Category Archives: Leviticus

The Proof is in Eating the Pudding (Tzav)

The Proof is in Eating the Pudding (Tzav)

Facts are God’s arguments; we should be careful never to misunderstand or pervert them. -Tryon Edwards

There is a significant portion of Torah commandments whose rationale is beyond our comprehension. One of the more famous ones is how water mixed with ashes of the Red Heifer, when sprinkled on a ritually impure person, purifies him, but in turn, makes the purifier impure. There are many more such cases. In our modern, science-worshipping age, there are even more Torah commandments that seem to be at odds with our sensibilities and understanding of the world. And when modern culture proclaims that we each have our own truth, that we can each determine for ourselves what is ethical, that there is no absolute truth, that there is no divinely mandated ethic, then it’s a wonder that anybody pays any attention to what the Torah might have to say.

One such area that modern sensibilities have difficulty with is the whole concept of animal sacrifices. Sacrifices are a major component of the entire Book of Leviticus and were the main activity both of the Tabernacle in the desert and of the Temple in Jerusalem.

However, the Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 6:9 says that it’s not only modern man who has a problem with God’s instructions to bring animal sacrifices – it also troubled ancient atheists. The ancient atheist (and modern man) will ask if Ruben sinned, why should an innocent animal pay for that sin with its life? How does sacrificing an animal exonerate or redeem a person? How can the thoughts of a second person, the Kohen who enables the sacrifice, achieve that pardon for the sinner? An atheist, not believing in any of this, rejects the entire premise.

What the atheist and modern man don’t realize is that the whole premise of sacrifices is indeed a foundational principle of the Torah, though we may not understand the underlying cause and effect. Somehow, there is a spiritual reality where, when the Tabernacle and Temple were in existence, the offering of a sacrifice did have an effect (though at some point in our history we abused this mechanism, as the later prophets exhorted that God was sick of our meaningless sacrifices and did see them as cruel murder of innocent animals).

As a result, atheists, in Temple times, were limited to only bringing sacrifices made of grains, so there would be no dissonance between their beliefs and their limited sacrificial service. However, the Kohen who served as the practical and spiritual intermediary to make sure the animal was sacrificed as per the proper ritual, he needed to eat from the meat of the animal he just offered. He was expected to have full concentration and pure purpose in affecting the spiritual rectification that his actions evoked. Once the Kohen ate from the animal he had sacrificed, then the penitent person would have proof that the Kohen was comfortable with the sacrificial actions, had done it properly and believed in the process, and the penitent himself could now partake of the meat of the sacrifice.

May we let go of the blindness of believing only what we can see or understand.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of my aunt, Sima Frishman z”l, who passed away this week. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Sanctity versus Power (Vayikra)

Sanctity versus Power (Vayikra)

We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom. -Stephen Vincent Benet

The beginning of the Book of Leviticus details a variety of sacrifices that are brought by different people for different sins. Two individuals are singled out in the list of sinners and they are prescribed different sacrifices. One personality is the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest); the other is the King.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 4:21 analyses the differences between these two personalities. The Kohen Gadol is the most sacred role in Israel. He and only he is the one with the task, the burden and the great honor of entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. He represents the holiest person, in the holiest place at the holiest time in a unique annual communion with God, that when successful, conveys forgiveness to the entire people of Israel.

In Biblical times, the Kohen Gadol also wore the Urim Ve’tumim, the special breastplate with the twelve precious stones that enabled a very specific but powerful communication between God and the leadership of Israel. The bottom line is that the Kohen Gadol represented the pinnacle of sanctity and closeness to God. Because of this closeness, any sin that the Kohen Gadol committed, even if it was inadvertent, would be considered by the public as purposeful.

The King, on the other hand, was considered all too human. Because of his excess power, it was presumed that he would err more than your average citizen. That is why he was given additional strictures above those of non-Kings, such as the prohibition of accumulating too much wealth, too many horses or too many wives, and his need to carry a Torah scroll on him at all times.

The people, knowing well the King’s likelihood to blunder and to show poor judgment, would know that any sins of his are indeed mistakes and they would be more careful not to imitate such mistakes.

The Meshech Chochma adds that this is the reason why we don’t appoint Kohens as Kings (a reminder of the ultimately catastrophic Hasmonean monarchy – the combination of Kohens and kingship ended in disaster). The Kohen who is meant to be more attuned to divine service will turn away from God because of the royal power he gets. His arrogance will remove his fear of God. And if this Kohen King sins, the people may follow his example, considering him a holy man.

On the other hand, the Meshech Chochma continues, the people likewise can affect their king. When the people sin, the king can very likely be influenced by them and follow in their ways. The converse is likewise true: if the people are good and follow God, the king will be strengthened and encouraged to do the same.

May we never confuse holiness with power.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those working on a COVID-19 vaccine and cure.

Powerful Thoughts (Bechukotai)

Powerful Thoughts (Bechukotai)

Our life is what our thoughts make it. A man will find that as he alters his thoughts toward things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him. -James Allen

The beginning of the Torah reading of Bechukotai starts with the seemingly repetitive phrase:

“If you will walk in My statutes, and My commandments you will guard, and you shall do them; and I will give your rains in their season…”

The Berdichever theorizes that it would have been simpler to state “If you will guard My commandments, I will give your rains…”

He continues that the expanded and intricate verse comes to teach a couple of lessons.

The first lesson is that just the thought of performing a commandment is counted by God as if a commandment had been performed. There is some strength, some vitality of merely thinking about following God’s commandment which God considers as if it were already done and whose reward is then immediately set aside.

The next lesson is that if one does indeed merit to actually perform the commandment as intended, then the reward is the ability to perform another commandment. Performance of a commandment leads to performance of additional commandments. This successive sequence of commandments can lead a person to ever higher spiritual levels.

The person who is constantly performing commandments, who reaches a level of the Tzadik, the righteous, is considered to be “walking” (as in “walk in My statutes” from the verse above), because he is always on the move, reaching higher and higher levels of divine service and attachment to God.

The Berdichever highlights the potency of reinforcing positive habits and behaviors by the growing and ascending performance of commandments as well as the power of positive thinking. In God’s eyes, a positive thought, a thought to follow His directive, is as good as having done the deed, and invariably leads to performance of God’s commands and to greater accomplishments when sustained.

May we think properly and act properly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Yitzchak Yechiel Neta Hadid. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Predicting the Sabbath (Behar)

Predicting the Sabbath (Behar)

Envisioning the end is enough to put the means in motion. -Dorothea Brande

In the Torah portion of Behar, God instructs Moses to relay the commands of the Sabbatical year, among a slew of other related and unrelated commandments. The Sabbatical year was the divine decree that in Israel, in the Promised Land, the fields needed to lay fallow every seventh year. Every seventh year the farmers were given a divinely mandated break from plowing, sowing and working their fields. The farmers who followed God’s directive were blessed with abundant crops.

The Berdichever mentions a related verse:

“And you (Moses), speak to the Children of Israel: My Sabbaths they should guard.”

The verse is unusual in two regards. It singles out Moses with the pronoun “you” – usually God just says to Moses “speak.” The second curiosity is God referring to the Sabbath as His – “My Sabbaths.”

The Berdichever resolves these peculiarities by citing a Midrash. The Midrash tells how while the Jews were still enslaved in Egypt, besides pleading to be freed, Moses also requested that the Jewish slaves be granted a day of rest every seven days. Moses intuited that the Jewish people and man in general needed a weekly period of rest. Hence, when God speaks with Moses about this particular commandment, about the Jews taking a day of rest, God addresses him as “you” – acknowledging this idea of Moses which anticipated the command God would eventually give the Jewish people.

However, God also wanted to underline that the Sabbath is not merely a day of rest for the weary, that it is not just a good idea which Moses thought of, recognizing our need. God is saying that we need to observe a weekly Sabbath even if we are not “weary” from our labors. We need to observe the Sabbath first and foremost because God commanded it. Hence, God refers to the divinely ordained day of rest as “My Sabbaths.” It’s not a human invention. It’s not just because it’s a good idea. There is something deeper and divine in abstaining from labor on God’s Sabbath.

Moses had the uncanny ability to predict God’s establishment of the Sabbath. He understood the fundamental aspect of this particular commandment.

May we embrace the Sabbath, take a break from our labors, imbibe the rejuvenating powers of this special day and get physically, spiritually and emotionally recharged on a weekly basis.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jerry Posner’s father on his 100th birthday! Mazal Tov!

Humility and Pedigree (Emor)

Humility and Pedigree (Emor)

It is indeed a desirable thing to be well-descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors. -Plutarch

The Torah portion of Emor introduces a list of commandments directed specifically to the Kohanim, the priestly caste of Israel, descendants of Aaron the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol and founder of the priestly dynasty. They are addressed as follows:

“Tell the Kohanim (the priests), sons of Aaron.”

The Berdichever explains that it would have been very easy for the Kohanim to feel a certain amount of arrogance for being singled out by God for divine service. The fact that Kohanim were set aside by God, had exclusive access to the Sanctuary, to the sacrifices, were the only ones able to facilitate and eat most of the sacrifices, were the beneficiaries of great honor and esteem, all of this honor is enough to make anyone think highly of themselves.

God advises Moses to make it clear to them by highlighting that they are the sons of Aaron, that all this honor is not for anything they did, but rather purely as a consequence of them being Aaron’s descendants. Aaron had indeed reached a supremely high level of holiness that in his merit he was able to have all his descendants included in the special designation of Kohen – priest.

By underlining the fact that their station is because of their pedigree, God is advising them that it is unseemly to take pride in anything other than something you expended great effort in, that you strived for and pushed and accomplished. To take pride in the fact that you were simply born to a family of note is uncouth.

The newly indoctrinated Kohanim needed to be reminded of this. They needed to understand that their place in the Israelite social structure was not due to anything they did or any innate traits or accomplishments. They were simply born to the right family, and while being a Kohen carries many privileges, it is also a role and a lineage that carries many responsibilities.

May we take pride in what’s appropriate, humbly enjoy whatever privileges we’ve been blessed with, and dutifully carry out our responsibilities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my son and his fellow defenders on the border of Gaza. May God protect them and keep all of us safe.

Tame the body, unleash the soul (Kedoshim)

Tame the body, unleash the soul (Kedoshim)

You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience. -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah reading, God commands us “to be holy, for I, your God, am holy.” The Berdichever tries to dig deeper into what is meant by “holiness” and what are the practical steps for approaching holiness.

He explains that the road to holiness starts with awe of God. Awe of God is the key that leads to the observance and performance of the commandments. One of the more sublime purposes of the commandments is to wean us from our physical and materialistic attachments. As human beings, we are wired with intense physical desires and needs. When we focus too much on satisfying those needs, unconstrained, we diminish the spiritual and divine in ourselves.

The Sages have long stated that the 248 Positive commandments correspond to the 248 limbs of the body, and that the 365 prohibitions correspond to the 365 tendons in the body (caveat: this is not according to modern medical taxonomy). The commandments are meant on one hand to weaken the physicality of our material selves, to diminish our mortal, human element, and on the other hand, to strengthen our spiritual selves, to enhance our immortal, divine soul.

It is a constant and ongoing battle between the physical and the spiritual, between the body and the soul. Without any direction, without commandments, without God in our lives, without awe of God, the body, the physical has the advantage. The end of a life of materiality and pursuing physical gratification, is indeed as the Mishna in Pirkei Avot states, the “dirt and worms” of the grave. However, people who can control themselves, who can restrain themselves, who can follow divine directives, who abide by Godly guidelines, their end will not be underground. They are assured of a permanent, eternal link to the infinite. They are giving up the temporal for the timeless, the ephemeral for the eternal.

Holiness is a constraint of the physical, of realizing we are spiritual, of believing in God and being in awe of Him, of learning and following the guidelines He has given us and of strengthening our natural connection to Him.

May our strengthening spirituality lead to higher levels of holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Lori Gilbert-Kaye hy”d, who was killed at the Poway synagogue shooting.

 

The Power of Not Understanding (Acharei Mot)

The Power of Not Understanding (Acharei Mot)

The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason. -Benjamin Franklin

The ancient Rabbis often split up the commandments, the Mitzvot we’ve been given, into two different categories. There are Mishpatim (Mishpat is the singular form), laws that we understand the reasoning behind them and Chukim (Chok is the singular), laws whose underlying reason may escape us.

A Mishpat may be a law as straightforward as don’t steal or don’t murder, which is understandable to most of society. A Chok, is often a more ritual law, which may include the restrictions on what we can or can’t eat, the laws of purification and impurity and anything else that doesn’t follow the logic or purpose of being of clear and direct benefit to either the person performing the commandment or to society as a whole.

A verse in this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot references both types of commandments and states that “you will do my Mishpatim and you will guard my Chukim.” The Berdichever explains that there is a direct correlation between the performance of one type of commandment and the other.

If we perform the Chukim, the commandments that we don’t understand, even if we have no rational understanding of the underlying principles and reasons, yet we dutifully perform and uphold God’s law, then we will merit a greater understanding of the Mishpatim, of the more rational commandments.

However, if we don’t follow the Chukim, then we will lose our ability to understand the simpler and more straightforward Mishpatim, the basic laws which most of humanity would agree on.

Modern man has become dismissive of anything that he can’t understand or that contravenes his own personal set of beliefs and values. Faith in God, in tradition, in a divine set of morals has been supplanted by worship of the self, of the ego and the latest passing narcissistic fads of the day. The exercise and the ability to believe in something beyond oneself, beyond the narrow contours of our experience, beyond even our understanding and reason is laughed at.

The Berdichever reinforces an ancient premise that belief in God, belief in the spiritual world, acceptance of the Torah and its precepts can enhance reason. It can open our hearts and our minds to a reality beyond ourselves, to a true, spiritual, supernatural world that cannot be measured by science or social media.

Only once we believe, once we accept, once we perform the Mitzvot, even if we don’t understand them, then and only then, will we start to understand.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To family gatherings and reconciliations.