Friday, September 8, 2023

Reverence for A Sacred Space and the Torah

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh

by Rabbi Avi Billet

We read the double parsha of Nitzavim Vayelekh. In Vayelekh, there are two mitzvos surrounding a Sefer Torah. The second of these is considered by many to be the final mitzvah in the Torah – to write a Torah. Since not everyone can write a Torah, or nowadays afford a Torah, a widely accepted opinion is that we can fulfill this through having Sefarim (Jewish books) in our homes that allow us to engage with Torah study. 

The other mitzvah related to a Sefer Torah is to have it read at the gathering called Hakhel, when the entire nation would come to Jerusalem once every seven years, on the holiday of Sukkot. Those who heard the Torah would be inspired in one form or another (perhaps from what they heard, perhaps from seeing the enormous crowd, perhaps from participating in such a spectacle). While I don’t know how the entire nation would hear, in the absence of an amplification system, I imagine that somehow it worked out.

R Samson Raphael Hirsch writes about this event: 
“In a general assembly of the nation, they hear of the Divine origin of the Torah and of the obligation to fulfill it. The nation itself vouches for this, and proclaims it ever anew through its supreme representative. This consciousness, renewed in the assembly of the whole community, shall have the effect that ילמדו (“they will learn”): constant growth in the study of the Torah will become for them an exalted aim. ויראו (“And they will fear”): Both of these – the mitzvah of Hakhel in the assembly and the mitzvah of ילמדו at home – will bring them to the feat of God, which will ultimately result in the observance of the entire Torah. For on the momentous occasion of the assembly of the whole nation, they renew their awareness that one God is the God of them all, the Director of their fate and the Guide of their actions, and this awareness will heighten their fear of God and channel it toward one goal: To keep/observe all the words of this Torah.”
Rav Hirsch makes a few additional points through his commentary on these two Sefer-Torah-focused passages. Moshe tells the people to take the Sefer Torah and put it next to the Ark (some say IN the Ark) to bear witness to the truth of all of this. 
1. That he is told to give this final version of the Torah to the people indicates that what we call the Written Torah (תורה שבכתב) was originally transmitted to the people orally – for 40 years! - without being written down. (I like to point out the impossibility of the Torah we have being in their hands – imagine if the Spies and Korach crowd read the script of their rebelliousness before it happened!) Moshe wrote it down at the end of his life – leaving the subject of the authorship of the last 8 verses of the Torah (those describing his death and afterwards) as a fascinating conversation. (31:26) 
2. There is a debate as to where this Torah was kept: In the Ark, next to the Ark, or somewhere else in relative proximity to the Ark. If it was kept in the Ark, this leads to a fascinating thought. We know that the Holy of Holies was only entered one day of the year, Yom Kippur, for specific services (Avodah) related to that day. Apparently, this was an exception – once every seven years – to get out the Torah for its reading. [This view is based on a Devarim Rabbah passage] 
Rashi does note that this Torah was read from by the king at Hakhel, and the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. This begs a similar question, because the Avodat Yom HaKippurim does not include a time when the Kohen Gadol would take the Torah out of the Holy of Holies. So was it really kept in the Ark? 
Tosafos (Baba Basra 14a) rejects the idea that the Torah was kept in the Ark, and offers that the Torah in question is the one that Moshe gave to the Tribe of Levi (he is credited with distributing 13 Torahs at the end of his life, giving one to each of the twelve tribes plus Levi), which was kept somewhere in the vicinity of the Holy of Holies, but in the main sanctuary area. 
 3. This Torah was known as the Sefer HaAzarah, and was used irregularly for reading, but more regularly as the standard text to which other Torahs were compared to determine their accuracy (this is before computer programs would check Torahs). 

[2&3 are in Hirsch’s commentary on 31:11]

The perspective that has this Torah inside the Ark is fascinating because it creates one of the more bizarre exceptions to a rule that is seemingly inviolable, going into the Holy of Holies outside of Yom Kippur. [This lends for a different discussion about the Ark, which was recorded to be taken out to war on some occasions in the Bible. Since the actual Ark was at one point captured, did they subsequently create a second Ark to be used specifically for war?] If there was only one Ark, and kings would take the occasion of war to take the Ark out, did they also go into the Holy of Holies at that time to extract it?

Obviously, the perspective that the Torah was kept in a separate space is easiest to follow and understand. It is challenged, however, by the verse (31:26) which indicates that the Torah was placed either in or right next to the Ark.

Does it matter where it was? 

For us, practically, no. Whatever was done in actuality surely had a Mesorah, and I am confident that they did what was right. But it begs us to consider how we view a sacred space, and whether exceptions can be made in terms of how we treat whatever rule defines that space as sacred.

There are people who dress one way when they go about their business in any given day, but specifically when they are going into a shul, for whatever reason, dress in a manner that is more respectful to that space. I’ve heard the same be said of people who were going to visit a great Rabbi for his blessing, who are sensitive to honor his space through dressing more modestly and respectfully than they might otherwise.

More obviously, the way we conduct ourselves during davening, which is easily our most sacred space, behooves us to consider if we are respecting the space in the best way possible. We certainly stand at all the right spots, and are respectful when the Torah is carried around the room. But are we always equally respectful when the Torah is on the table and when it is being read? And in the space for prayer, do we engage in conversations that are idle or irrelevant to our task at hand? Or perhaps, irreverent to the space designated to communicating with our Creator?

The Torah being read at Hakhel and on Yom Kippur was meant to be a great inspirational moment in time, perhaps exacerbated by its rarity in the scheme of things. [I like to compare Hakhel to the Siyum Hashas of Daf Yomi, which takes place around every 7.5 years and is inspirational to tens of thousands of people, even those who don’t study Daf Yomi.] We hear the Torah so regularly, thank God, which lends itself to too much familiarity, that we forget how amazing an experience it ought to be. 

Let us embrace the Torah reading, every time, with a newfound awe of what is taking place when the Torah is on the Shulchan in the shul – it is the time we have the blessed opportunity to hear the Word of God. What an incredible privilege that is!

Friday, September 1, 2023

Blessing Comings and Goings

Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

I was very young when I first went to sleepaway camp. When the bus pulled up to camp, the first thing I noticed was a sign that said “ברוך אתה בבאך – Camp Munk.” I don’t recall if at that time there was a similar sign sending those leaving on their way with “ברוך אתה בצאתך,” but certainly in later years until today, the sign has been updated, made much nicer, and is double sided with the double sentiment of the verse that is found in our Parsha, blessing you when you come, and blessing you as you leave. (Devarim 28:6)

The fourteen verses which precede the lengthy Rebuke (Tokhacha) include a number of beautiful sentiments that are promised to us if we take care to observe the law and fulfill the Mitzvos of the Torah. Included in that group of commitments is that “the nations of the world will see that God’s Name is upon you, and they will fear (and therefore respect?) you.” (28:10)

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein explained that the word translated in the previous sentence as “see” (in Hebrew it’s וראו) would be better translated as “understand” – that the nations will understand why God’s Name is upon you. This comes from a perspective that considers multiple meanings of the verses which surround it, while heavily focused on the verse with which we began.

 What is intended when blessing “you when you come and when you leave?” Is there anything to glean from a somewhat related verse we are familiar with from Tehillim – ה' ישמר צאתך ובאך מעתה ועד עולם? 

Let us consider a few possibilities. 
1. Combining teachings from Bava Metzia 107b and Taanis 5b, one understanding is that the blessing on coming (באך) refers to “you” (your existence in this world) while the blessing on leaving (צאתך) refers to “your children” who are צאצאיך, those who have come out of you. 
2. The blessing is on your comings and goings in business (Midrash Rabba). Rabbi Epstein notes that the order should be reversed if it were referring to the normal order of business. But because the blessing is meant to be eternal, it isn’t presented as your goings (as in, out to business) and your comings (as in returning home from work) which would represent a day in time. It references first your return home, and then your going out, because after your return home (באך) you will do it all over again in the morning, when you leave (צאתך) to engage with the world. Contrast that to David’s imagery of God watching over us day in and day out, which is presented based on one’s leavings and returnings, and seems to be looking out for safety in general, rather than specific success. 
 3. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 107b) has several interpretations, including “that your exit from this world should be like your entrance into this world – just as you entered without sin, so should you leave without sin.” This is an exhortation to be constantly improving, considering, and making choices that increasingly reflect of a more Godly existence. 
 4. The passage in Sanhedrin 7b puts the following thought into someone’s mind: “If only my comings were like my leavings” which refers to how a judge goes out to court to serve in that capacity. He is thinking, “If only I return to my home the way that I left it – just as I left not having sinned (or erred in the court), I hope to return not having sinned or not have issued an incorrect ruling.” Once we’re going this route, the verse could easily refer to one’s coming and going to and from the Bet Din as well: “I hope to come to the court with no sin, and to leave it without sin (or error)” 
5. Finally, Rabbi Epstein reminds us of the Mishnah in Avos which reminds us that this world is simply a hallway leading into the next world, which is compared to a banquet hall. Therefore, the blessing is that your exit into the banquet hall should be like the entrance into the hallway. Just as we enter this world without sin, we should merit to leave this world without sin.

This is far less a morbid reminder of our mortality and much more a reminder of how we are to aim to live our Jewish lives. 

 There are stories of enemies of the Jewish people who have observed that many Jews (tragically) live lives without God. These enemies, who very often believe in God, have stated that if the Jews abandon their God, He will not protect them, He will not preserve their rights to the Land of Israel and will not fulfill the promises to which He might otherwise be bound. 

There is likely much truth to that, and it is certainly a reminder of what our task in this life is all about. This goes back to the interpretation of 28:10, that if we don’t have respect for our own life-mission, how or why would anyone else? 

This is not to suggest that all of the Jewish people are guilty of such disregard for our relationship with the Almighty. Such a claim would be libelous!

The point is that while we can easily look at the blessing as meaning that God is blessing our comings and goings, in the manner we usually use that term, it is also possible that the verse is referring to our entrances into this world (whether us and our children) or is referring to our place in the world as ruled by the cosmos. 

 We absolutely have a task in this world, to live lives that are defined as Kiddush Hashem – a living sanctification of God’s name. Whether that refers to our behavior vis a vis neighbors, whether it refers to how we are to conduct ourselves in worldly or in spiritual affairs, or whether it means we have to simply abide by the Torah’s rules and represent God (this is not an exhaustive list of Kiddush Hashem options), we entered the world, and we expect to leave it one day. We enter life situations, and we move on from them. 

Just as the summer camp indicated, you should be blessed during your time here, the parting words affirm “You were blessed when you came, you’ve been blessed from your time spent here, and we hope and wish that you will be blessed as you turn on and move on to the next stage of life – whatever that may be and wherever you may find yourself.” 

Perhaps most importantly, we should see this as such a defining element of our life mission, that through our living it out, we should be blessed to be the example that the nations see and therefore come to understand of our special relationship with God.

Blessed you are when you come, and blessed you will be as you depart to the next stop on your physical, spiritual, and soul’s journey. Amen.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Process of Eradicating Infractions

Parshat Ki Tetze

by Rabbi Avi Billet

“Hit me, don’t lecture me!” That’s one I learned to say as a child. 

 “Can I just get off with a ‘slap on the wrist?’” That one is a little more common for us to say, or for the biased media to say when they feel someone did not get the right punishment for an indiscretion or infraction. 

 Anyone who has ever been pulled over while driving has surely had a thought process that looks something like this. “I wasn’t speeding. OK, maybe a little. But come on. I was going with the flow of traffic. We all know the cop has an agenda. He has ticket quotas. Man, why is he taking so long? OK OK. Be calm! Smile. Say the right thing, and maybe he’ll let me go off with a warning.” Then the officer shows up, and asks the entrapment question, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Of course not 😊! I’m such a careful driver! Maybe you can let me off with a warning? 

 “I could,” the officer might say, “but would you really learn your lesson?” 

Among the many mitzvos delineated in Parshat Ki Tetze we have a warning to “be mindful of the affliction of tzara’as, to be very careful and to do [what is required], as the Kohanim have instructed – whatever they have been commanded is what you should be doing. Remember that which Hashem, Your God, did to Miriam, on the road as you left Egypt.” (24:8-9) 

Rashi justifiably points to this as a warning against saying Lashon Hora. After all, Miriam having spoken Lashon Hora is what caused her to get Tzara’as (or is it? Could she have gotten tzara’as because she acted in a haughty manner? See the list of what causes tzara’as on Arakhin 16a) 

Netziv, however, feels that Rashi’s comment does not align with the peshat (simple understanding) of what the verse is saying. The text enjoins us to remember what God did to Miriam, not what Miriam did to deserve that outcome. Which lends itself for us to understand that this is all about, as verse 8 aptly points out, taking the affliction of tzara’as seriously. 

 Recalling his commentary on that narrative in Bamidbar 12, he notes that when Aharon turned to Moshe to be forgiving of the conversation Miriam and Aharon had, he asked Moshe to be considerate and to not view whatever had been said as Motzi Shem Ra (reputation-destroying, literally ‘giving a person a bad name,’ sometimes referred to as ‘slander’), which is a sin far worse than the general category of Lashon Hora. 

 Atonement for Motzi Shem Ra only comes about through the entire “Torah” of tzara’as, which includes all of the laws being followed through, and not merely through simply having the affliction. 

 God, it appears, did not accept Aharon’s request, which indicated that she simply have the affliction and everyone move on. God said, “Let her be isolated for a week!” which is the punishment for the Motzi Shem Ra, even though she had spoken errantly and mistakenly about Moshe, surely without real malice. 

 The reason she was held to this high standard, even if her intent was not mean, is because אדם מועד לעולם – a person is always responsible for one’s deeds, whether an action done on purpose or even by accident (through שוגג, a form of irresponsibleness). This is one reason why people are responsible for negligence, or for outcomes they did not intend… one has to consider potential outcomes before engaging in situations which may be unpredictable. Things happen, all the time. Life consists of much clean-up post mess-making (both in the literal sense and in the non-literal sense). Whatever emerges from people’s choices needs to be dealt with, especially when the consequences have been negative.

 The verse, therefore, is reminding us to take the laws of tzara’as seriously, and not to think that getting the affliction means the deed is in the past, it is over, and we can move on. Even the great Miriam essentially tried to get off with a warning, with a slap on the wrist, but God said, “No. She has to go through the process.” Clearly it wasn’t over right away, and there was no “moving on” without a purging process. 

 An interesting question to ask is why Aharon did not get Tzara’as if he was involved in the conversation with Miriam. It could be that the tzara’as did not come because of the Lashon Hora, but because of the haughtiness of the comments, as noted above. If that is the case, Aharon is not responsible. However, the Sifrei – Midrash Halakha on Bamidbar – tells us that Aharon DID get tzara’as. Rabbi Akiva in the Gemara Shabbos 97a says this as well, though he is criticized by Rabbi Yehuda Ben Beseira for suggesting so. When Aharon saw it on himself, it immediately went away. But when he turned to Miriam he was the one who noticed it on her, so it didn’t depart right away. (There is a big halakhic concern over how her tzara’as could be diagnosed. It is supposed to be diagnosed by a Kohen. Moshe was not a Kohen. And while Aharon was a Kohen, a. because he was a nogea b’davar (directly involved), as well as b. being directly related to her, no one could diagnose her! Rabbenu Bachaye suggests that God Himself diagnosed her. And while it is unclear how long she had tzara’as, it seems that her tzara’as was gone pretty quickly, on account of Moshe’s prayer for her. 

 This lends much support to Netziv’s premise that it’s not so much about the tzara’as – that’s the slap on the wrist. That’s the warning. 

The most important thing is the process, and what God really did to Miriam is make sure that she’d be isolated for a week, and that the nation would not travel until her isolation ended. 

This analysis makes the concept of tzara’as so much more relevant to us, as we live in a time when tzara’as is not part of our experience, but the sins that could have led to tzara’as, aside from Lashon Hora, are murder, swearing in vain, immorality, haughtiness, theft and stinginess, at least some of which, to varying degrees, may be part of our experience. 

 In our process of teshuva leading into the High Holidays, perhaps we can ask ourselves if any tzara’as-inducing behaviors are part of our experience. And if so, perhaps we can consider imposing a form of the “tzara’as process” upon ourselves to help eradicate that behavior from our arsenal.

If the Torah is to be relevant, this kind of warning must be heeded. I imagine most of us are grateful that tzara’as, which is annoying, inconvenient, not to mention extremely embarrassing, is not something we encounter. But the process of eradicating unfortunate behaviors that we know are bad for ourselves and our neshamas should and could be very much a part of our teshuva-oriented behaviors in the coming weeks, if not at all times in the year. 

 May we be blessed to be able to recognize the areas in which our improvement is warranted, and may we take the steps that will give us the satisfaction we would get out of overcoming the ways our Yetzer Hora tries to bring us down.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Defining To’Evah – What to Avoid

See here for a different treatment of this Pasuk

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

1You shall not sacrifice to the Lord, your God, an ox or a sheep that has in it a blemish, any bad thing, for that is an abomination to the Lord, your God.


אלֹֽא־תִזְבַּח֩ לַֽיקֹוָ֨ק אֱ-לֹק֜יךָ שׁ֣וֹר וָשֶׂ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם כֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֣ר רָ֑ע כִּ֧י תֽוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְקוָ֥ק אֱ-לֹק֖יךָ הֽוּא:

The Hebrew word translated above as “abomination” is to’evah, a word which is hard to pin down to a single word in translation. It has been translated as “taboo,” “loathsome,” “distasteful,” in different contexts, and reflects on things which are either socially “off” or unacceptable, or seriously problematic in God’s eyes, perhaps on account of their ungodliness, dishonesty, or a smack-in-the-face to God’s expectations of humanity.

Without going into detail on each, there are a number of categories of actions either described or forbidden in the Torah as being To’evah, which include missionary and idolatrous activities, certain sins of sexuality (including cross-dressing) when a person engages in such activity with certain entities forbidden either in general or in case-specific situations (such as a divorced man remarrying his ex-wife after she’d subsequently married another man), cheating in business, eating non-kosher animals, and utilizing witchcraft for any purpose. 

While those categories are relatively clear, in Egypt, for Egyptians to be eating with Yosef’s brothers (Hebrews) was considered a to’evah (perhaps “taboo”). Shepherds were considered to’avat Mitzrayim (Bereshit 46:34) when Yosef was trying to get his brothers out of working for Pharaoh, in hopes they’d be left alone to their own work when living in Goshen. Along similar lines, a lamb was considered to’avat Mitzrayim, and was a concern in Shmot 8:22 of how “we could eat it as part of an offering to God and not be stoned!” 

The word also appears in different contexts in other books of the Bible, enlarging the conundrum over its accurate translation. Yeshayahu refers to insincere offerings as to’evah. The prophet Yechezkel (ch. 8) refers to to’evot that were employed in the desecration and profanation of the Mikdash. 

Mishlei (Proverbs) has a number of examples of behaviors that are to’evot. A violent or perverse person (3:32, 16:5), haughty eyes/brazenness or someone who incites quarrels (6:16 – see commentaries) – this is in addition to 6 behaviors that “God hates” (listed in the surrounding verses), stubbornness (11:20), lying (12:22), offerings of the wicked (which is not necessarily referring to idolatry – 15:8), evil thoughts (15:26), one who justifies evil or who makes paints a righteous person as being wicked (17:15). 

In Mishlei, to’evah clearly refers to regrettable behaviors on many fronts. 

The verse in our parsha (quoted at the top) seems to imply that bringing a blemished animal on the Mizbeach as an offering is a “to’evah” – a detestable act. Surely, some to’evahs do not need explanation for how heinous they are, while others are of a different nature, lending us to wonder if they are all truly in the same category. 

What is most interesting, however, is how our verse presents the To’evah in question. Note the comma in the translation “an ox or a sheep that has in it a blemish, any bad thing” and be aware that the word for “thing” in Hebrew is דבר, which can also be understood to mean “word.” 

Rashi suggests that the To’evah comes about because someone causes the offering to become piggul – a disqualification usually associated with intention – brought on in this case through improper speech – thus the phrase means “any bad word/speech” and is an addition to the disqualified korban. This theme is advance by Baal Haturim as well, who writes לומר לך כל המנבל פיו נקרא תועבה ושנאוי – “Anyone who filths one’s mouth is called to’evah and one who is detested.” The term nivul peh refers to one’s errant speech, which he further extends to one’s speech and thoughts associated with committing the crime/sin of idolatry. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (a super-commentary on Rashi) also extends the deficiency in speech to the realm of evil thoughts of a similar nature. 

It could be argued that the word “To’evah” references something that is to be avoided. Sometimes it is an action. Sometimes it is a form of behavior. Sometimes it is certain company. In one case it refers to an Egyptian deity that Egypt would want us to avoid slaughtering. 

At the very least, the door Rashi and Baal HaTurim open for us is a reminder that our speech is powerful. We can ideally use our speech in a positive way, to uplift people, to engage in prayer, to utilize our words to share knowledge and ideas. We can also, unfortunately, find ourselves in the pitfall of using our speech in a manner which is presented as to’evah, whether disqualifying an offering, or, in the realm of human-to-human, breaking down relationships and friendships. The examples from the book of Mishlei should be particularly instructive as we aim for improvement in ourselves. 

As we enter the month of Elul, we should want to avoid being guilty of violating to’evot of every type. If we remind ourselves that close to 1/3 of the sins to which we confess our guilt in the Viduy of Yom Kippur are related to matters of speech, there’s no better reminder than this early-in-our-parsha teaching of Rashi, the day after Rosh Chodesh Elul, that we can always improve in our speech-choices. In this way, the to’evot of speech can be removed from our experience. 

May our attention to this matter serve as a merit for us and our community. May we be reminded of the words of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan at the end of his introduction to his book “Chafetz Chaim”: 

גם לבד זה ידוע הוא מה שהובא במדרש רבה פרשת נשא, וזה לשונו: אם יגעת הרבה בדבריהם, הקדוש ברוך הוא מסיר יצר הרע ממך. על כן אמרתי אל לבי, אפשר שעל ידי שיעיינו בספר הזה שהוא מלוקט מכל דברי הראשונים בענין זה ויתבוננו בו, לא ישלוט כל כך היצר הרע בעון זה. וממילא כשימשוך מתחלה את עצמו מעון זה במקצת, בהמשך הזמן ימשוך את ידו ממנו לגמרי, כי בעון זה הרבה ממנו ההרגל עושה, והבא לטהר מסייעין אותו. ובזכות זה ובא לציון גואל במהרה בימינו אמן.

“The Midrash Rabba on Naso writes: If you work hard at these things, the Holy One removes your yetzer hara. This is why I told myself that it is possible through people studying this work [which informs people of proper speech choices] which compiles all the words of the Rishonim on this subject [Lashon Hara], and people understand it, then the yetzer hara won’t have as much influence in [encouraging] this sin. Inevitably when a person draws oneself away from this sin step by step, eventually a person will eradicate this sin from oneself altogether. This sin is worse in those who regularly engage in it. Yet one who actively seeks to purify oneself is helped [by God] in that endeavor. And in this merit, the Redeemer should come to Zion speedily in our days, Amen!”

Friday, August 11, 2023

Tempering Craving Through Yirat Shamayim

 Parshat Re'eh

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

In verse 12:20, Moshe Rabbenu tells the people of one thing that will happen when they are in the land, enjoying prosperity, and when the land’s borders have expanded such that making a pilgrimage to the Midash is not a simple venture (whereas in the wilderness it was much easier to get to the Mishkan). “You will say ‘I will eat meat’ because your soul craves meat…” and then you are to go about preparing meat for yourself per the Torah’s allowance. 

 [Some vegans like to point to this verse as indicating that the Torah’s ideal is not to eat meat. There is an element of truth to the notion, as mankind originally was not permitted to eat meat until after the flood. But it is disingenuous to suggest that the Torah paints veganism as an ideal. Any sacrificial offering which was not completely burned was slated to be eaten (in part) by some people – whether the Kohanim or those bringing the offering. This leaves us with aiming at understanding what Moshe meant in telling us of desiring meat because of a craving.] 

Rashi notes that this verse is teaching us “derekh eretz,” that the only reason a person should desire meat is if one can afford it. There is no rhyme, reason, or allowance to have meat unless it works with one’s budget. Certainly in antiquity it meant that a person who had many animals and could therefore afford to have one slaughtered every now and then could have meat on occasion! [I learned in Mount Vernon how meat would be preserved in pre-freezer and refrigeration days]. 

Rashi also notes that regular meat was forbidden to the people in the wilderness, unless an animal was brought as a Korban Shelamim. This answers why lack of meat was a complaint for the people at times, and why they didn’t simply slaughter their animals for food. It also explains why Moshe is giving them a snapshot of how life will be a little different when they are in the land.

Kli Yakar (R Shlomo Efraim Luntshitz) adds the following critique of those who allow their desires to control them. “[the verse is] teaching that a person only seeks out one’s desires on account of significant expansion. As the Talmud in Brachos 32a says, ‘A lion roars over a basket of meat [from which he derives pleasure].’ The expansion of your borders will lead to the removal of the mask of shame leading one to [boldly] say ‘I will eat meat!’ This looks quite similar to the casting off of the yoke of heaven… The reason for this is because you’ll have become distanced from the place God will have chosen. Those who are closer to that place, who have the opportunity to go there, have greater ‘fear of the kingdom of heaven.’ Unfortunately, those who are further away are inevitably distanced from the Almighty, and therefore have desires, and no shame for wanting this, and no hesitation to declare ‘I want meat!’ So I am allowing the consumption of meat, but not at all times… only when you truly crave it.”

What is implied in this comment is that a certain amount of control is in order when it comes to meat-eating habits because the more one indulges in feeding this craving, the more one negatively impacts one’s fear of heaven. 

 It is not a farfetched stretch to expand such a thought towards the filling of any desires that expand beyond our most immediate needs. One look no farther than the most righteous people we imagine, whether from our generation or from recent generations, to see that their ways of living were often of the most meager kind, whether living in small apartments or modest homes, and of course of subsisting on far more minimal meals than the kinds we typically imagine. 

While their choices are not for everyone, certainly we can learn from their simplicity of a kind of ideal it is to focus on what are basic needs versus what is way beyond anything we need. This is far less a knock on having normal meals and more a critique of excess. 

Even when it comes to eating, one can simply do an Internet search for the “20 minute rule of eating” to learn that if we very reasonably fill (not overfill) our plate, slowly consume its contents, then wait 20 minutes before going back for a second helping, since it takes 20 minutes for the message to get from the stomach/gut to the brain that “we have what we need down here! No need for seconds!” one who doesn’t wait that long can easily overfill to the point of unintended excess! 

When it comes to other arenas of fulfilling desires, Rashi is reminding us that we must be careful not to go beyond our means. This certainly means we are to avoid keeping up with the Joneses, but even if we can, we are to avoid being the Joneses! Excess [if we use meat as a metaphor for it] is a craving that is to be caved in to on very irregular occasion. 

This goes back to the important statement shared with us by the prophet Micha (ch. 6) that a goal in life is to be הצנע לכת – to walk humbly with God. Walking humbly as a human being visavis God should be relatively easy. As we note in our prayers, and particularly in the coming High Holiday prayers, we know that we are nothing in comparison to God. Walking humbly as a human being visavis other humans is sometimes a little more of a challenge. We like our things. Sometimes we like showing people our things. We give tours of our homes to our guests. We talk about the wonderful trips we’ve been on.

All of which simply suggests that there is a delicate balancing act between enjoying God’s world and displaying our accomplishments for all to know about. And of course, it is always worth noting that those who are blessed by God with more are privileged to be able to fulfill tzedakah-oriented Mitzvos which have an incredible benefit of increasing one’s Yirat Shamayim

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was once going on a vacation to Switzerland. When asked why he was going he remarked, “When it is time for me to face the Almighty, I want to be able to answer in the affirmative when He asks me, ‘Samson, did you see My Alps?’”

Let us enjoy God’s world that He made for us to enjoy. But let us always temper our enjoyment with humility and with limiting excess. As a combination it demonstrates having an appreciation for the role God has always played in this world, and it reminds us of the awe we are to have of Him, while exhibiting tremendous appreciation of the role He has always had and continues to have, in our ability to afford and enjoy the wonderful side of living while tempering all of our activities and purchases through the lens of Yirat Shamayim, proper reverence of heaven, and the vibe we give off to those who may be looking to us as exemplars of living a Godly existence.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Shkoiach, Yashikoiach, Y’yasher Kochakha

Parshat Ekev 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Every now and then, many of us might find ourselves saying one version of what’s written in the title. It has come to mean “Nice job!” or “Good job!” or “Well done!” or even “Thank you.” 

While I can not say for sure when the original format of this phrase appears, it does appear in several places in the Talmud and Midrash, though most commonly in the context of the breaking of the two tablets from Sinai. 

First, in the Midrash Shmos Rabba, the daughters of Yisro are credited with saying יישר כחך to Moshe after having saved them from the shepherds who were harassing them. [According to this passage, Moshe then told that an איש מצרי, an Egyptian man, was responsible for saving them, because it was the Egyptian man that he had killed that caused him to be there at that moment to save them.]

One more passage, on the last page of Yavamos, and also repeated in the Tosefta on Yevamos comprises of a story of two men traveling together and getting chased by a group of soldiers. One of them grabs a branch and shakes it wildly at the soldiers causing them to back down. The other person says to him יישר כחך for saving us! [Three days later the saver dies, and he is able to be identified by the other fellow due to their conversation, allowing the deceased’s widow to remarry (or go through yibum or chalitza). 

The most famous example, however, is of Moshe breaking the tablets, and God, when reflecting upon “what Moshe did to the tablets you broke (אשר שברת),” the Talmud (most often in the name of Resh Lakish) paints God as saying יישר כחך that you broke them. [see Avos D’Rabi Nosson chapter 2, Shabbos 87a, Yevamos 62a, Baba Basra 14b, and Menachos 99b]

 Many of the passages just referenced are raised in the context of a discussion surrounding when did Moshe do things based on instruction from God, versus when did he do something of his own volition.

The phrase referencing that God will write (or did write) the words of the first tablets on the second - עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־ הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ – appears in Shemot 34:1 and Devarim 10:2.

 How did Resh Lakish take from “אשר שברת” (the tablets that you broke) to "יישר כחך ששברת" (good job that you broke them!)? The Torah Temimah writes of human nature:
 “When a person does something inappropriate off the cuff, or out of anger, it is not fair to remind the person of it, because it is a source of stress and embarrassment, for the soul is already tormented on account of the natural regret which comes from such an impulsive act. Therefore, were we to think that God did not approve of what Moshe did, there is no way He would have told him to get replacement stones, which I will write upon, “since you broke the originals.” The last piece would be obvious and would not need mention! Therefore, it must be that God approved.”
 However, the passage Rabbi Epstein quotes on the verse in Devarim 10:2 is from the Yerushalmi in Taanis 4:4, which offers a slightly different version of God’s perspective on that event:
אשר שברת - תנא רבי ישמעאל, הקדוש ברוך הוא אמר לו שישברם, שנאמר אשר שברת, אמר לו, יפה עשית ששברת 

 Rabbi Yishmael taught, the Holy One told him to break them, as it says “that you broke.” He told him, “You did well in breaking (them).”

Rabbi Epstein notes the subtlety in that the Babylonian Talmud passages have God reflecting after the fact that Moshe had chosen wisely, whereas the Yerushalmi passage suggests God had instructed him to break them. יפה עשית (the Yerushalmi’s language, versus the יישר כחך of the Bavli) is a compliment on your fulfilling instructions, rather than an after-the-fact evaluation of what had taken place. 

While he personally feels that the version found in the Bavli (Yasher Koiach) makes more sense, he notes that there is a passage in the Yalkut Shimoni on B’haaloskha which also suggests that Moshe had been commanded to break the tablets. R Meir in that passage connects the phrase in Devarim 10:2 to the final words of the verse, ושמתם בארון, that you shall place them in the Ark, as referencing the broken tablets. In other words it was part of God’s plan for the broken tablets and the second (complete) tablets to be placed in the Ark. In this way, there is symbolism to the broken and complete tablets being placed in the same Ark (which is a topic for a different time). But Moshe was instructed to break the tablets. 

With this in mind, Rabbi Epstein presents results of this discussion based on the debate between R Meir and R Yehuda in that Yalkut passage. R Yehuda is of the opinion that Moshe broke them on his own, thereby deserving a יישר כח, while R Meir feels Moshe was fulfilling a direct Mitzvah, and there is no reason to give a יישר כחך to someone who fulfills a Mitzvah.

If this is true, then one must wonder about our own usage of the phrase. Regardless of the fact that people butcher it in their pronunciation (with apologies to those who use either of the first two options presented in the title above), it has become a term of endearment. Yet, it is most often said in shul, for example, after a person has an Aliyah, or any Kibbud for that matter, or a Kohen who blesses the people. According to R Meir, this might not be the right time, when someone is fulfilling one’s responsibilities of one’s own accord! Certainly there are other contexts in which it is recited, such as as a thank you or an acknowledgment of some kindness rendered.

 Far be it from me to say it is “inappropriate” to say it in certain contexts, but visavis the way it is presented in the Talmud as God saying it, it is in the context of Moshe taking initiative to do something which turned out to be a good thing, the right thing, when there was no commandment involved. In contrast, being told that one has done well when one is simply fulfilling one’s obligations (mitzvos) as a Jew may possibly be viewed as cheapening the mitzvah! We do mitzvos because we are commanded to by God, and surely not for acknowledgment by our fellow Man.

May we merit to fulfill mitzvos for the sole purpose of fulfilling God’s will. And may our own-initiative actions which prove to be good ones after the fact result in appropriate compliments and acknowledgments when warranted. Clearly the first two examples of the usage of the phrase demonstrate someone taking initiative to do something which turns out well for the good guys in the end. For us, certainly being kind towards others with our words is always appropriate.

Did it? Yashikoiach!!!

Friday, July 28, 2023

Knowing God - is it Possible?

Parshat Va'Etchanan

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The verse in the latter half of Chapter 4 reads as follows:
 (לט) וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֘ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְקֹוָק֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד: 
“And you shall know today, and you shall return to your heart that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is no other.” 

 This verse is one which appears in our liturgy several times, including in Aleinu, and is therefore quite familiar to us.

In the Rav Peninim Chumash, the author uses this verse as a springboard for a mini-essay entitled “A teaching for how to serve God.” Pointing to the view that this verse is the source for the positive commandment to do our best to know God and appreciate his Oneness, he directs us to contemplate how we get to such an understanding. 

 There is an obvious acknowledgment that our ability to understand God is limited, if not impossible, and therefore the Torah instructs us to “return to your heart,” much like a person would meditate over a concept, consider different ways of understanding something, and arrive at conclusions that are the closest thing to truth after everything else may seem to be out of the realm of reality. This is different than the way we hear people speak today where they may claim to speak “their truth” or “my truth.” When it comes to God there is ONE truth, though when it comes to God there is also a significance to what one’s personal relationship with God might be. 

 The parallel is drawn to Eliyahu HaNavi who, in his mystical encounter with God at Mt Horeb, came to the conclusion that God was not in the wind, and not in the noise, not in the fire, but in the still, silent voice. What this even means is hard for us to grasp, but for Eliyahu, in that moment in time and in that special place, it gave him to confidence to realize that God was with him and that his worries over how King Achav would treat him, even with a price on his head, were irrelevant, as Eliyahu understood where God is, and what God is and how His plans for Eliyahu would determine the remainder of Eliyahu’s life, much more than Achav would figure in that outcome. 

The concern over how one will engage with God is magnified by the ever-present concern that one’s internal inclination (one’s yetzer) might steer a person in an undesirable direction, away from belief in God. The specific words of this verse covers all arenas – God is in the heavens, controlling the planets and cosmos, and He is above all angelic creatures and on the earth, in a world in which human behavior is idealized as humility and lowliness, below the lowest depths. 

There is no other is the quintessential reminder that if someone is looking for a different being to fill that void and the capacity for a God-like figure in one’s existence, one is looking for something that simply doesn’t exist in reality, even if one may conceptualize or choose to think there is something else out there.

We must at the very least understand that our concepts of God are often informed by our experience and our age. I would imagine that for many people, their developed concept of God from when they were children is one thing, while that image evolved with their own adolescence, and further developed with the person’s aging. Some view God as an old man in the sky, some as an angry, wrathful and vengeful Deity, while others view God as the ultimate comfort and source of solace. But it is not God Who changes, but we who change on a constant basis, and therefore how we relate to Him as the Almighty, All-knowing, All-seeing also changes with our own maturity. Some people question God at many turns. Some people put stock in the statement that “for the non-believer there are no answers, while for the believer there are no questions.” 

Sometimes our perspective on God is based in our needs, sometimes it’s based in our trust in Him, sometimes it is informed by things we read. It may even sometimes be informed by our anger and frustrations. What Rav Peninim is telling us is that we should never be satisfied with an immature version of God that we may have conceived at an earlier stage of life. We must “return to our hearts” to challenge ourselves to have a better connection with God, such as one informed by the verses of the Shema which appear early in chapter 6 of this Parsha as well.

Our parsha contains what I like to call the “Mission Statement of Judaism” in all of its instruction regarding our relationship with God, and the reminders of historical events that brought Bnei Yisrael to the point they are now at in history, on the cusp of entering the Land, and shortly before the death of Moshe, the man who brought them through the wilderness, through good times and bad, through thick and thin. 

Recognizing his special relationship with God is also a great reminder of the realness of God. 

 For me personally, in the dark and contemplative moments when questions like “Is all this real?” and “how do I know this is the truth?” cross my mind, one answer I often fall back on is that there were incredibly genius rabbis, in our generations, in previous generations, who dedicated their lives and all of their scholarship to delving into the Torah, exploring the furthest reaches of halakha as a guide to living the life they believed was the absolute “Emes” (truth). If they saw and recognized the truth in our way of life, who am I, who doesn’t reach their toes, to suggest they weren’t on to something, that the wholeness and fullness they saw and experienced in the vastness of the Sea of the Talmud, and the totality of Torah development they mastered was anything other than absolute truth? 

This verse is telling us we don’t need to look to other people (though some may discern meaning and depth through such exploration!) for the truth, as the ability to discern is within us, if we only recall that אין עוד, there is no other in whom to trust or to believe, as He is the ONLY ONE.

With that fundamental concept as our starting point and stepping stone, our ability to grow in our concept of God and our relationship with Him should only see success as we raise ever higher in our personal spiritual journeys, ever reaching higher in the eternal proverbial climb up the mountain that defines our goals-set existence of reaching the greatest spiritual heights available to us in our human existence.