Tuesday, May 24, 2016

527 - Behar

The second half of this week's parsha deals with numerous laws that pertain to a fellow Jew who becomes impoverished. If you lend him money, "Do not take from him interest." If he sells himself to you as a slave, "You shall not work him with slave labor." If the situation is such that he sells himself as a slave to a Non-Jew, we must make an effort to extract him from his undesirable environment. As the Torah instructs us, "He shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him" (Vayikra 25:36, 39, 48).

The final two pesukim in the parsha seem to be totally out of place. There the Torah commands us not to make idols or erect statues and it exhorts us to observe Shabbos. What do these mitzvos have anything to do with what was mentioned beforehand?

Rashi explains (ibid. 26:1) that these commandments are specifically directed to the Jew who sells himself to the gentile. When this slave observes his master's behavior, he should not look to imitate him. He should notsay, "Since my master engages in forbidden relationships, so will I. Since my master worships idols, so will I. Since my master desecrates the Shabbos, so will I." The Torah wrote a condensed book of the most basic prohibitions tailored specially for the Jew that finds himself in spiritually challenged circumstances.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that the Torah does not give up on anybody. A Jew can never reach a situation of total spiritual despair. His situation could be so bleak that he even sold himself to chop wood and draw water for a house of idol worship (see Rashi 25:47). Nevertheless, the Torah reaches out to him with a "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" exhorting him to keep at least the basic tenets of Judaism.

The early twentieth century brought many Jews from Europe to America. At the time, America was a spiritual wasteland and many Jews lost any vestiges of Judaism. At that time the Chofetz Chaim wrote a condensed book of laws to aid his brethren in their newfound surroundings. Likewise, he wrote a special sefer geared specifically for those who had been drafted into the army for years on end and had limited access to anything religious.

It doesn't make any difference where the Jew finds himself for the Torah is always holding his hand and guiding him. Thus, there is no room or reason for despair since Hashem cares about every Jew even in the most depressing and bleak situations. So pick your chin up and smile, since the Creator of the world sees you, knows what you're going through, and is relating to you in your very situation!

526 - Emor

Toward the end of the parsha the Torah relates the incident of the "mekalel." A man, born to an Egyptian father and Jewish mother, got involved in a confrontation regarding the place he chose to pitch his tent. Being that his mother descended from the tribe of Dan, he set up his tent in the area designated for that tribe. His neighbors confronted him and asserted that since his father did not descend from Dan he could not remain among that tribe. The Torah clearly states, "Bnei Yisrael should encamp each man by his banner according to the insignias of theirfathers' household" (Bamidbar 2:2). The dispute was brought before Moshe's beis din. They ruled in favor of the tribe of Dan and the man went out and cursed Hashem.

The Torah continues, "They placed him under guard to clarify for themselves through Hashem" (Vayikra 24:12). Chazal tell us that this incident occurred at the same time as the incident of the mikosheish (the man who gathered sticks on Shabbos in a prohibited manner). Rashi infers from the pasuk that despite the fact that they were both placed in jail at the same time, nevertheless, they were not put in the same cell.

While the Torah does not use jail as a means of punishment, it is used to confine an offender when there is uncertainty as to the punishment deserved. Themikosheish was put into jail because although it was known that he deserved the capital punishment, the method of his execution was not known. In contrast, the man who cursed Hashem was jailed because it was not known if he deserved to be executed. Consequently, he was placed in a separate cell.
What would have been so terrible, asks Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) if they would have placed both transgressors in the same cell? He explains that although it is quite commonplace in our day and age for someone who was arrested at a protest rally to be placed in the same cell as a murderer, the Torah operates differently. Divine judgment is so exact to the extent that a transgressor who was stoned cannot be buried in the same cemetery as a transgressor who was beheaded. While they were both killed because of their aveiros, they cannot be equated. Likewise, a person who deserves to be executed cannot even be imprisoned alongside someone who might not deserve capital punishment.

There is a timely lesson to be learned from this incident. Rav Itzele Peterburger would say that if two people commit the very same transgression but one gives a groan as he performs the aveirah, the groan is recorded in heaven. Indeed, they both did commit the same aveirah, but they cannot be classified together because the difference between them is like night and day.

Conversely, when one performs a mitzvah, he is rewarded in heaven in proportion to the effort invested. Five minutes of Torah learning when one's body is aching for bed, is worth a whole lot more than when he is well rested and alert. In the same vein we cannot compare ourselves to our neighbors. While we all perform the exact same mitzvos, each mitzvah is so very different from another.

525 - Kedoshim

Please Note: We will be following the order of the Parshios as they are read in Eretz Yisrael - Those in Chutz La'Aretz please keep this dvar Torah handy to enjoy next week! 

This week's parsha begins with a bit of an ambiguous commandment: "Kedoshim te'hiyu" - You shall be holy. Kadosh (the root of the word kedusha) means to be separated, so while it is clear that the Torah wants us to distance ourselves from something, the commentators differ as to exactly what the Torah intended with this mitzvah. Rashi maintains that the Torah is instructing us to distance ourselves from forbidden marital relationships. Separating oneself specifically with regard to this matter has the ability to bring a person to holiness.

The Ramban contends that the Torah is not referring to a specific topic. Rather, it is a general commandment to separate oneself. He cites Chazal who often refer to talmidei chachomim as "perushim" i.e. those who separate themselves by way of their behavior from mainstream society. In a similar vein the Torah calls upon us to be perushim.

The mitzvos of the Torah do not deal with every possible scenario. After laying down the basic precepts, the Torah gives us an all encompassing directive "You shall be holy." The Torah doesn't tell us how much one is allowed to eat nor does it limit how many women a man can marry. Thus, a person can completely indulge himself in his food and marital life and talk using inappropriate language. As the Ramban writes, "one can act in a depraved manner with the 'permission' of the Torah." Therefore, the Torah instructs us to separate ourselves and not go overboard even when the issue at hand is not one that is specifically forbidden by the Torah.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Vayikra 19:1) comments that according to the Ramban's explanation, the Torah is, in effect, instructing every Jew to act like a talmid chachom! Practically it means that each person, proportionate to his spiritual level, should limit the amount he indulges despite the fact that such indulgence was not specifically prohibited by the Torah.

As a mashal, Rav Wolbe related that shortly after the founding of the State of Israel there was a big disagreement regarding the drafting of girls into the Israeli Army. While many felt that they should share the duties of protecting the country, the Gedolim, headed by the Chazon Ish, vehemently opposed the proposal. The Chazon Ish was asked in which of the four sections of Shulchan Aruch does it say that it is prohibited for women to be drafted into the army. He responded that the prohibition is written in the fifth section of Shulchan Aruch which only talmidei chachomim have the ability to decipher.

Rav Wolbe explains that the Chazon Ish was informing the questioners that after learning the entire Torah, a talmid chachom is able to deduce how the Torah desires that we act in any given situation. Indeed, it isn't written black on white, but it is implied, and those who comprehend the Torah's viewpoint are able to interpret its message clearly. In a similar vein, Hashem gave us limited parameters and then succinctly summed up His position with a directive to "be holy." Understand how you are intended to behave and act accordingly.

Yiddishkeit is not just a checklist of do's and don'ts. Nevertheless, unfortunately that is how many relate to Judaism. What they have done is they have separated the Jewish religion from Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit gives expression to the spirit of the religion and it signifies a spiritually aristocratic way of life. We are to become an island of noblemen in the middle of the ocean of a degraded society. We are instructed to separate ourselves from the gentile way of life because we are different. A prince conducts himself with nobility.

524 - Pesach

Yetzias Mitzrayim was the event that took the numerous individuals who were all offspring of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov and forged them into a single nation. This process of redemption not only turned us into a nation, but also demonstrated our uniqueness. While the water in the Egyptian's cup turned into blood, the Jew could drink from the very same cup and enjoy crystal clear water. The Egyptians endured extreme darkness and at the very same time the Jew enjoyed the radiance of daytime. The redemption demonstrated that the Jew was part of a Divine nation, and thus he merited a unique level of Divine Providence.

Chazal tell us (Medrash Tehillim 114) that the creation of the Jewish Nation was not a simple process. The Torah describes this event as, "taking out one nation from inside another nation." Accordingly, the Medrash compares the process to a cow experiencing difficulty giving birth to its calf. The shepherd must insert his hand into the womb of the cow, grab hold of the calf and pull it out of the mother. In a similar vein, Bnei Yisrael were so entrenched in the Egyptian society that they had to be yanked "from inside" the womb of the nation which enveloped them.

Rav Wolbe comments that this might very well be the reason why, as stated in the Hagaddah, the redemption was performed, not by an angel or any other intermediary, but by Hashem Himself. Had the purpose of the midnight revelation merely been to kill the firstborn, an angel certainly could have sufficed. However, there was another aspect that had to be accomplished: Bnei Yisrael had to be completely severed from their previous surroundings and only the Omnipotent One had the ability to accomplish this feat.

The exodus from Mitzrayim was not meant to be a onetime occurrence. Chazal tell us (Pesachim 116b), "In each and every generation a person is obligated to perceive himself as if he went out of Mitzrayim." Whenever and wherever the Jew finds himself, he must make an effort to free himself from the non-Jewish culture which has permeated every nook and cranny of our planet. This idea is hinted to in the Haggadah, for we declare, "Originally our forefathers were idol worshippers and now Hashem has brought us close to His service." What do we mean by "now" Hashem brought us into His service? Didn't Yetzias Mitzrayim occur more than three thousand years ago? Indeed, we left back then, but each and every year we must once again disengage ourselves from the nations around us.

The Seder Night affords us an opportunity to turn off the internet i.e. disconnect from the outside world, and spend a good few hours focusing on inculcating ourselves and our children with the beauty of being part of the Jewish Nation. We are supposed to experience our uniqueness, appreciate that we are very different from the nations around us and realize that Hashem intended it to be that way. While we live amongst the other nations we must ensure that we don't live "inside" of them. May we merit ridding ourselves of all non-Jewish trappings, thereby experiencing Yetzias Mitzrayim in its truest form!

Chag Kasher V'Sameiach!

523 - Metzora

Parshas Metzora deals with various types of tumah. The Kuzari (2:60) explains that all forms of tumah are in reality offshoots of the primary tumah - the tumah of a corpse (See also Ramban in this week's parsha 15:11 who mentions this idea). Chazal tell us that the metzora is likened to a dead person. The tumos of niddah, zivah and shichvas zera are all created by bodily discharges which could have contributed to the creation of a living being. A lack of creating life, in effect, constitutes a form of death.

Rav Wolbe explains (Daas Shlomo) that death is a phenomenon that was not built into the fabric of creation. Only after the advent of cheit in general, and the sin of eating from the eitz hadaas in particular, did death become the way of the world. Thus, cheit and tumah are closely related since cheit caused death and death is the root of all tumah. For this reason, the Torah imposed laws that necessitate various levels of distance that must be maintained from those who are tamei, since the Torah wishes that we distance ourselves from sin and all its consequences.

Chazal tell us, "Sin covers over the heart of a person" (Yoma 39a). Every sin causes the heart to be covered with a thin film of impurity that dulls its innate sensitivities. This dulling of the senses is similar to death since, to a certain degree, the clarity of the heart's perception ceases to exist.

Kedusha stands diametrically opposite tumah: it signifies life and it allows one to experience life in its truest form. Moreover, it instills one's heart with sensitivities that are unknown to those who lack his level of kedusha. Such a person can sense a cheit that might have gone unnoticed by someone who does not possess such a high level of kedusha.

Every sin obstructs the spiritual arteries of the heart thereby dulling its ability to discern right from wrong. Not being offended by seeing an indecent sight is not something to be proud of. One of our great leaders compared it to a peasant who walks barefoot on pebbles without it affecting him: Both have simply become desensitized to the point where things that should set off bells simply go unnoticed.

Indeed, there are many things that while they do not affect gentiles, they definitely have a negative effect on Jews. We are aristocrats and we can sense even the smallest deviation from kedusha. Appreciate your innate greatness and guard this virtue as you would the apple of your eye!

522 - Tazria

While discussing the laws pertaining to a woman who gives birth which are mentioned at the beginning of this week's parsha, the Torah includes the mitzvah of bris milah: "On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Vayikra 12:3). Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) cites a Gemara which highlights the uniqueness of this mitzvah.

"Hashem surrounds Bnei Yisrael with mitzvos. They don tefillin on their heads and arms, they wear tzitzis on their clothing and they affix a mezuzah upon their doors. About these mitzvos Dovid declared, 'Regarding seven [mitzvos i.e. two tefillin, four tzitzis and one mezuzah] do I praise You daily.' When Dovid entered the bathhouse and was aware that he was undressed, he lamented, 'Woe unto me that I stand bare of mitzvos.' After he remembered the bris milah he was comforted, and upon leaving he composed a chapter in Tehillim, "lam'natzeiach al ha'sheminis" - referring to the bris milah which is performed on the eighth day" (Menachos 43b).

What bothered Dovid about the fact that he was bare of mitzvos? After all, he had not been derelict in their performance, rather, he was standing in a bathhouse where there simply was no obligation to perform these mitzvos! Indeed, the Torah gauges a person by how they act in a situation where they are exempt from performing mitzvos.

This idea is expressed by Chazal (Avodah Zara 2b) when describing the scenario that will unfold when Moshiach comes. The nations of the world clamor for reward despite their lack of performing Hashem's will and they will plead to give them a mitzvah for them to merit reward." Hashem will command them to perform the mitzvah of sukkah, and each person will build a sukkah on their rooftop. Hashem will then cause the sun to beat down mercilessly thereby causing them to leave their sukkahs, but not before delivering a sound kick to its walls. The Gemara continues that although one who is suffering is not obligated to sit in the sukkah, nevertheless, they should not have kicked the sukkah before exiting. The Torah defines a person by his behavior when exempted from mitzvos. The nations act disdainfully, while a Jew who is exempt from this mitzvah takes leave of the sukkahsubmissively, as would "a servant who offered water to his master and the master threw the water back in his face" (Sukkah 28b).

With this in mind, we can understand Dovid Hamelech's distress when he realized that he stood bare of mitzvos. He was bothered that a situation existed where a person could be totally free from any mitzvos. The potential to enter a place where one is devoid of mitzvos indicates that the mitzvos are merely external acts to be performed and not spiritual deeds that are fused into a person's makeup and part and parcel of his being. He then remembered about the bris milah imprinted upon his flesh and was comforted by the awareness that mitzvos are ingrained into a person's body and they become part of his very essence. Thus, there is no situation where one is free from mitzvos.

Upon leaving the bathhouse he sang about the mitzvah of "the eighth day." The number seven represents nature. The seven mitzvos of tefillin, tzitzis and mezuzahsurround a person i.e they do not actually change a person, rather they sanctify his natural existence. In contrast, the number eight is symbolic of those things which are above the realm of nature. The bris milah takes the physical body and elevates it into a world of spirituality high above the realm of nature.

The month of Nissan and the Yom Tov of Pesach afford many people a break from their daily schedules in general and their learning sessions in particular. We are defined by the way we behave during our "off hours." The very essence of a Jew is ingrained with mitzvos andkedusha and we should make every effort to ensure that we maintain our unique holiness despite the lack of a structured schedule.

521 - Shemini

Society at large defines an educated person as one who has amassed wisdom. In contrast, the Torah defines an educated individual as one who has integrated his wisdom into the very fiber of his being. In the eyes of the Torah, one begins to educate himself when he "goes against his grain" and chooses to follow his intellect rather than his impulse.

This idea holds true not only with regard to Torah learning, but also with regard to the performance of mitzvos. Many mitzvos are not "natural" actions that would have been otherwise performed if not for the commandment. Laying tefillin, wearing tzitzis, affixing a mezuza, blowing a shofar and shaking a lulav are but a few such examples. The performance of these mitzvos requires a certain amount of subjugation of the body to the mind. One's natural tendency would be not to carry out these deeds and thus their performance requires a person to once again place intellect over impulse.

However, there are mitzvos that seem to work entirely in tandem with our nature. Examples of this type of mitzvah would include eating in general and more specifically eating matzah or the korban Pesach. If the bottom line of avodas Hashem is to get us to go against our grain, how is that accomplished when one performs a mitzvah that is completely normal for his body? Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) explains that these mitzvos also necessitate a struggle against one's natural tendencies.

In explanation of the pasuk at the end of this week's parsha, Chazal tell us, "'And you are to sanctify yourselves' refers to the mayim reshonim - washing one's hands before partaking of bread, 'and you shall become holy' refers to the mayim achronim - washing one's hands after eating" (Brachos 53b). Obviously, the directive to wash mayim achronim was not meant solely as a means of ridding our fingers of salts that may have dangerous properties. Had this been the case, the Torah would not have described this washing as a means of becoming holy. So what indeed lies behind this act of sanctification? The answer offers us valuable instruction on the proper approach to those mitzvos that seem to jive completely with our nature.

The need to sanctify oneself before eating is understandable since eating is a holy endeavor. At the very least it is a fulfillment of the Torah's commandment to guard one's health (Devarim 4:15). On its highest level, ingesting the food on one's table parallels the partaking of korbanos which are brought upon the mizbeiach (see Kesubos 105b). Conversely, eating is also a pleasurable activity which is often arouses one's ta'avah - base desires. We are instructed to wash mayim achronim to cleanse ourselves from the arousal of any such ta'avos.

Chazal are informing us that on the one hand if a person perceives eating as an entirely animalistic instinct, he will never succeed in elevating himself to a level of kedusha since he perceives himself in a very physical manner. On the other hand, if he views eating as an exclusively holy endeavor he will fool himself into thinking that he can indulge to his heart's content, for after all he is involving himself in a most holy pursuit. Thus, it is clear that even those mitzvos which comply with our natural tendencies also necessitate an avodah. We must prepare for them as we would do for something holy, but we must constantly confirm that we are not fooling ourselves into believing that we have already reached the level where the physical actions are purely an expression of the spiritual.

Every time we eat or drink we are afforded an opportunity for avodas Hashem. A small amount of preparation before engaging in these completely natural actions can reap immeasurable reward. When one is cognizant of the fact that that he is about to engage in a mitzvah, and he takes care not to indulge for the sake of indulging, he will succeed in "sanctifying himself and making himself holy!"