The Mystery of Death – Short Parsha Vort

28 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Avishai David

Parshat Chukat begins with the verse, “Zot chukat haTorah asher tzivah Hashem.” The Targum translates the words zot chukat as, “This is the divine dictum.” The Torah refers to the enigmatic chok of parah adumah (red heifer) which purifies those that are impure and defiles those that are pure.

Rav Soloveitchik notes that chukat doesn’t merely refer to the performance of a ritual, but to the mystery of death. We see this later in the parsha where it says “Zot haTorah adam ki yamut ba’ohel.” This is the law when a man dies. Death defiles. It removes the Divine image and only the body remains.

Tumat hamet (the impurity of death) is not included in the list of all the other forms of tumah (impurity) in the Torah because there’s a radical difference. While all the other forms of tumah are aesthetically jarring, tumat hamet is even more. It’s not simply the cessation of an organism Death is the departure of the soul from the physical body. Aesthetic ugliness can be washed away by prayer and immersion in the mikvah (ritual pool). But tumat hamet needs haza’ah, sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah.

Death is a transition not a termination. The soul of a person is immortal. The incomprehensible ritual of parah adumah suggests that the human effort to comprehend death is futile without accepting the fundamental concept of Divine Providence.

The details of parah aduma are found in parshat Chukat because para aduma acts as a bridge between the rebellion of Korach and the travels of the Jews in the desert. The rebellion took place during the second year of the exodus. For 38 years there was hester panim; Hashem’s face was hidden. It was a long silent period. Rashi says this dark time was like the parah adumah. It was beyond human comprehension. Chazal didn’t try to rationalize parah adumah. They taught that there are certain areas that are chukim. There are times when man must suspend his own judgment and accept the inscrutable will of Hashem.

Parshat Beha’alotcha:Ultimate Eternity

8 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Avishai David

In this week’s parsha, the Torah records a dialogue between Moshe and Yitro. Moshe invites Yitro to join the Jewish people on their journey to Israel. He assures him that only good will come of it. However, Yitro categorically rejects the offer. Moshe implores him again, “If you will accompany us, you too will receive the good that Hashem has promised for us.” The Torah does not tell us Yitro’s second response. There is a disagreement among the sages whether he acquiesced or not. Assuming he did, which is the position of the Rambam and other commentaries, why was offer one summarily dismissed and offer number two accepted?

The Rambam notes that the first time Moshe promised Yitro material possessions: gold, silver, and cattle, but he rejected them. The second time he offered him a portion in Eretz Yisrael. The Rambam derives this from the additional language the Torah uses, “Vayaha hatov hahu asher heitiv Hashem.” Moshe assures Yitro that he too will acquire a portion in Israel. Yitro fully understood the value of the holy land. Moshe wasn’t offering him something transient but ultimate eternity.

This should be our perspective too. Undoubtedly all of us have a need for sustenance, but that shouldn’t be our focus. Our goal should be to tap into spirituality and infinity that the land of Israel represents.

Parshat Behar: Walking with G-d

10 05 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Avishai David

In Parshat Bechukotai, the term halicha (walking) is used many times in reference to our observance of the mitzvot. The parsha begins, “Im bechukotai teileichu. If you will walk in my statutes.” Further on the Hashem writes, “V’hithalachti b’tochechem. I will walk with you.” The parsha continues, “Va’olech etchem. I will walk with you.”

Later on in the parsha, the Torah presents the other side of the coin. “V’halachtem imi keri. If you will walk with me keri.” The Rambam explains that this means we don’t recognize Hashem’s involvement in our lives. The Torah tells us, “If you walk with me b’keri I will walk with you b’keri.Hashem will respond to us in the way a person conducts himself.

We can follow the halicha of Hashem. The result will be as the Torah describes in the beginning of Bechukotai, “I will dwell among them and walk with them.” Rashi comments on this, “I will walk with you in gan eden.” Or it can be the opposite, halicha b’keri, which will ultimately lead to terrible consequences.

Hashem told Avraham Avinu, “Kum hithalech b’aretz.” Get up and walk the length and breadth of the land. Avraham chose righteousness and walked with Hashem.

May we follow in the footsteps of our forefathers.


Parshat Tazria and Metzora: Mirror Image

27 04 2012

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Why did the Torah specifically designate the kohen to determine the status of a nega (leprosy spot)?

Tzaraat was not a physical disease but rather a sign of a spiritual malady within the person. For that one needed to go to a spiritual source for help, to a kohen. The kohanim represent those who teach Torah. They are our spiritual guides. It’s difficult for a person to admit his faults. This is why the Torah says, “V’huva el hakohen.” The metzora is brought to the kohen. The kohen was meant to guide the metzorah on the path to repentance.

Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz explains the Targum Unkeles which describes the metzora as an adam segira, a person who is closed in. Often a person with a spiritual illness refuses to listen to other people. Haughtiness is the quintessential sign of an impure person. Therefore, the way to respond was, “V’huva el hakohen,” He must nullify himself before the tzaddik. He must recognize his need for guidance.

Rav Pliskin writes that the kohen would teach the person how to pray to the Almighty for help. In addition, he himself would pray for the welfare of the person. This is a lesson for all of us. When we are faced with challenges, we must seek out a spiritual guide. We must look for someone who can point out the areas where we need to improve. We must ask for advice about what to pray for and ask him to pray for us too.

The Shaarei Chaim explains that when the kohen pronounced the person tameh (impure), the pronouncement created the tumah (impurity). The moment the kohen pronounced the person impure, the laws of impurity were activated and he could begin fixing himself.

The Noam Elimelech notes that the kohen was the spiritual mentor of the people. The names of the different kinds of tzaraat wounds indicate the different desires people have to connect to Hashem. Se’eit a person who wants to connect with Hashem, sapachat is one who yearns for attachment, baheret is one who has a light within him that desires to connect to Hashem. They want to bond with Hashem but it’s only external. They don’t have the right intentions. These people would also go to the kohen to help turn their avodat Hashem into something deeper and more meaningful.

Parshat Achrei Mot / Kedoshim: Living Kedusha

26 04 2012

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

In Parshat Kedoshim the Torah tells us, “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani.” You shall be holy, for I am holy. How do we define kedusha (sanctity)?

The Mikdash Halevi notes that at the beginning of the parsha it says, “Daber el kol adat bnei Yisrael.” Speak to the entire assemblage. This is to emphasize that each and every one of us is commanded to be holy. We are all enjoined to strive towards kedusha by doing mitzvot. We don’t have to do something above and beyond the extraordinary. Specifically through our everyday encounters and interaction with Hashem and other people we can reach holiness.

At the end of the parsha it says, “Ushemartem et chukotai ani Hashem mikadeshchem.” If you keep my ordinances and do them, then I will sanctify you. The process begins with a person’s own efforts and culminates with Hashem lifting him up.

The Ramban maintains that the concept of holiness is not limited to the observance of any specific category of commandments. Rather, it’s an admonition that one’s approach to all aspects of life be governed by moderation, particularly with things that are permitted. Someone who only observes the letter of the law can easily become a naval b’reshut haTorah, a degenerate with the permission of the Torah. Such a person can observe the technical requirements of the Torah while surrendering to self-indulgence and gluttony. The commandment to be holy tells us, “Kadesh azmecha b’mutar lach.” Sanctify yourself by refraining from too much of what is permitted. Kedusha is about living a life of moderation.

The sefer Sam Derech notes that the end of the Ramban gives us a deeper understanding of kedusha. The Torah often gives us specifics and then a general statement. In Devarim there are many different prohibitions of interacting with people. The Torah then says, “V’asita hayashar v’hatov.” You shall do deeds that are upright and good in the eyes of Hashem. Kedusha is about looking at the totality, the larger scheme. Our actions should be guided by a sense of what is fair and good in Hashem‘s eyes. How to do so in any given situation depends on the sensitivity of the individual, for it is impossible to spell out all alternatives and situations. “V’asita hasher v’hatov” means investigating and trying to understand what the Torah is really asking of us. Being holy means having an understanding of what Hashem wants from us. It’s easy to go through life following the strict letter of the law, but kedusha demands that we ask ourselves about the larger picture, the background, the sensitivity that Hashem wants us to develop.

The Torah is not just teaching us do’s and don’ts. It gives us a rubric on how to transform ourselves as individuals.

Parshat Ki Tisa- Reaching for Holiness

9 03 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

At the time of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people rose to the level of Adam before the sin. How did they fall so quickly after that with cheit haegel (the sin of the golden calf)? The commentators explain that their intentions were not evil. They thought Moshe had died and that they had been left alone in the desert. Perhaps they reasoned that it was a question of life and death and that they could suspend Torah law to create an intermediary that would connect them with Hashem.

Shem Mishmuel points out that often people will sin with good motives, and that good intentions are never lost. Hashem takes them, purifies them and adds them to the sinner’s credit. We see this with the story of the Korach rebellion. Hashem commanded Moshe to take the 250 fire pans that had been used for sin and fashion them into an iron plate to cover the altar. The 250 people desired to come closer to Hashem through the position of the kehuna gedola (high priest). They had a noble goal but their actions were wrong. They were punished, but the vessels they used were consecrated for the holy mishkan.

The Torah teaches that actions are more important than intentions. The ends do not justify the means. Whether one achieves one’s goal or not doesn’t matter so much, but the way we do it must be right. Nevertheless good intentions still count. Moshe burned the calf and mixed the ashes with water and had the Jews drink it. His intent was to destroy the Jews’ evil deeds and retain their initial pure thoughts which had been to serve Hashem. Their good intentions were captured in the water and it saved them when they drank the potion. Those who were true sinners died.

Other religions downplay actions and upgrade intentions. Judaism teaches the opposite. Evil actions bear consequences. Yet if one’s intentions are noble they are not lost.

Parshat Mishpatim: Brick Burden and Buoyancy

16 02 2012

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

When Moshe, Aharon, his sons, and the seventy elders ascended Har Sinai, they saw a vision of Hashem. “Under His feet was the livnat hasapir,” the sapphire brickwork. Rashi says that this brickwork served to remind Hashem of the suffering of the Jewish people in Egypt.

Rav Belsky asks why the bricks in this vision were made of sapphire and not of straw and mud like the bricks that caused the torment in Egypt? He explains, we tend to focus mainly on the redemption and the giving of the Torah, which were major events in Jewish history. However, the unpleasant Egyptian servitude also impacted the Jews in a deep way. Only a people who had experienced so much suffering could become Hashem‘s nation. In Hashem‘s eyes, every mud brick was a sapphire.

The capacity to transform difficulty into lessons of tremendous value is one of the greatest abilities a person can develop in life. Every painful experience has meaning and purpose. The greatness of a person is revealed when he takes those bricks of clay and transforms them into sapphire gems. Our challenge is turning our burdens into opportunities. How do we accomplish this?

The first way is to remember that eventually, in retrospect, we will understand everything. When the sea split and the Jews saw the great hand of Hashem upon the Egyptians, they realized the meaning behind their suffering. The Chatam Sofer expounds this idea. Moshe asked Hashem, “Show me your ways.” Hashem responded, “You shall see my back, but not my face.” When we view things in historical perspective, we can understand the whole picture. On the sixth day of creation, the Torah says that Hashem looked at all that He had made and, “V’hinei tov moed“(And behold it was very good.) What was very good? Suffering. In the context of the six days of creation, you can see things in their entirety and then you can understand how affliction is really a blessing.

The second way is turning our suffering into trust. Trust is a result of emotional closeness, not intellectual understanding. Emotional intimacy allows one to live with an intellectual problem because one’s trust is so great. When you feel Hashem is your loving father, you have a deeper sense of trust when seemingly bad things happen. Without knowing the why of our pain we can still find meaning in it and be consoled.

The third way is turning fate into destiny. Sometimes the only way to deal with tragedy is to transform it into opportunity.

The Baalei Mussar explain that the elders were shown the livnat hasapir because Hashem wanted to tell them Itcha anochi b’tzara, (I am with you in your pain). Throughout the slavery in Egypt I was with you, and now I am with you in your joy as you receive the Torah. This is the attribute of nosei b’ol im chaverio, sharing in a friend’s burden. This applies to feeling the suffering of others, and rejoicing in their joy. The entire parsha is predicated on this. It begins with how a master must treat his servant and ends with the livnat hasapir. When we can feel for another person, we’ve turned our bricks into sapphire, we’ve achieved redemption.

Rav Chaim Friedlander says that feeling along with another person is accomplished through shrinking the ego. Nosei b’ol is not only in the realm of emotions but in the realmof actions. If you can’t help someone physically, you can still pray for them. The Sichot Mussar notes that just as Hashem had the livnat hasapir under his feet as a constant reminder, we too should create reminders for ourselves to think of others.

The livnat hasapir teaches us to turn our pain into opportunity, our suffering into moments of closeness to Hashem. We can create jewels in our life and feel the pain and joy of others. When we step out of our narrow constraints, we can make the suffering lighter. When we turn someone else’s bricks into sapphire, we’ve turned our own too.