Category Archives: Leviticus

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.

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.

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them. -Alice Sebold

The Torah spends several chapters on the ritual treatment of a biblical spiritual malady called “Tzaraat” popularly mistranslated as leprosy. The person who suffered from the Tzaraat, called a “Metzora”, while not a leper, did suffer from an unusual skin condition that was cured in biblical times by exile from the camp and then a ritual purification and sacrifice process.

Most rabbinic commentators explain that the malady of Tzaraat affected primarily those guilty of gossiping. Gossiping was so onerous a crime that God Himself would alter the laws of nature and personally intervene to strike the offending gossiper with this strange and unusual malady.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 14:2 (Metzora) quotes the Talmud that states that gossiping is so horrendous that it is actually worse than murder, illicit relations and idolatry COMBINED.

I always thought this Talmudic dictum somewhat of an exaggeration, until I had the misfortune to witness first-hand the destruction caused by gossip. It has to do with cutting bonds.

Murder is the cutting of the bond of life; cutting off or destroying the connection between a body and a soul.

Illicit relations is the cutting of the bond of family. Adulterers destroy the bond between a husband and wife, sabotaging that basic unit of society.

Idolatry is the cutting of the bond with God. Idolaters sever the connection between man and the divine.

Then why is gossiping worse than all three of the cardinal sins put together? Because a gossiper destroys all of these bonds, and more. Gossip destroys the bonds of self, of family, of faith, and of community. It is a betrayal of the trust that is inherent in any group, destroying all the bonds that make us who we are. There are few murders that are worse than that.

Rabbeinu Bechaye adds another Talmudic dictum that gossip kills three people. It kills the gossiper, it kills the listener and it kills the person being gossiped about.

So the next time you want to share a juicy or even innocuous tidbit about someone you know, think again. You may be committing murder.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Devorah and David Katz on the opening of their new bakery location of Pat BaMelach in Efrat. Check it out!

Fatal Alcohol (Shmini)

Fatal Alcohol (Shmini)

All excess is ill, but drunkenness is of the worst sort. It spoils health, dismounts the mind, and unmans men. It reveals secrets, is quarrelsome, lascivious, impudent, dangerous and bad. -William Penn

Two sons of Aaron the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, die in a consecration ritual gone awry. They offer unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle and are instantly killed by a fire sent by God. Immediately after this horrific scene of death the Torah commands Aaron and his remaining sons to refrain from drinking wine or strong drink while serving in the Tabernacle, lest they die. Many commentators point at this command as the unspoken reason why Nadav and Avihu were killed. They had entered the Tabernacle drunk.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 10:9 (Shmini) expands on the dangers of alcohol. The first danger that directly affects the priestly service is that drunkenness prevents a person from distinguishing between what is holy and what is mundane. A drunk cannot differentiate between the sacred and the profane – a vital skill in any holy work.

Additionally, he states three other outcomes of drinking too much alcohol that are alluded to in the verse: drowsiness, arrogance and confusion. Alcohol causes “warm and humid vapors” to rise to the brain, causing sleep, which one is expressly forbidden to do in the Tabernacle.

Alcohol also “heats the forces of the heart,” leading to an inflated ego, namely arrogance, erasing any distinction between holy and mundane, making everything equal in his eyes, including the pure and the defiled.

Finally, the “vapors” that rise to the brain create a division between the brain and the other forces of the body, creating confusion and literally “mixing up of the brain.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his discussion of the dangers of drinking by quoting King Solomon’s Proverbs that a drinker’s end is like a snake’s bite. The snake from the Garden of Eden was an enticer, who led humanity to death. It is the same with alcohol. It is seductive, but it is a poison that if mishandled can ultimately lead to ruin and death.

May we always drink responsibly and if we can’t, avoid it altogether.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Alcoholics Anonymous.