Category Archives: Acharei Mot

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.

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.

 

 

Don’t Curse the Deaf (Acharei-Kedoshim)

Don’t Curse the Deaf (Acharei-Kedoshim)

Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life… is a monster for which the corruption of society forever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret. -Percy Bysshe Shelley

There is an unusual command in the Torah not to curse a deaf person. On the surface it doesn’t make sense. What’s the big deal? They don’t hear it. It doesn’t hurt or offend them. Why is the Torah hyper-sensitive as to what we say, especially when the subject of our cursing can’t even hear it?

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 19:14 (Kedoshim) gives two answers.

The first answer is that if God is so concerned about what we say to or about someone who is incapable of hearing our words, how much more so must we be careful when speaking to or about someone who can hear our words. If the Torah explicitly commands us not to curse someone who won’t be impacted, hurt, offended or embarrassed by our cursing them, then we clearly need to refrain from doing so to someone who will be hurt by our words.

The second answer is that God’s concern in this case is not actually for the deaf person. The deaf person due to his inability to hear is indeed protected from hearing foul language or anything derogatory directed towards him. God is concerned for the one cursing, even if nobody else hears them. There is something contaminating, spiritually corrosive, about cursing, that chips away at a person’s soul. That is the reason for God’s strange warning. It’s not to protect the one being cursed, but rather to protect the one cursing.

God is always listening. God never forgets. There is a divine eternal record of all of our actions, of all of our words and even of all of our thoughts. God here is commanding that our words should be clean. Our words should not harm or offend. Our words are what make us human. They are a divine gift which enables us to live together, to work together, to love, to share, to show tenderness, compassion, friendship. God is warning us not to abuse that gift. God will judge us by the words we choose to use, even if nobody else hears them.

May we think before we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my beloved State of Israel on the 70th anniversary of its re-establishment.

Double-Edged Stubbornness

Double-Edged Stubbornness

Obstinacy in a bad cause is but constancy in a good. -Sir Thomas Browne

One of the highlights of the service of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur was the unusual sacrifice procedure of the two goats. Two identical, or as close to two identical goats were selected. They needed to be of the same appearance, size and value. A lottery was performed to determine the fate of these indistinguishable creatures. In a completely random process, almost like the flipping of a coin, the short but distinct future of each of these goats was sealed.

One goat, the “Goat to God,” was sacrificed in the conventional fashion: in the Temple, in front of God, its blood placed on the Altar in holy submission. The second goat, the “Goat to Azazel,” suffered a rare and torturous demise.

The second goat, which thereafter would be popularized as The Scapegoat, was walked out of the Temple grounds, out of the city, passed human habitation and into the desolate desert.  At the top of a cliff, overlooking a ravine, the attending priest would push the goat over the cliff. The Talmud describes that the unfortunate goat didn’t make it halfway down the cliff before it was torn to pieces by the violence of the fall. Somehow, this bloody ritual served as atonement for the people of Israel.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 16:10 explains that the goats represent human choice. Our free will gives us equal access and equal inclination for either good, holy choices or bad, mundane choices. We can choose to be the positive “Goat for God,” or the negative “Goat for Azazel.”

What these choices have in common and their connection to the “Goats” is that either choice relies on stubbornness. To be a “Goat for God” requires an adherence to God’s laws and a repudiation of the enticements of the age that cannot be achieved without extreme stubbornness. Conversely, to be a “Goat for Azazel” demands a consistently stubborn refusal to follow the dictates, the inspiration, the clarity and the illumination of the Torah. The path of Azazel leads to oblivion. The path of God leads to eternal life.

May we use our innate stubbornness to choose goodness, holiness and eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Parts Authority on their incredibly impressive Trade Show at Citi Field. I remember well its very humble beginnings.

Enhanced Intelligence

Enhanced Intelligence

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.  –Aristotle

working hands

There is an intriguing, almost illogical Mishna attributed to the sage, Rabbi Hanina son of Dosa (Avot 3:9) that states as follows:

Whoevers actions are greater than his intelligence, his intelligence will be established. But whoevers intelligence is greater than his actions, his intelligence will not be established.

The Sfat Emet in 5644 (1884) questions the logic of this statement. If someone doesn’t have the requisite intelligence to do a certain action, in this case, the commandments, how can he perform it and how then is his intelligence suddenly increased? Likewise, if someone has more than enough intelligence to perform the commandments he does, but does not exercise this capacity fully, why should his intelligence be diminished?

He then goes on to explain, what many of us understand, that some things can only be learned by doing them, by first attempting them. However, he explains that even if we don’t necessarily have the intellectual capacity to grasp all of the laws and details of the commandments, the actual effort of performing them bestows upon us a gift. He claims that our intelligence is expanded, added to, enhanced due to the effort. Trying to do the commandments, even if at the moment it is unclear and we don’t understand it fully, opens up a gate of intelligence that was previously closed off to us.

The flip side is for those possessing sufficient intelligence to understand and perform the commandments that opt not to do so, their intelligence becomes diminished. It is as if they have a muscle that was designed for that purpose, and by not using it, it wastes away.

May we exercise our muscles of intelligence in pursuit of the commandments and merit an expanded and enhanced intelligence for all aspects of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Burcatovski catering team. The work of their hands is divine.

Smart Diet

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/acharei-mot-smart-diet/

Netziv Leviticus: Acharei Mot

Smart Diet

“Their kitchen is their shrine, the cook their priest, the table their altar, and their belly their god.” -Charles Buck

There is a now-apocryphal story making the rounds of a gentile mother in a supermarket telling her nagging child that he can’t have something because it’s “not kosher.” A curious Jew inquires as to the family’s identity. The mother readily admits she is not Jewish, but says she picked up the term watching a Jewish mother in a supermarket in a similar circumstance of a nagging child, and then magically, the words “it’s not kosher” immediately stopped all annoying requests. The gentile mother was impressed and now uses the sorcerous word for any situation where she will brook no argument. More TV? “Not kosher”, a new toy? “Not kosher”. The child may grow up with a skewed understanding of what the term “kosher” means, but there is one underlying meaning that they got. It involves a statement that the item or action is out of bounds. There is a higher authority that has deemed that whatever it is you want, you need to control yourself and accept that not all your desires can be fulfilled.

In the business of eating there is a wide spectrum of practices in regards to observing the laws of eating Kosher. They range from being directly involved in slaughtering, processing and eating only foods where one personally supervised the production, to the other extreme of eating anything that crawls, is grown, found or manufactured on our planet. Within that range there are people who rely only on very specific supervision groups; those that will rely on any Jewish supervision; those that will purchase and prepare Kosher products for the home, but be more lax on what they eat outside; those that are particular that their meat and chicken are kosher but are less concerned about any other products; and an infinite variety of other standards, preferences and personal quirks when it comes to determining what we ingest.

There are also a variety of reasons that are proposed as to why one should eat Kosher. A popular one that receives sporadic scientific support is that it’s healthier. A Kabbalistic reason is that it helps the soul. The Netziv on Leviticus on 17:16 gives a reason I hadn’t heard before: eating Kosher makes you smarter. He phrases it in the negative. Eating non-kosher makes you dumb. Giving in to ones cravings and baser emotions makes one dumb and can lead a person to other sins. Therefore the reverse must also be true. By eating a kosher diet, it must somehow improve ones intelligence, ones mental capacity and agility. It leads one to restrain oneself, to exhibit self-control. Such mastery can be a strong developer of character and of a sense of boundaries. And it may also be healthier for body and soul.

May all who choose to, enjoy a happy and kosher Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To my friend and colleague, Moshe Silberberg, for his unending efforts to provide Kosher food to the Jewish community of Uruguay.