Archive | May, 2017

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

24 May

This week we read the laws of the Sabbatical Year. God instructs us to leave our fields fallow every seventh year, and modern science has proven that this is very beneficial for the land, allowing it to replenish its nutrients, which is in turn beneficial to us as those nutrients are passed to the crops we grow and then to us. This has made this mitzvah a favorite of Jews who try to spread the good word to their non-observant fellows, and when combined with studies about the mental health benefits of Shabbat observance and other such things is used to weave a message that can essentially be boiled down to the following statement: “our omniscient God knows what is best, therefore it is best for you to do what God says.” And there is nothing false about that statement. The problem is that this approach tends to result in people viewing their observance of mitzvot through two possible lenses. The first is “I am doing this because I believe it is best for me” while the second is “I am doing this because God says that this is best.”
Both of these views share the same flaw, which is that they ignore the importance of the two-way relationship between God and us. Your doctor might tell you that you need to eat healthier and instruct you to eat less ice cream and more Brussels sprouts, or perhaps you yourself found an article online that said that people who replace ice cream in their diet with Brussels sprouts will lose weight. You might eat the Brussels sprouts instead of the ice cream, but most people aren’t going to be happy about it.

 

While one who fulfills a mitzvah simply because he or she thinks it will be better for him or her in the long run to have done so than to have not done so has still Halachically fulfilled the mitzvah, and one who fulfills a mitzvah because it is God’s will that the mitzvah be fulfilled is certainly doing something theologically laudable, something is missing when mitzvot are performed in such a cold, computational, almost emotionless way. In a week and a half we will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday where we show our joy in having received the Torah and all of the mitzvot therein. That sense of joy comes not because we like being told what to do and not out of some sense of selfish joy at having been given the secrets to wind up better off in the long term, but out of a celebration of having been given these mitzvot to help us explore our relationship with the One who gave them to us.

Commentary for Emor

19 May

Unlike English, Hebrew is a gendered language. This means that, like in French or Spanish, each noun is assigned a gender, and all pronouns, adjectives or verbs used for that word must be the appropriate form of the verb for that gender. Thus a large cup (masculine) would be a “cos gadol” while a large bed (feminine) would be a “mitah gedolah.” Searching for any special meaning or psychoanalysis for why someone millennia ago decided that a chair is masculine but a door is feminine is a fool’s errand, but this week’s parshah contains a situation so out of the ordinary that one cannot help but look for meaning in it.

 

In Lev. 23:3 Shabbat is described using the feminine pronoun, while later in the same chapter (Lev. 23:32) it is given a masculine pronoun. Even more strikingly, Lev. 23:32 where Shabbat is given a masculine pronoun, exactly mirrors a phrase we read last week in Lev. 16:31, except there Shabbat was given a feminine pronoun.

 

Shabbat has always been a bit of an odd one out. It shares the characteristics of a festival but it is not a festival. It is supposed to be separate from the rest of the week, and yet the regularity with which it occurs make it feel like it is part of the week. While the other days of the week have a corresponding partner day of creation, Shabbat’s partner in creation is to be the Jewish People.

 

Shabbat is, clearly, a bit of a non-conformist. It is a holy day on which work is forbidden, but it is not a festival holiday. It is part of the weekly cycle and yet it is different from the other six days in a way that no other day is. It is an essential piece of creation, but its role is spiritual rather than physical. Shabbat is described in the Torah as both masculine and feminine because it does not fit in to neat little boxes. Unfortunately, we humans like our neat little boxes because they make the world easier to understand, and thus when something doesn’t fit we read into it the things that we want to read into it to   try to cram it into the box we want it to go in, even though it clearly doesn’t fit. We owe it to Shabbat to let Shabbat be what it is rather than trying to bend it to our own ends.

Commentary for Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

12 May

Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s two parshahs, is closely associated with Yom Kippur. The first of its three chapters introduces us to the holiday and describes the Yom Kippur sacrifice and is thus read in synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, while its third chapter is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Leviticus 16:31 introduces us to the well-known phrase “a sabbath of sabbaths” that is often used to describe the holiday, and it is from this phrase that we learn that activities that are forbidden on Shabbat are also forbidden on Yom Kippur, even if they are permitted on any other holiday (for example, cooking). Due to this phrase Yom Kippur is seen as taking precedence over Shabbat and its laws always win out if there is a conflict. This perception of Yom Kippur as therefore being more “extreme” than Shabbat allows for an interesting Jewish brainteaser that asks, “name one activity that is forbidden on Shabbat but permitted on Yom Kippur?”

The answer, fasting, is often difficult to come by because it is something that is not merely permitted on Yom Kippur but fully required (as we learn for the first time in this week’s parshah in Lev. 16:29) and because fasting on Shabbat is not explicitly forbidden via the standard “thou shalt not” but is rather forbidden because fasting- i.e. not eating and drinking, conflicts with the mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat, of which eating one’s fill of food is considered an important part. While these might seem like minor distinctions that have little practical effect other than happening to make a brainteaser more difficult, understanding them actually helps us learn an important lesson about Shabbat.

While many people assume that the reason we are allowed to fast on Yom Kippur even when it falls on Shabbat is due to Yom Kippur being the “sabbath of sabbaths” and therefore taking precedence, the real reason is because unlike all of the other fasts (aside from the Tenth of Tevet, which only ever overlaps with Shabbat by an hour), on Yom Kippur we are fasting to help pray for a better future rather than to commemorate a past event. The future is inherently a spiritual thing. It has not happened yet and therefore cannot physically affect us. The present can obviously affect us physically, and even the past can do so in some cases (if you fell and cut yourself you might have a scar), but the future exists only in our minds. Shabbat is often seen as a day where we focus on the spiritual over the physical, but in reality it is a day when we focus on both the spiritual and the physical while doing our best to ignore materialistic wants. On Shabbat we are not only encouraged to pray and study, but also required to eat our fill at three different meals and encouraged to engage in marital relations, both things that fall into the category of physical wants more than spiritual ones. Rather, it is on Yom Kippur when we are intended to push aside both the material and the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, spending all day in synagogue praying and abstaining from eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, engaging in marital relations, and using outside substances such as make-up or cologne to make ourselves look and smell nice.

Shabbat contrasts with Yom Kippur and with the first six days of the week by helping us to focus on what we have. On the first six days of the week, when we are allowed to focus on the materialistic as well as the physical and spiritual, we are often distracted by the things we want. On Yom Kippur, when we push aside not just the materialistic but also the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, we struggle to not be distracted by the thoughts of things we already own but can’t use (such as food). On Shabbat we restrict our focus from the materialistic and a portion of the physical, and as a result instead of focusing on the things we want but can’t have or the things we have but can’t use, allowing us to enjoy the things we have that we either use regularly but do not always give ourselves the chance to appreciate- such as food, or might not otherwise think we have time for, such time for taking care of our spiritual needs.

Commentary for Tazria-Metzora

3 May

In both parts of this week’s double parshah we learn about the skin disease Tzara’at. Tzara’at is seen in Rabbinic literature as being a spiritual punishment more so than a naturally occurring disease. The sin with which Tzara’at is almost always identified is Lashon Hara (literally translated as the “evil tongue” but often taken to mean gossip and/or slander) due to the events of Numbers 12, where Miriam contracts the disease after engaging in Lashon Hara regarding Moses. Reish Lakish makes a further connection, noting that the term for someone who has contracted Tzara’at, a “metzora,” can be seen as an abbreviation for “motzi shem ra” (“one who brings a bad name [to someone/something]) (Arachin 15b).

 

The process by which one is declared cured of Tzara’at is rather complicated, involving temporary exile from the camp, the shaving of body hair, the washing or burning of affected objects, and finally, once a priest has declared the physical symptoms gone, a strange ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest gets a mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson dye. The priest then takes two healthy kosher birds and sacrifices one of them. Then the priest mixes the blood of the sacrificed bird together with the crimson dye, the hyssop, and the cedar, and dips the second bird in the mixture. The priest then sprinkles the mixture over the head of the metzora and then sets the second bird, covered in the mixture, free. Then the metzora must again shave off all of his or her hair, both head and body, wash his or her clothes, bathe, and then he or she is considered to be cured.

 

The reason for the shaving was a practical one: it was required before ritual bathing so that one could reenter God’s service. The rest of the ceremony, though, seems to be rather random. What do birds have to do with anything, and what is the purpose of the dipping, or setting one of the birds free?

 

The Gemara in Arachin 15b tells us of a saying: “gossip kills three people: the one who says it, the one who receives it, and the one about whom it is said.” Once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. There is no way to know who has heard it and who has repeated it. It spreads, insidious and untraceable, throughout the world, and just like the bird that has been set free cannot be caught again, there is no way to undo the harm that the gossip has caused. The words we speak have an almost unlimited amount of power, and it is our responsibility to use God’s gift of language responsibly.