Category Archives: Leviticus

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.

 

 

The Eye of Abundance (Metzora)

 The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar, and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition. -W. H. Auden

The Torah reading of Metzora deals in part, with ritual contamination and the required process of purification. The Berdichever connects the process with our anthropomorphizing of God’s attributes as well as the concept of subservience of some human capabilities to the will of God.

When the Torah or the Prophets attribute human characteristics to God, it creates a theological conundrum. When we speak of God hearing or God seeing, how does that work? Does God have ears? Does God have eyes? What would be the form and shape of those human-like organs? How do those divine senses work? Where in space are they situated?

The answer is that when the Torah or the Prophets talk about God’s hand or eyes or feet, it is only a metaphor. When it speaks of God’s eye it is a metaphor for the fact that God perceives. God “sees” without needing eyes or having any physical attributes. God is not limited in space or time. It is impossible for a human to understand, hence we rely on the simple and crude anthropomorphization.

On the other hand, the Berdichever discusses our very human faculties, specifically sight, hearing and speech and then focuses on the sense of sight and relates it to God’s “sight.” There is a deep and intrinsic connection between human sight and divine sight.

God has blessed us with a number of faculties and abilities. We can use these for good or we can use them for evil. The eye is not an impartial sense. The eye can be used to gaze upon good and wholesome views, and it can likewise be used to look upon bad, improper and outright detestable sights.

The Berdichever explains that if we God-forbid gaze upon inappropriate things, then the divine “eye,” the eye that is responsible for determining the blessings and the abundance that we receive will be “closed” to us. However, if we use our vision for good things, for beneficial things, then the divine vision will see to it that we are appropriately blessed.

Hence, one of the prayers to God where we ask Him to “open” His eyes. We are admitting to our guilt and to the realization that the divine eye has been closed to us. Now that we’ve admitted our guilt and hopefully are mending our ways, we are now asking God to open His eyes. To bless us. To realize that we are human, that we have erred, but that we are redoubling our efforts to mend our ways and use our divine gifts in His service.

May we use all of our attributes for good and God, and benefit from growing blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all Israeli voters, and to the Zehut candidates, volunteers and voters in particular. Thank you. Our efforts were not in vain.

Two Dates of Redemption (Tazria)

Two Dates of Redemption (Tazria)

Time is Too slow for those who wait, Too swift for those who fear, Too long for those who grieve, Too short for those who rejoice. But for those who love, time is not. -Henry Van Dyke

The beginning of the Torah reading of Tazria describes the ritual laws about a woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy or a baby girl. There are different periods of ritual impurity depending on the gender, as well as accompanying sacrifices that the woman must bring as part of the ritual purification process.

There is a popular Midrash on those verses that explains that the timing of the act of procreation can determine the gender of the child. The Midrash states that if the woman “gives seed” first, a boy will be born, while if the man “gives seed” first, the resulting child will be a girl.

The Berdichever explains that the above Midrash is a hint as to the form and timing of the future prophesized redemption. In the Talmud there is a debate as to when the promised redemption will occur. One opinion states that it will happen in the Hebrew month of Tishrei (September-October) when we have the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yomi Kippur and Sukkot. The other opinion is that the future redemption will happen during the Hebrew month of Nissan (April-May), when the festival of Pesach occurs, the same season of our original redemption from the slavery of Egypt.

The Berdichiver connects the timing of the redemption to the actions of the Jewish nation. The case of the woman “giving seed” first is parallel to our own successful human efforts for which no fault is found. However, the case of the man “giving seed” first is parallel to God’s direct intervention in providing for the Jewish nation, when we couldn’t provide for ourselves or didn’t make the necessary effort. In that case, fault can be found.

Similarly, when the nation of Israel makes its own efforts in getting closer to God, in performing good deeds, in bringing the redemption closer, then the redemption will occur in the month of Tishrei, even though it is a month intertwined with the concept of divine justice. However, when we fall short, when God needs to pick up our slack, then the redemption will occur in the month of Nissan, a month when the attribute of justice doesn’t hold sway, but rather the attribute of mercy.

May we merit redemption, speedily in our days, as quickly and as powerfully as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Osher Weiss. An inspirational figure.

Preparing for Prophecy (Shmini)

Preparing for Prophecy (Shmini)

My strength has the strength of ten because my heart is pure. -Alfred Lord Tennyson

In the middle of this week’s Torah portion we’re told:

“And God spoke to Moses and Aaron, to say upon them…” and then provides a long list of the various animals that Jews can and can’t eat.

The Berdichever explains that the repetitious phrase, “say upon them,” hints that in the future God will speak directly to us. He will enable all the Children of Israel to reach a measure of prophecy.

He recalls the Midrash regarding when Moses was an infant, was discovered and rescued from the Nile, and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. It seems Moses refused to nurse from any of the Egyptian nursemaids. Finally, his sister Miriam intervenes and arranges to have Moses returned to their mother to be nursed and to subsequently be returned to Pharaoh’s daughter once he’s been weaned.

The Midrash explains that baby Moses at some level understood that in the future he would be speaking with God, that he would be prophesizing to the Nation of Israel the words of God. For such an important role he couldn’t allow himself to nurse from the impure idolatrous Egyptians. The mouth that would speak divinely ordained words couldn’t sully itself with anything impure.

Similarly, the Berdichever states that at the end of days, the entire Jewish people will prophesy. Therefore, in preparation, we should not defile our mouths with impure foods. That is the deep link between the hints of prophecy and the laws of a Kosher diet.

Non-kosher creatures have a cruel aspect in their nature, and by consuming the products of non-kosher animals, we absorb some measure of cruelty in ourselves. The Jewish ideal is to aim for purity and kindness and to avoid anything that can taint our body, our character and our soul.

May we aim for purity of character as well as purity in our diets.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our soldiers on the Gaza border. May God protect you and the rest of Israel.

Two-way Divine Light (Tzav)

Two-way Divine Light (Tzav)

Beautiful light is born of darkness, so the faith that springs from conflict is often the strongest and the best. -R. Turnbull

The Torah reading of Tzav continues the overarching theme of the Book of Leviticus of the laws of sacrifices. The Berdichever focuses on two sacrifices in particular: the Chatat, which is the sin-offering, and the Olah, the elevation-offering.

The Chatat, the sin-offering, as the name implies, was a sacrifice which we offered as part of a corrective process if someone committed an inadvertent sin through carelessness. During the days of the Tabernacle and subsequently in the Temple, part of the repentance process for such negligence included bringing an animal sacrifice. (There’s no sacrifice for intentional sins and none needed for mistaken sins). Besides the not-insignificant expense, the sinner had to feel that the animal was dying instead of him. In a sense the sinner should be willing to sacrifice himself, but God has allowed this substitution. If a person takes this transference to heart, if he internalizes the seriousness of his failing and uses this event as a springboard to repent, then his sacrifice is accepted. If his repentance is superficial and he’s just going through the motions, then his guilt is further deepened by the useless murder of an innocent animal.

The Olah, the elevation-offering, as opposed to most of the other sacrifices, was a voluntary offering completely consumed by the fire of the altar. That offering was brought for a wide spectrum of needs and spiritual desires, which all have the common denominator of a person wanting to elevate their spiritual level and through this sacrifice rise further up, reaching higher, in a way which is foreign to our understanding, to attempt to get closer to God.

In the Torah portion of Tzav, the Chatat, the sin-offering, is mentioned before the Olah, the elevation-offering. The Berdichever explains that each offering represents a different and converse aspect of God’s divine light. The Chatat is a direct light from the upper world to our lower one. The sacrifice for a sin, the deep act of accompanying repentance somehow draws to our world a direct divine illumination from the upper world.

On the other hand, the Olah is a reflected, returning ray of divine light which emanates from our lower world and returns to the upper world. For that reason, the Olah is completely consumed. Nothing physical of the Olah remains on this earth. It is all raised by the flames of the altar to the upper world.

While the sacrificing of animals is indeed foreign to us, the concept of divine illumination, spirituality, the possibility of God somehow touching our souls and us being able to reach for God should encourage and enlighten our spirits.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Staff Sgt. Gal Keidan and Rabbi Achiad Ettinger who were murdered this week by an Arab terrorist in Ariel. May God avenge their blood.

Effort and Reward (Vayikra)

Effort and Reward (Vayikra)

The secret of making something work in your lives is, first of all, the deep desire to make it work: then the faith and belief that it can work: then to hold that clear definite vision in your consciousness and see it working out step by step, without one thought of doubt or disbelief. -Eileen Caddy

The Book of Leviticus and the Torah portion of Vayikra launches a long list of a variety of sacrifices that can and should be offered in the Tabernacle (and later on, in the Temple).

The Berdichever examines some of the deeper aspects of the symbolism of these sacrifices. The typical sacrifice is made up of more than one element. There’s the animal that is sacrificed, which is the most massive, substantive and expensive part of the sacrifice ritual. A relatively minor and often overlooked aspect of the sacrifices are the accompanying wine libations.

These two aspects of the sacrifice reflect two different ways that God bestows blessings on us. The first aspect, the massive aspect of the living creature being offered, represents Gods kindness to us based on His complete benevolence, disconnected from anything any of us mortal beings may or may not have done. Just as we had really nothing to do with the creation of the animal, we have nothing to do with that aspect of God’s lovingkindness in our lives.

The second aspect, the aspect of the wine libations, represents the fact that God will also reward us for our actions. Getting wine requires a significant amount of human effort: plowing the field, planting the vines, tending the vineyard, gathering the grapes, pressing them and storing the resulting liquid are just a few of the needed steps to create wine. Just as we get wine from serious effort, so too, there is an aspect of God’s goodness and bounty which is a direct result of our own efforts. Wine symbolizes the plenty which God bestows upon us.

There is a specific, intrinsic connection between wine and celebration. Ritually, we only “sing” and celebrate with wine. Wine represents the abundance which God gives us due to our work, to our own efforts, and there are few things that are as joyous to a person as receiving a justly earned reward. Hence, the appropriateness of celebrating specifically with wine.

May we work and do what we’re meant to do and taste the sweet fruit of our labors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Young Israel of Century City, for a beautiful Shabbat.

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent. -Bob Dylan

There are two somewhat arcane commandments (among many) that always nagged me. I was always uncomfortable with them. I couldn’t make sense of them. The first one is called Tmura (not to be confused with Truma). It basically means that if I’ve consecrated an animal to be brought as an offering and then I have a change of heart and decide to consecrate a different animal instead, both animals become consecrated. How does that make sense? This is a voluntary gift; shouldn’t I have the right to change my mind?

In a related vein, the second commandment has to do with Temple gifts and donations. If I decide to gift my property to the Temple and then decide I want it back, I need to pay a 25% fee on top of the original value of my property to get it back. If the Temple were to sell it to anyone else, they would charge the original/market value. Again, I seem to be getting penalized for my generosity!

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 27:10 (Bechukotai) provides an answer to both quandaries. The Torah is concerned that we may come to regret our generous gesture. In a fit of inspiration, on a high of closeness to God, we may decide to consecrate the best animal from our flock to God. However, the feeling may pass. We may say to ourselves: “What was I thinking!? That’s a really expensive animal! I could have shown my love or appreciation to God just as well with a cheaper animal.”

However, the Torah states that not only does our original consecration hold, but that it will cost us more if we try to get out of it somehow. Jewish law is so strict on this account that it doesn’t even allow one to change an inferior animal for a better one. The rationale is that if we allow changing of any animals, eventually we will find a way to change a better animal for a worse one.

The same logic of forcing us to hold fast to our generous impulse applies in the consecration of property. If you want it back it’s going to cost you an added 25%. The Temple is going to be selling it in any case, but the Torah doesn’t want us and won’t let us in these cases go back on our word.

We should never, ever regret the generosity we show or the good that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s firefighters, who kept us safe from the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and who currently battle the fires out of Gaza.

Positive Discrimination (Behar)

Positive Discrimination (Behar)

It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home. -Carl Rowan

Judaism is tribal. Its prime concern is for members of the tribe. Its laws, restrictions, concerns and benefits almost exclusively deal with Jews. Throughout history, Jews, the Torah and the Talmud have been accused of unfair discrimination and racism. Many Rabbis and commentators have explained the rationale for the preferential treatment by Jews of other Jews above gentiles. One explanation is that it is more of a spectrum of responsibilities.

Jewish law codifies that one’s responsibility is first and foremost for oneself. “If I’m not for me, who will be?” is the famous dictum from the Mishna of Pirkei Avot, followed immediately by the phrase “if I am just for myself, what am I?” My father would often explain: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anybody else?”

The next circles of responsibility are for one’s immediate family, followed progressively by other family, friends, neighbors, community, the Jewish people, and then the rest of the world. One cannot and should not have the same measure of responsibility for every single person on the planet. However, within this hierarchy the Torah repeatedly stresses certain individuals for whom we should take additional responsibility, for whom we should have extra concern. Those are “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” the more disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:50 (Behar) adds a nuance from the Talmud which demonstrates a type of reverse discrimination. He states that while it is an abominable sin to steal from a fellow Jew, it is actually even worse to steal from a non-Jew.

He explains that stealing from a non-Jew is not just criminal but actually what is called in Hebrew a “Chilul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, one of the worst offences possible. The perpetrator of a “Chilul Hashem” is in a sense “embarrassing” God, and God will want to have nothing to do with such a person.

One of the primary missions of a Jew is to be a beacon of light to the world. When we betray that mission by demonstrating to the non-Jew that we feel comfortable stealing from them, it is a catastrophic failure of our mission on Earth, which in a sense negates our very purpose of being.

May we always be careful and honest in our dealings and even more so with those outside the tribe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our very distant cousins, the Samaritans, on their fascinating reenactment of the Pesach sacrifice.

Public Vindication (Emor)

Public Vindication (Emor)

Innocence is like polished armor; it adorns and defends. -Bishop Robert South

It is not uncommon for the media to accuse a person or group of some misdeed, splash it in bold type on the front page of the newspaper, and then when innocence has been discovered, will print a retraction in small type buried in the back of the paper, if at all. By then the damage has been done, the reputation of the accused has been tarnished, even ruined beyond repair.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 22:27 (Emor) highlights the fact that God has the contrary approach to vindication. He gives an analogy to a woman from a royal household of whom rumors of some misdeed are spread about by members of the royal court. The king himself investigates and finds the rumors to be baseless. The king then proceeds to throw a royal banquet, inviting the entire royal court, and places this innocent woman at the head table next to him, thereby declaring in the clearest possible way that the king has found her to be innocent and favorable in his eyes.

Thus Rabbeinu Bechaye explains the question as to why the bull is mentioned in the Torah as the most important animal to be sacrificed. He states that the elevated importance of the bull comes to publicly vindicate the grave sin which was committed with its likeness, namely the sin of the golden calf. By giving such honor to the adult version of the calf, God is in a sense stating that the Children of Israel weren’t truly to blame for that egregious sin. God “researched” the matter and discovered that it was not the Israelites that initiated the turn to idol worship, but rather the “Erev Rav,” the mixed multitude of people who had joined the Jewish nation during its exodus from the slavery of Egypt. It was this multitude of peoples, of idolatrous background, who called for and incited the impressionable Jewish people to worship the golden calf.

God does forgive the nation of Israel, and the importance of the bull in the sacrificial order demonstrates the public vindication for that sin.

May we always be found innocent of misdeeds and may we be vindicated of any misattributed wrongs, sooner or later.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Akiva Schwartz on his Bar-Mitzvah.