Friday, May 20, 2022

(Re)Defining Redemption

Parshat Behar 

 by Rabbi Avi Billet 

 Lag Ba’Omer having been this past Wednesday night and Thursday, it is hard to believe that a year has gone by since that celebrated day became a tragedy for 45 families directly, and for all of Klal Yisrael in the wake of the event that took so many lives in Meron last year. 

 In his song “Memories” in which he laments how those who survived the Shoah are slowly fading away, Abie Rotenberg wrote “Time has a way of passing by so fast.” That is what Time is and what Time does – it moves on, leaving us all to figure out “what will become of all the memories?” 

Torahs have been written, foundations created, edifices dedicated in memory of those whose lives were cut short on that day. That is all wonderful and appropriate. 

The question we face is “How have we been moved?” It’s a monumental challenge. Every time we hear of a tragedy or a loss, when we contemplate the death of someone we knew or did not know (in the latter case their passing impacted us somehow nonetheless), we often make commitments that we will do something to remember that person, or to emulate a deed that person was known for, or to carry on a chesed that person was committed to, or to continue a legacy a person carried, or to complete a task a person began. 

It’s very hard to remember all the things we’ve taken on in this way, all the people we had planned to memorialize in our own choices of behavior and deed, and even more challenging to keep up the things that were so defining of those we remember, but may be against our nature, and not the kinds of things we were able to truly make our own. 

Perhaps we need a redemption from our undertakings, or at the very least a redemption from all the pain! 

 There are two words for redemption that generally come to mind when we think in terms of Biblical Hebrew. One appears in the phrase “Pidyon HaBen” (and similar cash redemptions) in which the subject is redeemed for money (or some equivalent) through the agency of a Kohen. פדה, פדיון, פדות

 The other word for redemption is גאולה, which is often used to describe the FINAL Redemption in the Messianic Era. How many speeches have we heard which conclude with some message that we should merit to experience “the Geulah Shleimah?” 

So let us do a quick Search of the word גאולה/גאלה in Tanach to see how often this most important concept is touched upon, and what it means. As it turns out the word GEULAH (read that way) appears three times in the Torah, two times in Navi (the Prophets) and once in Ketuvim (Writings). All three Torah appearances are in our Parsha, the Navi ones are both in Yirmiyahu, and the Ketuvim one in the book of Ruth. ALL of these refer to a redemption of land going back to its original owner, and in the case of our Parsha, it refers to what takes place in the Yovel (Biblical Jubilee) year with respect to property rights as described. (In the Torah, the root גאל appears 44 times, with 31 of those appearances being in בהר and בחקותי – all related to financial redemption of property. Nine of the remaining times refer to the avenging relative of the victim of an accidental homicide – the גאל הדם.) 

Put another way, “Geulah” means a return to what was in the past. Even the two times that the root word appear in the context of the Exodus can be easily understood to mean that God is returning the Israelites to the status they had been in before, namely free people. 

 When we consider the kinds of redemption we seek, we often think of a future of unknowable quality and caliber. We don’t know what the future will bring, and what it will look like, because so much of our world and understanding of it is informed by our experience, and not by what once was – for which we have minimal to no frame of reference. 

When it comes to redemption from pain, perhaps what would make us happiest would be a turning back of a more recent clock, to undo the pain of losses, to undo the difficulties of previous months or years, to undo that which has brought outcomes that we didn’t want or don’t understand or appreciate, to at least bring us to a place of equilibrium, where we are at peace with the world we experience. 

 Unfortunately that is not reality. We can’t undo the past, and there are too many parts in the world going forward that are beyond our control that expecting things to go back to how they were is perhaps naïve or foolish or a pipedream or even a dream that may be possible in one form or another, and yet still only a dream. 

What we yearn for is Geulah – a redemption that brings us peace with a vision going forward, what to live for in our service of God, what to live for even in the frail and fleeting human existence we each experience, and what to live for as a collective group under the sheltering wings of the Divine. 

 The most significant interpretation of the blessing of Geulah, the 7th blessing in the weekday Shmoneh Esrei, is a blessing for a healing of the mind or soul, that a person be healed of the pains and difficulties one experiences beyond the realm of an ailing body (Piskei Teshuos Orach Chaim 116, and see Rashi on Megillah 17b, s’v אתחלתא דגאולה היא). The 8th blessing (רפאנו) is a blessing requesting a healing of the body – a רפואת הגוף. But as we often pray for a full healing, the prayer for the healing of the body is often preceded by a prayer for רפואת הנפש (a healing of the soul), and that is what the blessing of ראה נא וענינו וריבה ריבנו וגאלנו מהרה למען שמך – the blessing of “redemption” - is all about (see the book שיח יום, and the note in Yalkut Yosef II:116:4:4) (see the comments after this article). 

 Why would we pray for that? Because the implication of praying for a “healing” is that there was a time before the current situation, a time before the current circumstance of a certain someone being so troubled in the mind. We remember a time when we or they were “normal,” and when things were OK. (This is also implied in Kuzari 3:19) 

 While it is impossible to tell anyone who has suffered any kind of loss to “move on,” it is a great blessing for anyone who has gone through the most difficult and tragic circumstances to “find peace.” It won’t be the same as it was before, as in most cases of traumatic events (barring a miraculous healing and recovery) there is no returning to how things were because in most of those cases there is a hole in the heart, an empty space at a table, an empty bed, but we are designed to be able to have resilience and to forge a path forward, with and despite the pain. 

Perhaps this is why the healing from suffering is referred to as “Geulah.” Pain can destroy a person. It is likely that some of us know people who live with pain of a loss, and mourn a loved one, or a life that “was,” and carry that burden for months, if not years, if not decades. Those who see the living person in this sorry state may pray that the person we’ve watched deteriorate in this way find a רפואת הנפש, because we know that without it, the life this person continues to live is a life not reaching its potential. 

 Especially when living a life dedicated to perpetuating the memory of a loved one, we owe it to them (the deceased) and to ourselves to not let the pain we feel swallow us alive leaving us as people in need of a personal redemption. We must live in a way that demonstrates a path forward, in which we have taken care of our emotional health, our physical health, our spiritual health, so that we are living our best lives despite the pain, because that is our task. We read the famous teaching of Rabbi Tarfon in Avos (2:16) a few weeks ago, “It is not for you to finish the task, but neither are you free to exempt yourself from it…” This is the answer to the opening question of how we have been moved - we have a responsibility in this world and in this life to make the very best of even the most difficult circumstances. 

 We get one chance at this life. Sometimes very difficult curveballs and even minefields aim to put us away from the right path. True redemption is when none of that is able to break us from finding joy when appropriate, laughing when appropriate, and continuing to have a relationship with the Almighty even when we don’t understand His ways. 

May those who need one be granted a Geulah we call Refuat HaNefesh (healing of the soul, freedom from suffering), and may we all experience a Geulah Shleimah.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Reservations on Tumah + an Ode to Joy

Parshat Emor 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Considering all the talk of Kedusha and the attainment of holiness that was the focus of the last few parshas, one wonders what Parshas Emor, which focuses on specifics that Kohanim, those ordained to serve in the Mishkan/Mikdash, will bring in terms of alerting Kohanim as to how to achieve and maintain such a holy status. 

 In fact, the opening verse says “And the Lord said to Moshe ‘Say to the Kohanim, Sons of Aharon, and say to them not to become tameh (spiritually impure/defiled) through coming in contact with a soul [i.e. a dead body]’” (21:1). 

One might expect a focus on purity, on spirituality, on prayer, on meditation, on focusing on the task at hand! But the first rule is listed in the negative – Don’t become impure. 

This is not to suggest that such an instruction is unimportant. To be sure, a Kohen who is tameh may not serve in the Mishkan/Mikdash and thus removes himself for a spell from serving the people in their attempts to get closer to God through the Kohen’s agency in the Mishkan/Mikdash. In this light, perhaps it is important as a starting space for the Kohen to know what not to do, to avoid disqualifying himself from his important role.

And yet it still seems odd that this would be the first instruction given. 

Some argue that the first thing they were in fact told was “Sons of Aharon!” Note how the verse has God telling Moshe “Say to the Kohanim” as well as “and say to them” implying two different things to tell them. In this light, the approach (championed by Yalkut HeGershuni, Ibn Ezra and others) is that the Kohanim must first remember that their calling is as the sons of Aharon. They must emulate their holy father who demonstrates his fear of God, who demonstrates humility, who demonstrates and lives by the dictum of loving every Jew. 

 After all, if they will not come in contact with the dead, how will they be reminded of the fragility of life? If they are first reminded that they are the sons of Aharon, and perhaps the sons of Aharon who lived while their brothers died, they will always remember that people are human, fallible, and can die. Thus the role of the Sons of Aharon becomes heavily emphasized to them as a role to take seriously, with trepidation, and with focus on why we have to do what we have to do. 

 In a different way, they need to embody the words of Malachi from chapter 2, especially the last verse quoted below. 

4 And you shall know that I have sent you this commandment, that My covenant be with Levi, says the Lord of Hosts. דוִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּי שִׁלַּ֣חְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את לִֽהְי֚וֹת בְּרִיתִי֙ אֶת־לֵוִ֔י אָמַ֖ר ה' צְבָאֽוֹת:

5 My covenant was with him, life and peace, and I gave them to him [with] fear; and he feared Me, and because of My Name, he was over-awed. הבְּרִיתִ֣י | הָֽיְתָ֣ה אִתּ֗וֹ הַֽחַיִּים֙ וְהַשָּׁל֔וֹם וָֽאֶתְּנֵם־ל֥וֹ מוֹרָ֖א וַיִּֽירָאֵ֑נִי וּמִפְּנֵ֥י שְׁמִ֖י נִחַ֥ת הֽוּא: 

6 True teaching was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. In peace and equity he went with Me, and he brought back many from iniquity. ותּוֹרַ֚ת אֱמֶת֙ הָֽיְתָ֣ה בְּפִ֔יהוּ וְעַוְלָ֖ה לֹֽא־נִמְצָ֣א בִשְׂפָתָ֑יו בְּשָׁל֚וֹם וּבְמִישׁוֹר֙ הָלַ֣ךְ אִתִּ֔י וְרַבִּ֖ים הֵשִׁ֥יב מֵֽעָו‍ֹֽן:

7 For a priest's lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts. זכִּֽי־שִׂפְתֵ֚י כֹהֵן֙ יִשְׁמְרוּ־דַ֔עַת וְתוֹרָ֖ה יְבַקְשׁ֣וּ מִפִּ֑יהוּ כִּ֛י מַלְאַ֥ךְ ה'־צְבָא֖וֹת הֽוּא: 

Another perspective is offered by the Midrash Aggadah, which presents an Aggadic tale as follows: 

 “Why are there two instructions (אמירות) given to the Kohanim? The first is not to become tameh to a dead body, and the second is that even though I told them not to become tameh, they may become tameh to a Mes Mitzvah (an abandoned corpse) as well as to tsaddikim, for the righteous, in their death, are חיים (living).” 

Whether this is followed in practice in halakha is certainly up for debate – how, for example, do we define a tsaddik? – the Midrash Aggadah proceeds to share a tale, which includes an appearance by Eliyahu HaNavi (as Aggadot often do), who happened to be a Kohen. 

“Rabbi Akiva was imprisoned and Rabbi Yehoshua HaGarsi would tend to him. When it was Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yehoshua begged leave of Rabbi Akiva and went home. Eliyahu came and knocked on his door. Who are you? I’m Eliyahu. And what do you want? I came to tell you that your Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva, has died. The two of them went through the night until they arrived at the prison only to find the prison open, the warden sleeping along with everyone else (also sleeping). Eliyahu got to the cell and the door opened. Eliyahu began dealing with [Rabbi Akiva]. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, but aren’t you a Kohen? He said, My son, there is no tumah when it comes to tsaddikim and Hakhamim. When they left the prison [carrying Rabbi Akiva], angels approached them saying ‘the righteousness of God has been done’ as the path before them was illuminated like a shining firmament. When they got to the palace of the Caesar, they went down three steps and then up three steps only to find a cave which had a bed (bier), chair, and candelabra. They put him on the bier and were leaving, when Rabbi Yehoshua looked around and saw an even more elaborate bier in the cave. They were leaving, but Rabbi Yehoshua said I will not leave until you tell me for whom is that bier. [Eliyahu] told him it is for the wife of the wicked Titus, [rewarded] because of all the good she did for Rabbi Akiva while he was imprisoned… After they left, Eliyahu turned to Rabbi Yehoshua and told him, Go tell the Hakhamim to teach their students that there is no tumah on the tsaddikim.” 

This, the Midrash concludes, is what Moshe was telling the Kohanim. Do not become tameh to just anyone. But for a mes mitzvah, for tsaddikim, and for Hakhamim there is no tumah

This approach in the Midrash focuses on the concept of tumah as something the Kohanim are meant to avoid in general, with the three exceptions as noted. The verses also note that for all Kohanim except the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) there are exceptions as well for close family. 

 But there is another perspective that I recently learned in a teaching from Rabbi Meir Shapiro Z”L. In the context of explaining how he managed to suffer through the travails and financial woes of sustaining the Great Yeshivas Hakhmei Lublin and still come across as being happy and living b’simcha, he noted that he took notes from Kohanim who were not allowed to participate in funerals. 

 His explanation for their restriction with becoming tameh was less focused on their becoming unable to serve in the Mikdash, and more on how if they were to become regularly habituated to attending funerals, they would be saddened and less capable of fulfilling the dictum of עבדו את ה' בשמחה, serve God with joy. 

Kohanim, he argued, have an added mitzvah to bring joy to Judaism and to the task of serving the Almighty. While he wasn’t a Kohen, Rabbi Shapiro felt that in his role as Rabbi of communities and teacher of hundreds of Talmidim (students), he needed to be b’Simcha (have a positive outlook) in his life dedicated to teaching and inspiring, so he took a page from the Kohen playbook. 

This perspective offers a keen insight to Kohanim specifically, and to all of us in general, as to what a goal in life can be. It is not that life doesn’t have its complicated moments and difficult times. But our challenge is to weed through it to find not only reasons to be happy, but to present ourselves as b’simcha as much as possible. 

It is sometimes difficult, and sometimes seemingly impossible. But our challenge in life is to challenge ourselves to be the best version of us that we can be, as often as possible.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Free Will to Serve God - Because We Want To

Parshat Kedoshim 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

 In the days pre COVID and hospitals having their restrictive rules on visitors, whenever I’d visit someone in the hospital or a nursing home facility, patients or residents would see my kippah and ask one of two things. “Is it Shabbos?” or “Rabbi, can you say a prayer for me?” 

 Understandably it was never Shabbos – so that one was an easy No, often followed by an explanation that I wear this all the time irrespective of the day of the week. 

 To the second question the answer is of course Yes, but I’d follow it with a reminder “You know, you are allowed to pray for yourself! In fact, that may be a better prayer than mine, because you know exactly what you need and what you would like to see happen.” 

 The point is simply that you need to do what you want to do, for yourself, rather than pawning it off to someone else. “Pawning” is not the right word – but the idea that some random person who doesn’t know you has more power in Tefillah than you do is not true, and trying to push that responsibility onto someone else to the detriment of one’s own abilities is, in a way, tragic. And while we sometimes ascribe great power to the meritorious tsaddikim who are often enough asked to pray for others, there is no greater example of God hearing the prayer of an individual praying for himself than our Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashana, when we hearing of the ill Yishmael crying out to God on his own behalf. 

 While it’s not exactly the same, this memory came to mind when reading the verse (19:5) “On the day when you bring an offering, it should be of your own will” and the commentary of R Yosef Bchor Shor on that verse. He writes, 

“Put all of your desire into it. Don’t have any negativity towards what you are bringing as an offering before the Almighty. There are people who make an offering before the Almighty, but it is difficult for them (i.e. they don’t really want to do it). Yet [since] they see others who are doing so, they feel embarrassed not to follow suit. This (kind of offering) has no value, because God knows what is in the hearts of people. As Koheles said: And I saw all the toil and all the excellence of work, which is a man's envy of his friend; this too is vanity and frustration.” 

 It’s a very simple challenge that R Bchor Shor is placing before us. How much are we defined by the Joneses? How much of what we do are we doing because others are doing it? Do we serve God in any way or capacity because it is socially approved in our little circles? What if it weren’t approved in our circles? Would we still do so? 

 Do we have any hesitation or reticence about our service of God? Our desire to perform Mitzvos and fulfill His will? Do we do anything with reluctance? Prayer? Give tzedakah? Chesed? Speak kindly to others? Hold back from the juicy gossip? Embrace holiday seasons? Engage in Torah study? Listen attentively when someone is teaching us Torah thoughts? Look askance at certain restrictive Kosher measures? 

 Using a very simple example from our Parsha, R Bchor Shor is reminding us that in terms of our commitment to God and Torah, we should be “All in” at all times. We have our difficult moments and difficult days – that may be true. But the real question driving everything is what grounds me and what drives me? If each of us is committed at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds, then we are in a great space and a great place. We know what we want in this life, and we know that much of the outcomes we anticipate are driven by our input and output. 

 When we approach our observant lives through a lens of confidence in our life choices and decisions, as well as gratitude for those who came before us who carried and passed on the torch to us, we are in a great space. 

 Would we have chosen this life if it weren’t handed to us? We all know people who have chosen this life that was not handed to them – either through making changes in their already Jewish life, or through converting to Judaism. 

 All of us could make a similar thought process into a reality when we actively choose this life through going beyond a familiar routine, and elevating all of our experiences into partially spiritual endeavors, guided by the excitement of a meaningful life being lived under the wings of the Divine.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Nadav and Avihu: An Attainable Level of Purity, Unattainable Level of Holiness

Parshat Acharei Mot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

While our parsha this week is not at all about the sons of Aharon (Nadav and Avihu), the opening verse of the parsha speaks in the aftermath of their deaths of lessons to be learned about the service of God and how it is to be performed. 

 That opening verse says that God spoke to Moshe “after the deaths of the two sons of Aharon, when they were bringing an offering before God - they died.” 

It seems to be suggesting that they died twice! 

Some will argue that the first mention is a general comment and the second mention is explaining the when and the how. In fact, Haktav V’hakabbalah suggests that the latter part of the verse is even explaining the why. It was their effort to get close to God (another translation of בקרבתם לפני ה') that brought them to the absolute closest to God. This view in essence rejects any notion of sin which is sometimes associated with their deaths – there was no sin per se, as much as their effort to get close to God yielded results which may have been unintended on their part. 

 That result, however, speaks volumes of them and their preparedness to go a certain distance in order to serve God at the highest level. That “certain distance” includes being ready to be מוסר נפש (to give up one’s soul/life) for the sake of the Almighty. 

Hopefully no one is being asked or being challenged to give up their lives for the sake of the Almighty. But the notion does give us pause, especially in the wake of Wednesday night’s and Thursday’s Yom HaShoah observance. On Yom HaShoah we tend to honor survivors of the Shoah that are still with us. We remember those we knew who have passed away. And of course we remember the 6 million, known to many of us as “the Kedoshim” – the holy ones who gave their lives to sanctify God’s name. And we all know that it doesn’t matter how they died – it is simply that they died because they were Jews, or even that they died because the Nazis believed they were Jews (look up the term “Mischling”). 

While we know that some people were given no chance to survive – they were either shot immediately, burned alive in a building, or gassed upon arrival at a death camp (in addition to other horrors) – many who did not survive lived incredible existences in the camps, as attested to by survivors who wrote of them in their memoirs. In many cases, the way these people lived and died is a testimony to their readiness to die, as the “R’vid HaZahav” writes of Nadav and Avihu, with their soul in the ready. Whether those who died in the camps were ultimately executed by the Nazis or succumbed to the almost unsurvivable conditions to which they were subjected, when their time came, they were prepared for the next world. [Of course these are generalities and not meant to be viewed as judgment or irreverent. These are personal reflections based on excerpts from survivor accounts that, upon reflection, speak most admirably of certain memorable individuals who did not survive the camps.] Ironically, Viktor Frankl notes how the end of 1944 brought an uptick in natural deaths, which he credited to people dying of heartbreak – they had told themselves they’d be home by Christmas and New Years Eve, and when that didn’t happen, he felt that contributed to the lowering of their morale which turned them into “muselmen” (there are many spellings of this term), who had essentially checked out of life. 

Getting back to Nadav and Avihu, “R’vid HaZahav” suggests that their decision to “get close to God” was the first “death” they experienced, because they were ready to get even further closer to Him, and when they physically died, that’s where the word וימותו at the end of the verse comes in.

 The Chasam Sofer would extrapolate an idea based on their experience, attaching it to a teaching from the Talmud in Tamid 32, “One who wants to live should kill himself” which refers to killing off one’s physical desires, while “one who wants to die should enliven himself” which refers to pursuing one’s physical desires. 

 As he puts it, “Aharon’s sons were most holy, they had ‘killed off’ (eliminated) their physical desires, they nevertheless died through coming too close to God.” Going back to the opening verse of the parsha “God spoke to Moshe after the deaths of the two sons of Aharon” – after they had eliminated their physical desires – “as they aimed to get closer to God, they died” – even though they had gotten rid of their physical desires, because they got TOO close to God, they died. 

 The message is really a question more than anything else. In what manner do we view our existence? We all want to live! But are we ready to die when our time comes? What are we living for that can be improved upon in a way that can be inspiring to ourselves, our families, others? What of our lives and the way we live our lives has not yet been written? If Nadav and Avihu can essentially kill their yetzer hara, and thus be declared by Moshe to be the holiest people in God’s eyes, isn’t there merit to achieving such a goal? And even if we like our yetzer hara (after all, he is an old friend!), that doesn’t mean we have to listen to him as often as he gives us bad advice! 

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman Z’L was once asked by his grandson “You moved around and studied in different yeshivos. Who is considered your primary Rebbe?” His answer was “My primary Rebbe is my yetzer hara, and I’m still trying to get rid of him!” 

What we can learn from the two depictions of their deaths is that there is a level of purity that can be achieved in this world, and there is a level of holiness that is too much for this world. Had Nadav and Avihu simply become non-sinners, who knows what may have happened? Their service in the Mishkan might have become the most inspiring scene for all who came to have these upstanding Kohanim represent them in their service. Their deaths came because God “realized” they wanted a closeness that couldn’t be achieved by a human being. They were ready to move to the next world – which is why their deaths happened in an instant, their souls leaving their bodies, their bodies untouched and unscathed. 

 Most of us likely don’t need to put too many checks on the levels of holiness we can achieve – our yetzer hara is our rebbe for that! – but we can all certainly aim for a higher level of purity, one that is certainly appropo for this world. What would we have to give up to achieve any level higher than where we are? If it’s something that we want for ourselves, there is no time like the present to begin pursuing loftier goals in our spiritual pursuits.

Friday, April 8, 2022

The Most Difficult Week is the Most Transformative

Parshat Metzora

by Rabbi Avi Billet

A man who was afflicted with tzara’as was given clearance by the Kohen, but even after washing his clothes, shaving his hair and dunking in a mikveh, and returning to the camp, וְיָשַׁ֛ב מִח֥וּץ לְאָהֳל֖וֹ שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים. He still needs to camp outside his own tent for a week. 

 He’s almost there! He’s gone through the transformation! He’s examined his deeds, he’s merited to have the tzara’as disappear. He can go home! His job is done! 

 But he has to wait outside his tent for another week! How could this be? 

 Alshikh explains that it’s true he went through an important process. But the most important process begins when he is on the threshold of his house when he is barred from entry. It’s onlyאחר רבוי ימים יתחיל לתקן העבירות - after the days are extended that he can begin to fix his sins. A process is one thing to begin, but if a real transformation in a person’s approach hasn’t occurred there is no home to which one can return. In other words: Externals are wonderful. I’m not demonstrably speaking lashon hara. I am not exhibiting signs of stinginess. But has my heart changed as well? 

 Alshikh further explains: when a person merits to return to the camp – this is the Holy Camp. However, he is not ready to reenter his own domain. It’s one thing to settle one’s score with others. In a way it is much easier. But how does one settle the score with oneself? The soul needs its own personal tikkun

 Back in Parshat Vayetze Yaakov worked 7 years to marry Rachel, and the Torah describes those years as if they were days. Alshikh employs a reverse equation here. That ימי שנותיו שבעים שנה are alluded to in this seven day period. When the seven day period is over, it becomes, in a sense, a rebirth for the person. 70 years – a lifetime! – has passed. You’re outside your home. You see day to day life going on, and you can’t be a part of it. It’s almost like the final scene in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” You’re watching life go on, but you can’t be a part of it. 

Seven days feels like an eternity. But in truth, that seven day period – which is a time of further introspection, of furthering our full commitment to changing beyond the externals and changing the heart – is very liberating. When we finally understand why we’re waiting outside, we know who we are, and we see what real change needs to take place in order to return home. What must I do? And what can I expect of others in order to achieve that coveted return to the home?

Some of the commentaries utilize the gemaras in Moed Katan 15 and Krisus 8 that say his being forbidden from “returning home” is a metaphor to “returning to his wife.” In other words, his inability to return home means that marital relations are forbidden for another week. 

 The Vilna Gaon [as seen in Haktav V’hakabbalah] points to the Mishnah in the last chapter of Negaim that says he is both מנודה מביתו שבעת ימים ואסור בתשמיש המטה. He may not enter his house, and marital relations are also forbidden as his wife can’t visit him outside either. 

Some point out the disparity. If it were a woman who had tzara’as, the prohibition against marital relations would not apply – it says מחוץ לאהלו (he sits outside of his tent) and not מחוץ לאהלה (no reference to sitting outside her tent). It’s only the man who had been a metzora who had this prohibition. The Torah Temimah suggests that perhaps the 7-days that the man waits outside is reminiscent of the 7 days the woman waits in her taharah reality before she actually goes to the mikveh. It is a precautionary preventative to avoid a prohibition. It is to be sure that in case a relapse occurs – in the metzora’s case through the return of tzara’as – they will not have been living in sin. He was tameh for a while, now he is having 7 pure days to prepare for their reunion. 

Why is the additional week-long prohibition only on the man when he had tzara’as, and not on the woman if she had tzara’as? Torah Temimah explains: because we don’t want her to become further denigrated in the eyes of her husband. 

 Why should there be a difference? Don’t the marital relations involve both parties anyway? Perhaps the Torah is suggesting a sociological reality. All of the laws of tzara’as are addressed in the masculine, except for two times when a woman is mentioned (13:29, 38). Both could get tzara’as, but it’s not as pervasive in women. 

Perhaps we can suggest that the attainment of tzara’as was more common in men than in women. It’s almost expected that a man will go through this process. But a woman? Could a woman be as guilty as a man? 

 Speaking in generalities – the sins which the Gemara claim caused tzara’as are lashon hora (slander and gossip), murder, swearing in vain, immorality, haughtiness, theft, and stinginess. Surely women can do these too, but it’s not farfetched to suggest that (again, in general) men have cornered the majority of most of these markets. 

 A man will deal with the embarrassment, the stigma, and may even roll his eyes when it comes around again. He looks good bald and he doesn’t mind having no eyebrows. For her, however, the ordeal itself, plus the removal of the eyebrows is devastating enough! Don’t further bring her down through keeping her separated from her husband, whom she, of all people, may really need after her ordeal, to help her cope with her new reality. This is a wonderful example of the Torah showing sensitivity to a woman’s needs. 

 Most men, on the other hand, don’t put as much stock in their looks as their female counterparts. And if they need to go rugged another week, they accept it as the price to pay, understanding that the transformation is not complete without this week. And so this week becomes a time of thought, introspection, commitment, and real change. 

 The final 7 day period, of being so close and yet so far, is meant to drive home the idea that just because a negative ordeal seems over, it is not over yet until the person has gone through the complete process that was the purpose of the project to begin with.

For a former metzora, it is understanding the real nature of the act that put the tzara’as ordeal in motion and making a real move to change. 
For a husband, it’s a different kind of appreciation of his wife. 
For a wife, her emotional needs become increasingly clear to her husband. 

 And perhaps, to stretch the thought to the coming holiday, the 7 day period when we are out of our comfort zone – with no chametz – maybe it is to help us appreciate what we have throughout the year just a little more.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Infertility Awareness and the Power of Prayer

Parshat Tazria 

 by Rabbi Avi Billet 

 A little less than a year ago, the headline read: “Five Fertility Patients awarded $15 million after failure of freezing tank” 

 This was the follow up to a tragic story from 2018 when an infertility clinic in San Francisco had their freezer (containing thousands of frozen eggs and fertilized embryos) fail, making all of those potential babies no longer viable. 

 From the article from June 2021: 

“Five patients of a California fertility center have been awarded a total of $15m after a freezing tank failed, rendering some of more than 3,500 frozen human embryos and eggs unviable. 

While the extent of the damage from the accidental thaw is unclear, jurors awarded the sum to clients of the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco after finding that the storage tank maker, Chart Industries, had known about a defect that prevented accurate temperature monitoring and had not warned the center about the problem. 

The case could have significant consequences for a fertility industry estimated to be worth $37 billion by 2030 and comes amid declining fertility rates and a drop in childbirth, recently described as a Covid baby-bust.” [Regarding that “baby bust,” see here: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2021/05/05/the-coming-covid-19-baby-bust-is-here/]

Others settled outside of court. I don’t need to tell you that for people who go this route, there is always a story, whether of rounds and rounds of infertility treatments, of many miscarriages, of taking out healthy eggs before chemo and radiation treatments. 

The 5 patients include women who will likely never have their own child now. This is sad for them – and while I am sure the judgment pays them back for much money they laid out in their treatments and their plans, the money will never replace the chance they had, the dream they hoped for. 

 Our shul is once again participating in the Yesh Tikva Infertility Awareness Shabbos [see more at https://yeshtikva.org/]. We do this because we all know people – for some of us it may be our children or grandchildren – who struggle with infertility. And we also do this to be aware of a sensitivity needed towards those who do not have children – either due to their own struggles with infertility or simply marrying later in life. Yesh Tikva’s goal is to provide resources for those who need help, and also to educate our greater community on how relate to the people who fit either description just mentioned. 

 Some simple examples:
 • Never asking younger people when they are going to start having children, whether they are your children or grandchildren, and especially if they are not your family.
 • Never complain about your children to people who only wish for such a reason to complain
 • Be sensitive to the reality some people live with – even if they seem OK with it. Don’t say things like “You don’t have children so you don’t really know what I’m talking about.”

What CAN we say or do? 

 We can be thoughtful and careful in the things we say, and remember to treat all our children the same, and all of our friends the same, when it comes to relating to them – irrespective of their being-parents or not-being-parents status. 

We can be sensitive. If they are still in the “parsha” of possibly having children, we can reach out and say “I pray for you all the time.” We can wish people that ה' ימלא כל משאלות לבכם – “that God should fulfill your wishes.” 

 What does it mean to pray for others? One of the Torah narratives in which prayer for others plays a role is the story of the pre-destruction of Sodom. Rav Moshe Feinstein asked why God found the need to tell Avraham about Sodom? Even if He knew Avraham would pray, He also knew that Avraham's prayer would have no effect. Sodom was doomed, and not even Avraham could save it! 

Rav Moshe answers that God wanted Avraham's prayers anyway. Avraham's prayers were powerful and needed to be brought to the earth for a purpose – a purpose and design other than to save the doomed city 

Similarly, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44b) tells us that when Avraham prayed near the city of Ai (Bereshit 12:8), his prayers did nothing at the time, but prevented Yehoshua's army from being routed in the Battle of Ai (Yehoshua 7:5) around 465 years later.

 This is one element of prayer that is beyond all of us. We simply do not know what our prayers do, what merit they serve to advocate for in our world. 

 This is also why we say Tehillim beyond what is in our davening for those who are ill in a state of urgency – whether pre or during surgery, or in an unexplained coma, or whatever the reasons. There is a distinction in Halakha between issuing a זעקה – which is not recommended on Shabbos – and a תפילה – which is absolutely permitted on Shabbos. Praying for others, at any time, is absolutely appropriate. 

 When it comes to having a child, this lesson of praying for someone is even more profound.

The Talmud tells us in Niddah and Kiddushin that there are three partners in creation: Mother, Father, and God. If the contributing factor of one of these partners doesn’t work right, it seems the Talmud is saying, there will not be a baby. And while with modern medical science we can suggest there is sometimes a 4th partner, medical science doesn’t note when God is not contributing His part. That is where the devout Jew needs to pay careful attention to the Talmud’s 3rd partner. 

 Towards the opening of our Parsha, Rabbi Yitzchak Caro (in his Toldot Yitzchak) utilizes a Talmudic teaching to explain how an expectant parent must pray for fertilization to take root in the first three days from the act meant to lead to conception, from day 3 to day 40 pray for a male child, (surely that prayer could be for a female child too!) from day 40 to the end of the first trimester pray that it shouldn’t be a miscarriage, from 3 months to 6 months pray that it should not be a stillborn, from 6 months pray that it should be born in peace. 

If so, he concludes, it seems that the health of the child and success of the pregnancy is dependent on prayer much more than on nature. 

The sex of the child, he claims, is dependent on ואם כן נראה שזה הדבר תלוי בתפילה ולא בטבע - prayer more than a natural outcome. And then while he explains that naturally בטבע - anything might happen, if potential parents specifically want a male or a female, לזה צריך תפילה (prayer is needed). Halevai everyone who wants a child should get to the stage where such an option (prayer) is all they need to worry themselves with.

 In our world of science and rationalism, we tend to aim to find explanations for why things go right, and even moreso for when things go wrong. It’s the man, it’s the woman, the doctor’s approach and system of treatment, etc. 

 But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have all the answers because some causes and cases go beyond the realm of the natural world. An unhealthy woman sometimes gives birth to a completely healthy and normal baby. A healthy woman can’t carry a baby to term. What’s wrong with this picture? 

It’s impossible to answer this question. But Toldot Yitzchak’s suggestion is the solution to the role we can all play. There is a need for prayer that goes far beyond our understanding, and enters the realm of the cosmos in terms of where it sits, lies and waits, and then returns to influence the world. 

Years ago a colleague shared an essay from a project his shul had in which people wrote of what tefillah means to them. One thought, from a mother of a child-diagnosed-with-cancer, impacted me deeply. She wrote, "You don't know what prayer is until you find out your child will not outlive you." Most helpful, she wrote, was when a person who had gone through a similar trial confided in her saying, "There are times when you will be angry at God. You will not be able to pray. Don't worry. The rest of us will be praying for you."

 These are powerful thoughts. It's not just that every individual has the ability to move mountains. It's that we are all in this together, looking out for one another, making a prayer-contribution because somewhere, somehow, it helps all of us, perhaps in ways we could not even consider or imagine. That thought was shared by a mother whose child was not going to live much longer. Perhaps such a sentiment can apply as well to the man and woman who are not yet parents, who are looking at a bleak future, because they have no idea what the future hold for their not-yet-conceived child. Or for their pregnancies that miscarry time after time. 

 The financial settlements noted at the beginning won’t bring back any lost eggs or embryos. But for those who haven’t given up hope (“Yesh Tikva”) the future is a wide open book of possibility, of realities that haven’t been written yet. 

As a mohel I’ve worked with people who have incredible stories: Cancer survivors who had babies, others who through the help of science and medicine had babies after years of tears and infertility, others who after thinking they could only have babies with help were shocked to find a beating heart in a womb they were told couldn’t make it happen alone, surrogates from the most unexpected places, secondary infertility which yielded successful pregnancies, people who were told by physicians they would never have children who defied all the odds and textbooks and built beautiful families. 

When we pray for others we indicate that in whatever ether, whatever cosmos that are beyond our understanding, we are trying to have an influence. We are doing what we can, connecting with the Borei Olam, to show HIM that we believe our prayers are what He wants, and that He uses them how He wants to move the mountains that we care about. Sometimes people need a physical healing. Sometimes people need a spiritual healing. Sometimes people need an emotional healing. Sometimes people need to find methods of coping because the challenges life throws their way can be so so so overwhelming. We think of them and pray for them because we care that they can find a way to enjoy life even with the difficulties life may throw their way – and when healing is possible, that it should be achieved with God speed. 

 We shine our best and most when we do what we can for people – rejoicing with them in good times and being as supportive as we can in rough times. Including the painful struggle of infertility. 

The life we live is not one in which we go it alone and don’t care about others. On the contrary, if we don’t care about others, our lives are hardly worth living.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Is Death Always a Punishment?

Parshat Shmini

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the more fascinating, albeit tragic, tales in the Torah surrounds the deaths of Aharon’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah records the incidence of their death four times (Vayikra 10:1, 16:1, Bamidbar 3:4, 26:61) and it is also mentioned in Divrei Hayamim I 24:2. In all of the Torah’s mentions of the incident it ties their deaths to their coming close or bringing close to God (בקרבתם לפני ה') while some of these also mention the “strange fire” that they used. The Divrei HaYamim verse and the first Bamidbar verse also connects the depiction of their being dead to their not having children. 

 What the Torah does not do is elaborate much more on the episode, leaving much unsaid, focusing more on the reality (that they are deceased) and the narrative which follows their deaths, which includes the need to continue to get the Mishkan running in this Eighth Day, the day of the Inauguration of the Tent of Meeting. 

 Did they sin? 

On a very simple level, the Torah says they did something they were not commanded to do. Moshe’s immediate response to their deaths is “this is what God said would happen – ‘With those closes t to Me I will be sanctified’” – which is a way of suggesting that this was God’s way of bringing a special sanctification to this moment. In fact, the Torah Shleimah records a passage suggesting that a reason Nadav and Avihu brought the strange fire was because they saw all the Korbanot bringing brought and they didn’t see God’s fire coming down as promised. This would suggest that they were already putting their scheme in place to “help” at the time the last verse in Chapter 9 took place, and they may have missed the fire coming down to consume the offering. 

Further, Rav Kasher writes, “Nadav turned to Avihu and said, ‘Does a person ever cook without a fire?’ and so they brought fire into the innermost area. God said to them, ‘I will honor you more than you honored Me. You brought in an impure fire. I will consume you with a pure fire.” 

This “honoring” Nadav and Avihu is a unique perspective (though shared by Moshe Rabbenu!) because it is anathema to the way we are trained to think. Of course we are said when someone we know or someone we love passes away. We will miss the person terribly! 

But can we ever presume to know the ways of God? 

 The Rabbis scoured the text of the Torah and suggested a number of reasons Nadav and Avihu died – including that they died because they saw God in chapter 24, as punishment to Aharon for his role in the Golden Calf, for their disrespect towards Moshe and Aharon, wondering aloud when the two old men would die so they could take over (as if!), and that they were either drunk, wearing the wrong clothes, deciding laws for themselves, not seeking advice from Moshe and Aharon, because they did not have children, or because they entered the Holy of Holies. 

To the last one – did they? Seforno and other are of the belief that לפני ה' does not mean specifically entering the Holy of Holies, and that while they were inside the Mishkan, they did not enter the forbidden inner sanctum. 

 Most of those suggestions are based in other Pesukim that give warnings to the Kohanim as to what their Mishkan-conduct is supposed to look like. However, never does it say in the text that they did any of these things, nor is the word Sin (חטא) ever associated with them in the Torah. So while the suggestions may be compelling, in the end all we really have is that God took them as they brought the strange fire. Which leads to a follow up question. 

 Is that a terrible crime that is deserving of death in the realm of punishment? 

 There is no way to answer that question as that is in the realm of what God may decide and is beyond our comprehension. However, we may wonder if they had been warned yet that doing any of these behaviors would bring about a negative repercussion. It is unfair to punish someone for a crime that had never been declared a crime. 

While there is much to focus on if indeed they were guilty of all or some of those errors, the fact that the Torah doesn’t make the connection speaks volumes about what they DID versus what they did NOT. 

 Which brings us back to where we started. Did they sin? Was their death a punishment? To whom? To them? To their father and mother? To their siblings? 

Death isn’t always a punishment. Look at the end of the mortal life of Hanokh in Parshat Bereshit, and Eliyahu as he ascends to the heavens in a chariot of fire. Look at Lemech’s and Methselach’s deaths before the Flood. Look at Avraham’s death 5 years “early” as a mercy so he shouldn’t see Eisav go off on a bad path. 

 Imagine people we know who were suffering and their suffering ended with their deaths. Imagine an innocent soul being taken by God through illness or accident. Or a baby who dies around the time it is born or shortly afterwards. 

We don’t have answers – we just have a life we aim to make sense of, and to do our best to find meaning in it. 

 We never want to think a person died as a punishment for their deeds, so why should we ascribe such a thought to Nadav and Avihu. 

If Moshe Rabbenu said they died because God was sanctifying the Mishkan it means God viewed them as the purest people, and God desired their souls for Himself because their lives had achieved their purpose in life and it was time for their souls to go on to the next stage of its journey.