Category Archives: Leviticus

Uninterrupted Blessings (Behar-Bechukotai)

Uninterrupted Blessings (Behar-Bechukotai)

In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently. -Anthony Robbins

The Torah portion of Bechukotai provides a long list of blessings that God will bestow on the nation of Israel. The blessings are conditional. God declares that the blessings will only come to fruition if we obey God’s laws and commands. On the other hand, God provides an even longer list of curses. Understandably, the curses will fall upon us if we rebel against God and ignore his commands.

In these descriptions, there’s very much a sense of the God-Man relationship being a reciprocal one. If man is good, obedient, and follows God’s laws, God will show his munificence to man. If man betrays God and violates God’s wishes and instructions, God’s wrath will be unleashed upon man.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 26:5 delves deeper into the idea of the reciprocal relationship and explains that the reciprocity can be quite direct and highly dependent not only on what we do but also on whether it’s consistent or not.

He suggests that God is expecting us to be consistently devoted to Him – not just once in a while, or when it’s convenient, or when we feel like it. God expects us to be continuously cognizant and obedient to His commandments. He wants us to be constantly occupied with His Torah. If we are steadfast in taking God’s requests seriously, He will be unwavering in bestowing blessings upon us. His blessings won’t be just once in a while, but rather constant.

The blessing states:

“Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone.”

The Bechor Shor details that there will be an uninterrupted stream of material blessing. There will not be anything lacking. We will be healthy and strong. We will be safe and secure and will be able to fully enjoy all of these material blessings without any fear or concern.

However, to receive the uninterrupted blessings from God, He requires that we provide uninterrupted service to Him. It’s a two-way relationship. We have to earn our blessings. God does provide plenty of unearned blessings continuously, but the Bechor Shor implies that to reach the level of full unending blessings requires a more serious commitment on our part.

May we appreciate all the blessings in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the victims of the Meron tragedy and to the complete and rapid healing of the injured.

Historic Anticipation (Emor)

Historic Anticipation (Emor)

Life… It tends to respond to our outlook, to shape itself to meet our expectations. -Richard M. DeVos

Pesach (Passover) is among the better known and more celebrated Jewish holidays. However, exactly fifty days after Pesach we celebrate what might perhaps be an even more important and significant holiday, Shavuot. Pesach famously celebrates the liberation of the proto-nation of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people’s encounter with God fifty days later at Mount Sinai, where through the process of God’s revelation to us, we received His Torah, His commandments, and took on the covenant that is what truly makes the people of Israel into a Nation.

Shavuot is the only holiday that we have a biblical injunction to count towards. In this week’s Torah reading God commands:

“And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the holiday (Pesach)… seven complete weeks, until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days…”

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 23:16 gives an analogy to a man who is in prison and a servant of the king comes to inform the prisoner that on such-and-such day the king will release him from prison, and that fifty days later, he will give him his daughter, the princess, in marriage. The prisoner’s initial thoughts are merely “I just hope he gets me out of here.” However, once he’s released and sees that the servant’s words came true, now he gets excited about the prospect of marrying the princess, and with great anticipation starts counting fifty days until the promised day.

So too, once the people of Israel witnessed Moses’ promise of redemption fulfilled, once they experienced the exodus from Egypt, they looked forward to what the Sages have termed the marriage ceremony between God and Israel, fifty days later.

God Himself commands that the counting be done every year in order to constantly endear the Torah to the Jewish nation, for the Torah is an indescribably precious gift God gave to Israel, a possession with which God, in a way beyond our comprehension, created the very universe.

May we appreciate anew the giving of the Torah and celebrate the anniversary of that matrimony with great anticipation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the birth of Eitan Tzvi Lustig. Mazal Tov to the entire family!

Love wins over Hate (Acharei Mot – Kedoshim)

Love wins over Hate (Acharei Mot – Kedoshim)

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Torah attempts to legislate a good, just, socially responsible society. It introduces multiple laws, a significant percentage of which remain the foundation of Western civilization: The more obvious ones like don’t murder and don’t steal; setting up courts; convictions based on corroborated and verified testimony; financial laws legislating honest business practices and safeguarding of the consumer, and much more.

However, the Torah’s concern for how we relate to our fellow man seems to take this social responsibility to extremes, to even regulate how we feel about our fellow man, even people who we may have good reason to dislike.

In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us not to gossip, not to hate our brothers in our heart, not to take vengeance, or not even to bear a grudge.

Elsewhere, the Torah strengthens the command of not hating nor bearing a grudge, by giving a specific example. If you see a person that you hate struggling with his laden donkey, you must help him.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 19:18 touches on the danger of pent-up hatred. If there’s an issue, if your friend did something untoward, it should be pointed out (if possible and if it will be productive). Holding a grudge is unhealthy and eventually leads to even more destructive vengeance of one type or another.

The Bechor Shor explains that God is telling us that “your love of Me (God) can outweigh your hatred of your friend.” If your friend asks you to lend him something, when he didn’t help you in your time of need, even though he was ostensibly able to, nonetheless, you are commanded to help him. Don’t take even petty vengeance or have a grudge that grows and festers into cancerous vindictiveness that contaminates human relations.

Rather, through one’s love of God, one can overcome and even forget one’s hatred. Eventually, forced graciousness will lead to genuine rapprochement, renewed peace, and stronger friendship.

May we find ways to make peace with friends we may have offended, and vice-versa.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedications

On the birth of our great-nephew, Yehoshua Yechiel Spitz. Mazal Tov!

On our son Netanel’s enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces.

The Symbolism of Sin (Tazria-Metzora)

The Symbolism of Sin (Tazria-Metzora)

 The essence of all immorality and sin is making ourselves the center around which we subordinate all interest. -Cecil J. Sharpe

The Torah reports regarding an unusual skin disease called Tzaraat (popularly mistranslated as leprosy). The person who suffered from Tzaraat was called a Metzora. The Talmud discusses what the causes of Tzaraat might be. While all are in agreement that Tzaraat is a physical manifestation of some internal, spiritual malady showing the Metzora that he or she did something wrong, the prime suspect as to the cause of Tzaraat is gossip.

One of the repercussions of being diagnosed with Tzaraat was that the Metzora was expelled from the camp (or the town) until they had recovered, and after a clean bill of health and a purification process, they were allowed to return to their home and community.

What is perhaps more interesting than this unusual disease itself and everything it may symbolize is the ritual involved in declaring a Metzora purified and able to rejoin the community.

The Torah prescribes that the officiating Kohen take two live sacrificial birds, some cedar wood, red thread, hyssop, and a clay vessel filled with fresh water. One of the birds was slaughtered over the fresh water of the clay vessel. Then the live bird, together with the cedar wood, red thread, and hyssop was dipped in the vessel and used to sprinkle the mixture on the Metzora. The live bird was then set free.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 14:4-5 details the symbolism of the various components involved:

The cedar is among the tallest of trees, while the hyssop is among the lowest of plants, to represent that the Metzora has fallen from the highest heights to the lowest lows, but can return to those heights. And what caused this fall? Sin. The sin is represented by the red thread. The challenge of sin often starts as slim as a thread. The dead bird represents the Metzora whose sins have in a certain spiritual sense caused him to die. Mixing the live bird with both the fresh water and the blood of the dead bird represents the possibility of the Metzora’s rebirth and rehabilitation. He can leave his sordid past behind and become a new, sanctified person. Releasing the live bird to freedom, to rejoin its flock, symbolizes the former Metzora’s ability to both leave sin and rejoin his community.

However, the clay vessel symbolizes the fragility of his repentance. Just as a clay vessel is easily broken and cannot be mended, if a Metzora were to damage his hard-earned repentance, it may be that much more difficult for him to abandon his sins.

May we always have the strength to avoid both old and new sins.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Israel’s fallen sons and daughters, as well as to Israel on the 73rd anniversary of its rebirth.

Ritual Distancing (Shmini)

Ritual Distancing (Shmini)

Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye. -Samuel Johnson

The Torah provides a substantial amount of detail regarding the laws of what animals we’re allowed to eat as well as those we are commanded to stay far away from. No insects or shellfish are allowed. The only seafood we’re allowed is those fish that have scales and fins.

The Torah also gives a long list of all the birds we’re not allowed to eat. The number of kosher birds we can partake of is relatively limited and are exclusively non-predatory.

In the mammal category, there is the general guideline of only being allowed to eat animals who both chew their cud and have split hooves. Beyond that general guideline, the Torah also specifies mammals who have one or the other of those attributes which are not kosher. Having split hooves or chewing its cud is not enough; the animal is only kosher if it has both attributes. The prime and notorious example of a non-kosher mammal is the pig, which even though it has split hooves, doesn’t chew its cud.

The verse immediately after the one that singles out the pig and its other non-kosher mammal friends states that not only should you not eat these animals, but you shouldn’t even touch their carcass.

The Bechor Shor on the verse (Leviticus 11:8) wonders about the seeming redundancy. If you’re not allowed to even touch the dead meat, then how would one come to eat it?

He explains that while the prohibition regarding non-kosher food is quite strict, the statement regarding not touching the non-kosher item is just some good advice and not a legal obligation according to Jewish law.

He elaborates that there is something intrinsically filthy and disgusting about non-kosher food that even touching it could somehow contaminate us. It possesses an impurity and foulness that can somehow be conveyed not only into our bodies but to our very souls. However, if one were to find a dead carcass of non-kosher meat in one’s home, one would be obliged to remove it, even though it would entail touching it. The slight contact with the contaminating food in order to remove it is justified in comparison to keeping the putrid item in your home.

May we always remain far away from items that may contaminate us and only partake of clean, healthful food.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the opening up of venues in general, and Yeshiva in particular.

We don’t wait on soup (Tzav)

We don’t wait on soup (Tzav)

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use. -Emily Post

Once upon a time there was a concept called “etiquette” which one was expected to demonstrate, beyond the politeness of “please” and “thank you,” particularly in dining situations. One learned how to sit and how not to sit, how to handle cutlery, how to eat, how to drink, how to excuse oneself, and much more.

One of those rules of etiquette was the idea of waiting to eat, even if the food was on the plate in front of you, until the host started eating. An exception to that, however, was if the food being served was soup. By the time everyone would have been served their soup, the first person’s soup would be at best lukewarm or cold. Therefore, etiquette dictates that you may have your soup as soon as it is served.

The Bechor Shor on the Torah reading of Tzav comes to a similar conclusion regarding the etiquette of the Kohens who partook of the sacrificial meals at the Temple.

The descendants of Aaron, the High Priest, were tasked with the eternal responsibility of serving as priests (Kohens) in the Tabernacle, and thereafter in the Temple. Part of that service included the sharing of sacrificial meals. During Temple times the Kohens served in rotations that were apportioned to a roster of Kohanic families. Each Kohanic family would serve together in the Temple, performing the various ritual duties required in the Temple.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 7:10 explains the different etiquette that accompanied different types of sacrificial meals or foods. In particular, he focuses on two types of grain “Mincha” offerings. One was a simple, uncooked, grain and oil mixture. For this offering, the Kohens needed to wait for the entire family to come together and eat it at the same time. However, the baked offerings were eaten primarily by the Kohens who were responsible and present for the preparation and baking of that particular offering, without having to wait for the entire family to assemble. They were allowed to eat it while it was still hot and not miss out on the pleasure of the hot food by waiting for everyone else to show up.

May we always be considerate of others, and may we not demand consideration from others when it needlessly harms or detracts from their experiences.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Suez Canal.

The Value of a Poor Man’s Gift (Vayikra)

The Value of a Poor Man’s Gift (Vayikra)

The best loved by God are those that are rich, yet have the humility of the poor, and those that are poor and have the magnanimity of the rich. -Sa’di

The Book of Leviticus is replete with a multiplicity of sacrifices which could be brought in the desert Tabernacle (and later on in the Temple of Jerusalem). The Torah lists various details and protocols of a wide variety of sacrifices. There are different types of sacrifices to absolve one from different types of inadvertent sins. There are sacrifices of purification, of thanksgiving, and more. There are sacrifices for individuals, and sacrifices for the community at large. The sacrifices can be animals, big or small, birds, and even just grain.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 1:17 cites the often quoted Talmudic dictum that the phrase “pleasant aroma” (Re’ah Nichoach) is mentioned by both the simplest offering as well as by the most lavish sacrifice. The repetition of the phrase comes to show that the important part of a sacrifice is not how grand or humble it is, but rather that one’s heart should be focused upon Heaven.

However, in the Bechor Shor’s very next commentary on Leviticus 2:1, he highlights the simple grain “Mincha” offering which is designated as Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of holies).

The Bechor Shor explains that because of the cheapness of a Mincha offering, it was most common for the poor to bring it and this made it especially dear to God who has a special love for the downtrodden. When one of limited means takes from his meager resources and gives freely from his precious little, that is the apex of giving and sacrifice which makes the act even more beloved by God.

May our giving be commensurate with our ability to do so and may we always be among those generous of spirit, soul, and means.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of my colleague, Eric Rosen. A great man and mentor.

Ordinary Miracles (Behar-Bechukotai)

Ordinary Miracles (Behar-Bechukotai)

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle. -Walt Whitman

It is human nature to take the commonplace for granted. We are not typically amazed that the sun rises every morning. We are not astounded that objects fall when dropped, obeying the laws of gravity. We are not surprised when we speak and sound comes out of our mouths. It’s the way the world works and we don’t expect it to do otherwise.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 26:4 highlights that, every single aspect of our reality, from the most minuscule microbe to the largest galaxies is miraculous and the direct result of divine intervention. What we call nature is nothing other than a continuous stream of miracles that we have become accustomed to.

He adds that part of the “natural” order is that when a person follows God’s commands, he will also receive blessings through “nature.”

So if nature is none other than a continuous series of miracles, then what is the purpose of the more extraordinary miracles which capture our attention? The Meshech Chochma answers that the purpose of the more exciting miracles is exactly to get us to notice that God’s hand is still involved in the world and that in fact, it’s all under His control and direction. God is the composer as well as the ongoing conductor of nature.

That is one of the reasons for the directive to read Psalm 145 (the prayer known as Ashrei) three times every day. Ashrei is composed according to the Alef-Bet. The first verse starts with the letter Alef; the second with Bet; the third with Gimmel, and so on. Each subsequent verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a “natural” progression. Both the content and the structure of the Psalm attests to God’s dictating and managing “nature.”

Therefore, the Talmud states (Tractate Berachot 4b) that whoever recites Psalm 145 three times a day is assured a place in the World-to-Come. By giving continuous testimony and declaring our consistent belief in God’s constant presence in nature, our spirits become suitably prepared for a continuous attachment to God after our time in the physical world.

May we appreciate all the miracles in our lives, the mundane, the commonplace, the subtle and the extraordinary, and always give thanks.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the (finally) new Israeli government.

To Challenge our Nature (Emor)

To Challenge our Nature (Emor)

All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God. -Sir Thomas Browne

The Torah prescribes multiple holidays and celebrations throughout the calendar year. While most of them have some uncommon aspect, perhaps the one that outwardly seems the most unusual is the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), celebrated a few days after Yom Kippur, starting on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

The holiday of Sukkot has two major unusual features. The first is the construction of a Suka (Sukkot is the plural form and hence the name of the holiday). The Suka is a hut which is meant to be a temporary domicile for 7 days with some stringent requirements regarding its construction, most notably that its roof must be porous and made of some plant material. We are meant to eat, sleep, and otherwise spend the week of Sukkot in this temporary home.

The second unusual feature is the taking of the “four species,” a citron fruit (Etrog), a frond of a date palm (Lulav), myrtle boughs (Hadas), and willow branches (Arava), and to shake them during the prayers.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 23:42 analyzes the commandment of the Suka in the context of all the commandments, which for his analysis he divides into two categories. There are commandments that go against our nature and then there are commandments that are in line with our nature, but which help to strengthen or further refine our nature.

He explains that the commandment to dwell in a Suka goes very much against our nature. It is natural that after the summer harvest is over, after you’ve gathered all your produce, that you just want to rest at home in the comfort of a normal, sturdy house, which will protect you against the elements. The holiday of Sukkot literally wants to take us out of our comfort zone.

The Meshech Chochma however, learns from this a principle that applies to all commandments which go against our human inclination. He states that God Himself is the one who programmed us with our personal and collective natures. And He is also the one who gave us these “anti-nature” commandments. He knows that they will be challenging for us; for some more than others. Nonetheless, God wants us to change those natures that He gave us and to take on the challenges of His commandments which ultimately are designed to improve, refine and perfect not just our nature, but also our souls.

May we understand, accept, and succeed in the multiple tests God has designed to challenge the natures He has given us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich z”tl, who passed away this week.

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

It is an old habit with theologians to beat the living with the bones of the dead. -Robert G. Ingersoll

Joseph Thrown into a Pit – David Colyn

When a child of mine apologizes for something they did, I will sometimes counter that the apology is not very meaningful if they go on to repeat their wrongdoing. That principle, in essence, lies at the heart of an old theological conundrum that the Torah presents us with. One on hand, there is a verse in Deuteronomy that clearly states that sons will not be punished for their father’s sins, nor the fathers for their son’s sins. However, we have other places where the Torah states that God “will visit the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children.”

First of all, that doesn’t seem very fair. Second of all, how do we resolve the contradiction? Are children punished for their parents’ sins or not?

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 16:30 brings the relatively famous answer from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 27b) that children are only punished for their parents’ sins if they continue the sins of their parents. However, the Meshech Chochma deepens this equation, making us liable for ancient sins as well as dividing the sins into two broad categories.

He states that whenever we violate a ritual command, a command that is predominantly between us and God, we somehow also become guilty of our ancestors’ sin of the Golden Calf. When we violate an interpersonal command, an infraction between us and our fellow Jew, that sin is connected back through millennia to the sin of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery.

He learns this from a fascinating detail of the High Priest’s breastplate. The names of all of Jacob’s sons are etched onto the stones of the breastplate, except for one, Joseph. Having Joseph’s name there would be too stark a reminder of that ancient sin and it wouldn’t do for the High Priest, who is an agent of forgiveness and pardon, to have such an obvious reminder of that sin between brothers. It is also a reason why the breastplate, which was imbued with prophetic powers, ceased to work after the division of the monarchy into ten northern tribes (Kingdom of Israel) and two southern tribes (Kingdom of Judah) after the death of King Solomon. If there was no brotherly unity, the breastplate could not fulfill its ultimate function of being a conduit for divine communications.

If we don’t learn from our parents’ and our ancestors’ mistakes, if we repeat them, we are held accountable for those very mistakes. The point is we should have learned from them. If we do learn from them, if we repent, then those original sins are somehow also pardoned.

In our Yom Kippur liturgy, we quote God’s response to Moses of “and I will pardon you as per your words,” which occurs immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf. That is our pardon for the ritual sins for which we’ve repented. However, we also have the language of “and a pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun.” That is the pardon for the sins we’ve committed against our brothers from which we’ve repented.

May we learn from our own and our ancestors’ mistakes, and not repeat them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the State of Israel, on the 72nd anniversary of its reestablishment.