parliament. The breakdown of democracy was also experienced in that election, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition, the first such failure in Israeli history. While I’m happy that Bennett and Shaked have learned their lesson and rejoined the Union of Right-Wing Parties for the repeat elections to be held on 17 September 2019, I feel that we are getting more and more ready to replace the parliament with the Sanhedrin and the Prime Minister with the King.   

The Last Prime Minister in Israel
We live in a time that very much echoes the bleak period of the Judges, about which it states, “In those days (there was) no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his eyes” (Shoftim 17:6). Just as in the times of the Judges, when the judges judged one another (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 15b), so do we hardly find a politician today, who doesn’t have a criminal case open with the Supreme Court. Yet, this is only a sign that we are ripe for the coming of a true Jewish king, that will not only command the respect of all of us, but, moreover, will unify the entire world to serve Hashem. Shmuel, the Prophet, and the last of the Judges played a key role in the transition from the period of the Judges to the institution of the kingdom in Israel. He anointed the first two kings, first Shaul and then David, the sprout of the Messianic dynasty. Likewise, today, it seems that we are at the brink of Mashiach times! Rabbi Yitzchak Kaduri, one of the most influential Sephardic spiritual leaders of the century, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 106, met with Netanyahu in 1997, during his first term as prime minister. Rabbi Kaduri whispered a long message into Netanyahu’s ear. Rabbi Shmuel Shmueli, a follower of Rabbi Kaduri, revealed that Kaduri had always maintained that Netanyahu would serve a very long time and after his term in office, the Messiah would arrive. It’s interesting to note that his name, Binyamin may allude to King Shaul from the tribe of Binyamin who preceded David, the forefather of the Mashiach!

The Eternal King of Israel
Parashat Shoftim teaches us the mitzvah to appoint a king. The king of Israel must differ from all other kings, by living by the Torah and following its every word. His kingdom will only endure as long as he keeps all the mitzvot of the Torah (Rashi, Devarim 17:20). 

ספר דברים פרק יז פסוק יד-כ  כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי:(טו) שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא אָחִיךָ הוּא... (יח) וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם: (יט) וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשׂתָם: (כ) לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל:
“When you come to the land Hashem, your G-d, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,’ 15) you shall set a king over you, one whom Hashem, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother… 18) It will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim. 19) And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear Hashem, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them, 20) so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel (Devarim 17:14-20).

Electing the Mashiach
The King of Israel must be extremely humble as it states, “…so that his heart will not be haughty…” through his humility he will be able to connect everyone to their Father in Heaven. Due to his humility he will inspire true honor. I imagine that when we will encounter our king, the Mashiach, even if it might only be through seeing him on the computer screen, our heart will be opened and filled with both awe and love which will spill over to one another. When we finally have a King of Israel, we will know our true place, and be happy with our portion. Jealousy, anger and depression will melt away, as we take part in the rebuilding of the Temple under the directions of Mashiach. By cleaving faithfully to the Torah, our king will be imbued with the Divine spirit, conducting our country in the pleasant and peaceful ways of the Torah (Mishlei 3:17). I can’t wait for the time when all the Arabs living in Israel and those surrounding us will pay tribute to the Mashiach and hand in all their terrorist weapons. Instead, they will assist the Jews in cultivating our land (Yesha’yahu 2:4). I am only hopeful for the upcoming elections. If Benjamin Netanyahu fails again to form a governing coalition, with Hashem’s help he will be able to hand his keys over to Mashiach!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Why is the Mitzvah of Taking Tithes so Important?

Parshat Re’eh
Printable Version

The Merit of the Mitzvah of Tithing Our Produce
Thursday afternoon in my kitchen, between 2:30 and 7 pm, the food-processor is constantly spinning. Carrot salad with sunflower seeds, pesto with basil from our green house, techina and olive dip are happily stacked in the fridge. Roasted red peppers, zucchini’s and sweet potatoes are sizzling in the oven. The carrot cake and crustless quiche are patiently waiting their turn. While dishes are rapidly filling the drying rack, I realize that I need to pick more basil and thyme for the eggplant dip. “Oh no! This will be the 6th time I take ma’aser (tithe) today!” I exclaim to my faithful kitchen-helper, apprentice, student. Although I know the recitation by heart, it is tedious each time to separate off a little more than 1 % of the produce and respectfully dispose of it in a double plastic bag. So much plastic piling up in my garbage! Unfortunately, we can’t give the tithes to the Kohen, today, since we don’t have the means for the required ritual purification. We also can’t give it to the chickens or add it to our compost pile, because it is prohibited to get any benefit from the tithes of our produce, since its dedicated to the holy Temple-lightworkers. Although, we can pay a yearly amount for the tithe to the Levi and the poor, this may not be done with the tithe for the Kohen. Therefore, today, there is nothing else we can do with this tithe except to respectfully dispose of it. Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate to waste or throw anything out! So, I was a bit annoyed that I hadn’t picked enough produce before I took tithes for the sixth time that Thursday. Yet, after hearing my sigh, the response of my devoted, spiritual student was so uplifting. “What a beautiful zchut (merit) you have to perform Hashem's most precious mitzvah of terumot u’ma’asrot! You thereby strengthen the bond of the beloved Nation of Israel –Klal Yisrael with Hashem’s holy, beloved Land – Eretz Yisrael, and His holy Torah!” This mitzvah, indeed, plays an important role in Jewish sustainability. As we know, tithing is one of the special mitzvot dependent on the land (mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz) that grants us the privilege to live in Eretz Yisrael.

The Holiness of the Fruits of the Land
In the Land of Israel, the fruits are “holier than thou.” This means that their essence is already in tune with the final redemption, although, we are still in the process. These fruits are so holy that part of their holiness cannot be accessed today. This part is already imbued with the holiness of the Temple, some of which can only be eaten on the Temple Mount in purity. Therefore, growing fruits in the Land of Israel brings us closer to the final redemption. As it states, “But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruits to my people of Israel; for they will soon be coming” (Yechezkiel 36:8). The Talmud comments, “…there is no more revealed end [of days] than that… (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a). May we merit to experience the final redemption when we can eat the fruits of the land on the Temple Mount in purity and holiness together with the Kohanim and the rest of the people of Israel!

Ma’aser – the Secret of Abundance
The mitzvah of separating tithes is mentioned thrice in Parashat Re’eh, Devarim 11:11,14:22-23 and 14:28, so I thought it appropriate to share with you excerpts from my write up regarding this important mitzvah. For the full article please email

ספר דברים פרק יד פסוק כב עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה:
“You shall surely tithe all the seed crop that the field gives forth, year by year” (Devarim 14:22).
The word for tithe in Hebrew isמַעֲשֵׂר /ma’aser literarily – ‘from ten’ indicating the mitzvah to separate ten percent of our produce. Rabbbeinu Bachaya notices that the word עַשֵּׂר/aser – ‘tithe’ is repeated in the Torah verse to indicate that it refers to the two main tithes that we are to separate from our crop: The first עַשֵּׂר/aser is the primary tithe for the tribe of Levi. The repeated תְּעַשֵּׂר/te’aser – ‘you shall tithe’ refers to the secondary tithe for ourselves to eat at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Taking tithes is the secret of abundance as our Sages interpreted the phrase עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר/aser te’aser as follows: “Tithe – so you may grow rich” (a play on the words aser, to give tithes, and te’aser, to grow rich (BT, Ta’anit 9a). Rashi, based on Midrash Tanchuma, cautions us, to tithe our produce properly, when it is near ripening, for otherwise Hashem will bring forth an easterly wind, which will blast them, as it is states, “and blast before becoming standing grain” (II Melachim 19:26). Therefore, before buying any fruits and vegetables grown in the Holy Land make sure that they have been grown in accordance with the laws of the Land of Israel. This includes the laws of tithing. Look for the Rabbinic certificate which declares that terumot and ma’aserot have been separated, and make sure the certificate is up to date.

The Tribe of Levi – Dedicated to Fulltime Temple Service
What is the reason for the mitzvah of taking tithes? When the Jewish people originally inherited the Land, it was divided up in twelve portions. Each tribe was allotted the land-portion that corresponded to its essence. However, the tribe of Levi, including the Levites and the Kohanim did not receive any portion of land (See Bamidbar 18:20,18:23 and 18:24), because this tribe was chosen for Temple service, which is a fulltime occupation. The demanding work of farming was not to detract them from one hundred percent dedication to the Temple–the place where Heaven and Earth meet. When the Kohanim would sacrifice, the Jewish people and the entire world would receive atonement, become elevated, and connected with Hashem.

Supporting the Levites and the Kohanim
The Levites were dedicated to the important task of assisting the Kohanim in the Temple service and accompanying them with their musical instruments, which left them no time for farming. How then did they support themselves while engaged in selfless work to benefit the world?
In addition to receiving specific parts of the sacrifices, each of the remaining tribes was commanded to give ten percent of their produce to the tribe of Levi (Bamidbar 18:21, 18:24). This tithe is called, מַעֲשֵׂר רִאשוֹן/ma’aser rishon – “first or primary tithe.” To the Kohanim, however, it was sufficient to give an undefined small amount called תְרוּמָה גְדוֹלָה/teruma gedola – “the great elevation.” According to the Torah, all we needed to give was a little something, even just one grain of wheat (Rambam, Laws of Terumot, Chapter 3, Halacha 1). This amount would be adequate to support the Kohamin since the Levites were commanded to give תְרוּמָת מַעֲשֶֹר/terumat ma’aser – ‘the contribution from the tithes’ to the Kohahim (ten percent of their ten percent), (Bamidbar 18:26, 18:28); and there were many more Levites than Kohanim.

Additional Tithes not for the Tribe of Levi
Not all the tithes were for the tribe of Levi.  מַעֲשֵׂר שֵנִי/ma’aser sheni – ‘Secondary tithes,’ was for the Israelite himself, who grew produce in the Holy Land. This tithe entailed an additional ten percent of what was left of the produce after the מַעֲשֵׂר רִאשוֹן/ma’aser rishon had been given to the Levites. Ma’aser sheni was to be brought up to the Temple Mount and eaten by its owner in a state of purity. This way, each and every Jewish farmer would be encouraged to take off time from his demanding agricultural work, in order to become spiritually elevated while immersed in the holiness of the Temple environment. This tithe also assured the connection and integration of the physical work of the Land, with the spiritual holiness of the Temple. Each Israelite’s mindful eating of the holy produce of his ma’aser sheni at the holiest place on earth and his conscious thankfulness to Hashem with every bite chewed elevated the eating and reminded the farmer, that it is only Hashem’s blessing rather than his personal effort, which brings about abundance.  Every third and sixth year of the Shemitta (Sabbatical year) cycle, ma’aser sheni was replaced with מַעֲשֵׂר עֲנִי/ma’aser ani – ‘the tithes for the poor.’ This tithe which ensured the periodic support of the poor, is one of the many ways that the Torah ensures that the poor will have their needs met.

The Agricultural Tithes which may not be Eaten Today
The tithes that were to be eaten in ritual purity at the Temple Mount may not be consumed today. These are the following three: 1. תְרוּמָה גְדוֹלָה/teruma gedola – ‘the contribution to the Kohen.’ 2. תְרוּמָת מַעֲשֶר/terumat ma’aser –‘the Levites tithe to the Kohen.’  3. מַעֲשֵׂר שֵנִי/ma’aser sheni – ‘the secondary tithe’ which was supposed to be eaten at the Temple Mount in purity by the owner of the produce. Whereas ma’aser sheni is transferred into a coin, the holiness of the contributions for the Kohen is designated into a minute part of the produce, which is respectfully. The most miniscule amount suffices for the tithe we need to give to the Kohen, especially since today it is anyway discarded. However, the amount which we separate from our produce to fulfill the Levi’s tithe to the Kohen is ten percent of the ten percent that we are obligated to give to the Levite – that is one hundredth (1 %). Therefore, altogether we are required to separate off a little more than one percent for the total of these two tithes. The ma’aser sheni does not need to be separated off but its holiness may be redeemed into a designated coin. We may either use our own coin, which after a certain amount of ma’aser sheni has been transferred to it, must be thrown into the sea, or a coin designated for this purpose by an appropriate organization such as The Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel.

The Agricultural Tithes which can be Fulfilled Today
Since the tithes to the Levites and to the poor are not required to be eaten at the Temple Mount in a state of ritual purity, these two tithes can be fulfilled even today. A yearly estimate of our produce must be made, and a monetary donation of ten percent given to a Levi on a yearly basis and to a poor person during the appropriate years. It is possible to give these two tithes either directly to a Levite and to a poor person, or to an institution such as The Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel which provides the service of distributing the tithes for the Levite and the poor on a yearly basis.

Taking Tithes – One of the Hidden Mitzvot of Women
Taking tithes is in a way one of the special mitzvot of women. Even more so today, when unfortunately, most men are not farmers. It is mainly women who is responsible for kashrut of the home, shopping at farmers market or harvesting her herbs, and veggies to use in cooking for the home. The fact that the Mishna cautions the husband to remind his wife about the mitzvah of taking tithes on Friday afternoon, furthermore, supports the notion that taking ma’aser is a ‘woman’s mitzvah’ as the Mishna teaches:

משנה מסכת שבת פרק ב משנה ז
שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים צָרִיךְ אָדָם לוֹמַר בְּתוֹךְ בֵּיתוֹ עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת עִם חֲשֵׁכָה. עִשַּׂרְתֶּם. עֵרַבְתֶּם הַדְלִיקוּ אֶת הַנֵּר:
“A person must say three things in his house on the eve of Shabbat just before night: Have you separated tithes? Have you prepared the ‘eruv’? Light the [Shabbat] candle[s]!”
(Mishna Berachot 2:7).

Just as it is the wife who causes the blessing of abundance into the home, as it states, “Honor your wives, that you may become rich” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59a), so is she the main one to separates tithes which brings about abundance. 
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קיט/א
עשירים שבארץ ישראל במה הן זוכין אמר לו בשביל שמעשרין שנאמר עשר תעשר עשר בשביל שתתעשר...
By what virtue do the wealthy of Eretz Yisrael merit their wealth? Because they tithe, as it is stated: “A tithe you shall tithe [aser te’aser] from all the crops of your seed that come out of the field each year” (Devarim 14:22). Take a tithe [aser] so that you will become wealthy [titasher] (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119a). 

“Generations will not be redeemed but for the merit of righteous women of that generation” (Yalkut Shimoni 606:19). In the merit of women being careful with the mitzvah of taking tithes even in its minimized state prior to the rebuilding of the Temple, may we merit to revive this vital mitzvah and experience eating מַעֲשֵׂר שֵנִי/ma’aser sheni together on the Temple Mount in purity and holiness!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What is Wrong with Wearing High Heels?

Parshat Ekev

High Heels and Anguished Feet
I’ve always detested high heels. First of all, they look unnatural, ugly and conceited with their narrow twistedness and raised, gaudy, batons underscoring the lowest part of our being. Untrained feet like mine can’t even fit into such devices. I recall how my German grandmother, several decades ago, warned me against high heels, by showing how her feet had been misshapen by being unnaturally twisted into the fashionable high heels required to fit into the aristocracy of her time. Witnessing her anguished feet made an awful impression on me, although her warning had been totally unnecessary. In high school my peers were divided into two distinct groups. The fancy girls with high heels and nail polish that frequented the discotheques, and the flower girls like me, with untamed locks, flowing tunics and bare feet. Since childhood when going shoe shopping style, fashion and even color was always secondary to comfortable shoes that were to serve as the foundation of our every movement. When they designed Crocs, it seemed to anyone that knew me that these comfortable, wide shoes were invented especially for me!

Shoe Designers Awaken Their Consumer’s Lower Passions
High heels have their comeback in fashion at various time periods throughout the ages. The shoe designers invest much time and money in sophisticated techniques of revealing the thinking processes and lower passions of their potential consumers. The high-heeled shoe is an example of one such ‘innovation.’ Rather than being concerned with the spiritual etiquette and positive effect of their designer shoes, the shoe designers’ purpose is primarily to stimulate the yetzer hara (negative impulse) of the person wearing their shoes. In their quest that their shoes become popular products in high demand on the market, the designers couldn’t care less about whether they will negatively impact the way their consumers stand and walk. A high level of awareness is required of the average person in order to understand how the shoe influences his personality. However, the ‘awareness’ of the yetzer hara knows no bounds. “There is nothing new under the sun.” These matters have been known by our Rabbis since ancient time, and they are described by our holy prophets and their Rabbinic commentaries. In portraying the spiritual and ethical decline prior to the destruction of the Temple, our Rabbis describe the arrogant, immodest body language of the daughters of Tzion, with special emphasis on their way of walking:

ספר ישעיה פרק ג פסוק טז
...יַעַן כִּי גָבְהוּ בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן וַתֵּלַכְנָה נְטוּוֹת \{נְטוּיוֹת\} גָּרוֹן וּמְשַׂקְּרוֹת עֵינָיִם הָלוֹךְ וְטָפוֹף תֵּלַכְנָה וּבְרַגְלֵיהֶם תְּעַכַּסְנָה:
“Hashem says because the daughters of Tzion are so haughty and walk with outstretched necks and winking eyes, walking and raising themselves as they walk; and making a tinkling (spout ‘venom’) with their feet” (Yesha’yahu 3:16).

Haughty High Heels
Wearing high heels emphasizes the human aspect of haughtiness by making women appear like they are raising themselves as they walk. Rashi explains, “With their feet they spout venom” to indicate that when they would pass in the street near Jewish youths, they would stamp their feet and hint to them of the affection of the adulteresses, in order to arouse their temptation, like the venom of a serpent. The Talmud goes even further in describing the effort of the Jewish girls in order to entice the yetzer hara of the Jewish boys: Regarding forbidden sexual relations, it is written: “Because the daughters of Tzion are haughty.” This indicates a tall woman walking alongside a short one so that the tall woman would stand out. “And walk with outstretched necks,” indicates that they would walk with upright stature and carry themselves in an immodest way. “Walking and raising themselves as they go,” indicates that they would walk in small steps, heel to toe, so onlookers would notice them. “Making a tinkling [te’akasna] with their feet,” Rabbi Yitzcḥak said: This teaches that they would bring myrrh and balsam and place them in their shoes and would walk in the marketplaces of Jerusalem. Once they approached a place where young Jewish men were congregated, they would stamp their feet on the ground and splash the perfume toward them and instill the evil inclination into them like venom of a viper (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9:2).   

Shoe fashion design has the power to make a significant difference in the way a woman stands and walks. Moreover, a noisy clicking of the heels on the ground express a personality that desires to attract attention. The inner message of walking in this way while clicking the heels loudly is, “even with the heel, the organ furthest away and least important I have the ability to demonstrate my importance” (Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, Aleinu Leshabe’ach).

The Heel Represents the Totality of a Person
Parashat Ekev is all about the heel, although the word for ‘heel’ – עֵקֶב/ekev in the context of our Parasha is translated as “it will be.” This is because the heel is the end part of our body, therefore it also denotes the future to come. Thus, Ibn Ezra explains that the heel symbolizes the final reward. Similarly, “Just as in the holy tongue the beginning of everything is called the רֹאשׁ/rosh – ‘head,’ so is the end of every matter is called the עֵקֶב/ekev – ‘heel.’ In the same manner as the head is the beginning of a person while the heel is his end and lowermost part” (Ramban, Devarim 7:12). It is interesting to note that the word for ‘shoe’ in Hebrewנַעַל /na’al also means a ‘lock.’ The shoe is called so because it locks something that has special significance, alluding to the independent importance of our feet. Perhaps the feet and especially the last part of the foot – the heel – represents the totality of a person. If a person’s heel is expressing the Divine will, then we can be sure that the rest of the person is G-d fearing. The shoe that encases our foot and heel therefore resumes major importance as it is like the final lock that can latch in the rest of our being to its inherent connection with the Divine spark of our soul. Since the shoe connects us to the ground, enabling us to fulfill our purpose in the physical world, it makes sense that in Kabbalah our entire body is also called a ‘shoe’ compared to the neshama (Rav Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim 1:5).

“All’s Well That Ends Well”
ספר דברים פרק ז פסוק יב וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ:
“It will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that Hashem, your G-d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers” (Devarim 7:12).

Although the heel assumes major importance, since it’s the lowest part of our body, we may easily take it lightly. Rashi explains that עֵקֶב/ekev refers to the heel.’ Therefore, Hashem is promising us a covenant of kindness if we only heed the minor commandments that people [usually] trample with their heels [i.e., they are treated as being of minor importance]. This Rashi supports the concept that the heel is our most vital part, despite its seemingly lower status than the rest of a person’s body. If our spiritual work reaches all the way down to our heel then we can be assured that the rest of us is in a good place. The end purpose and goal of living in this material world is to connect our very lowest part with the highest spiritual awareness of our head. In this way we make Hashem a dwelling place below. This explains the importance of the heel, as we know from the popular proverb: “All’s well that ends well.” It is interesting to note, that the foot encompasses the end nerve points of all the organs in our entire body. Thus, we can heal our entire being through our feet as known in the wisdom of reflexology. The back of the heel is specifically connected with our spine, and reflexology of the heel can ease lower back pain and alleviate discomfort associated with standing for extended periods of time. The middle of the heel is associated with the sciatic nerve – the longest, widest nerve in the human body that originates in the lower back, while the sides of the heel help alleviate pain in the tailbone or extreme bottom of the spine. The fact that the heel affects such vital part of our body furthermore testifies to its importance. Due to the significance of the foot and the heel it is vital that we treat them with love and dignity as is becoming for a Bat Melech (daughter of the King). We should ensure that our shoes have thick enough soles to protect our feet from thorns, prickles and nails. Moreover, we must ensure that our shoes are comfortable and fit our feet well without causing any pain, even when we stand or walk for extended periods of time. In the rural area – with its mountain slopes and rocky soil – that we call home, high heels are completely incompatible. Yet wherever a person may live, have you ever heard of anyone who claims that high heels are comfortable?