Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shelach - Challah and the Purpose of Creation

In Parshas Shelach we read about the mitzva of hafrashas challah - setting aside a portion of our dough for the Kohanim. The Torah states (Numbers 15:17-20):
וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר: דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם בבאכם אל הארץ אשר אני מביא אתכם שמה: והיה באכלכם מלחם הארץ תרימו תרומה לה': ראשית ערסתכם חלה תרימו תרומה כתרומת גרן כן תרימו אתה: מראשית ערסתיכם תתנו לה' תרומה לדרתיכם:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you come to the land to which I am bringing you. It shall be, that when you eat from the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion for God. You shall set aside a loaf from the first of your dough; you shall set it aside like the the portion that is set aside from the threshing-floor. Of the first of your dough you shall give to God a portion throughout your generations.
Although the Biblical obligation of challah does not currently apply (and, even when applicable, it only applies in the land of Israel), there is a Rabbinic obligation to separate challah from our dough at all times and places.

The medrash (בראשית רבה א:ד) states that challah is one of a small group of mitzvos in the merit of which the world was created, and they find an allusion to creation in the use of the term "reishis" - "beginning" - in the verses quoted above.[1]

The Shelah HaKadosh (R' Isaiah Horowitz, d.1630)[2] writes that, while we can readily understand what the Sages meant when they said that the world was created for the sake of the Torah, or for Israel (as we find in Rashi on Genesis 1:1), as these refer to broad general concepts that ultimately include everything, it is difficult to understand why challah is singled out from all the other commandments as being of such significance. Clearly, the medrash is telling us that challah represents a broader concept that, when properly understood, can be seen as ultimately including the entire Torah, and, indeed, the entire purpose of Creation.

The Shelah HaKadosh answers that man is intended to serve God by fulfilling His Torah with both his body and soul, achieving such a deveikus (connection) with God and His Torah that even the physical body becomes sanctified. Yet, asks the Shelah Hakadosh, how can the physical body ever achieve a true deveikus with the spiritual as long as it is still bound to the physical need for food? How can we truly sanctify our physical bodies when, no matter what we accomplish, our inescapable appetite for food will inevitably bring us back to our physical, animal nature?

The solution to this problem, the Shelah HaKadosh writes, is that God has given us the ability to sanctify our food, so that even when we are engaging in the physical act of eating, we are actually engaged in an extraordinary act of holiness. We sanctify our food in a wide variety of ways, including the adherence to the dietary laws and the recitation of brachos (blessings) both before and after eating. There are many times when we specifically obligated to feast and rejoice with food and drink, such as in celebration of the Sabbath  and festivals. Perhaps the ultimate example of this principle was in the eating of the sacrifices in the Holy Temple.

Challah clearly represents this principle. Through the mitzva of challah we demonstrate that even our ordinary bread, being prepared for an ordinary meal on an ordinary day, is holy to God. It is only after we set aside a portion of that dough for God that we may partake of it ourselves. God, so to speak, takes part even in our most ordinary meals, for a proper Jewish home is a Temple to God, and a proper Jewish table is an altar to God, and, at a proper Jewish meal, every bite of food that we consume is a holy korban (sacrifice) to God.

Once we fully grasp this concept, we quickly recognize that this principle lays at the foundation of virtually everything we do as Jews. For a Jew, there is no fundamental conflict between the physical and the spiritual. On the contrary, our task as Jews is precisely to bring these apparently disparate elements into unity with each other through the fulfillment of the mitzvos. For the Jew, therefore, religious life is not limited to the synagogue. On the contrary, the essence of Judaism is precisely what we do outside of the synagogue, in our homes and our businesses and in the public sphere.

Thus, we can understand why the medrash says that the world was created in the merit of challah, for through the mitzva of challah we can recognize this vital principle which, ultimately, includes the entire Torah and, indeed, the entire purpose of Creation.

[1] ר' הונא בשם ר' מתנה אמר בזכות ג' דברים נברא העולם, בזכות חלה, ובזכות מעשרות, ובזכות בכורים, ומה טעם? בראשית ברא אלקים, ואין ראשית אלא חלה, שנאמר, ראשית עריסותיכם וכו'
[2] שער האותיות, ק' קדושת האכילה [ס"ז-ס"ח]

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beha'aloscha - The Sin of Miriam

At the end of Parshas Beha'aloscha (Numbers 12), we read of the incident in which Miriam is punished with tzaraas for the sin of speaking lashon hara (harmful speech) of her younger brother, Moses. (See our previous discussion of this incident.) This incident is of such significance that it is the subject of a special obligation, as stated in Deuteronomy 24:9:
זכור את אשר עשה ה' אלקיך למרים בדרך בצאתכם ממצרים:
“Remember what Hashem your God did to Miriam when you were on the road when you left Egypt.”
Towards the end of his discussion of the laws of tzaraas (Hil. Tumas Tzaraas 16:10), Maimonides explains that the primary function of tzaraas was as a "sign and wonder in Israel to warn them against lashon hara." He then makes reference to the mitzva to remember the incident of Miriam and explains:
The Torah is telling us to think deeply upon what happened to the prophetess Miriam, who spoke about her brother. For she was older than him, and she had raised him [as a child] and had endangered herself to save him from the [river], and she did not speak derogatorily of him, but simply erred in equating him to to other prophets. {Furthermore, Moses] had no objection to any of these words, as it says [in the account of the incident] (Numbers 12:3), "and the man, Moses, was very humble." And, despite all of this, she was immediately punished with tzaraas! [If even in such a case, God was so strict with regard to the sin of lashon hara, then] all the more so with regard to those foolish and wicked men who talk excessively of great and wondrous matters [i.e. they speak disparagingly of the righteous and the prophets]!
Thus, we have a special obligation to remember what happened to Miriam, and from recalling that incident, we should recognize the great severity of the sin of lashon hara. Indeed, the mere fact that there is such a mitzva is itself a matter of great significance. As the Pele Yo'etz (R' Eliezer Papo, d.1824) points out (ערך זכרונות), lashon hara is the only prohibition with such an obligation associated with it.

While the severity of the sin of lashon hara is well known and is heavily emphasized throughout all traditional Torah works, the reason for this severity is less clear. On the simplest level, one of the reasons why the severity of lashon hara is so heavily emphasized is precisely because it is a sin that is often overlooked as insignificant. While we readily recognize the severity of crimes such as murder, robbery, or even simply striking another person, and we would not hesitate to condemn someone who engages in such behavior,   when it comes to lashon hara our moral awareness often seems to be diminished. Thus, the Torah must go out of its way to emphasize, and reemphasize, over and over, the severity of this sin, and to stress that it truly is in the same moral category as murder and robbery.

Moreover, asides from the obvious moral issues involved in lashon hara, there are sources that tell us that the severity of lashon hara is rooted in the spiritual significance of the power of human speech. R' Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov (d.1809) writes (פי' נחמד על הזכירות) that the the human power of speech is a special gift from God that distinguishes us from the animals. The true purpose of this gift is for us to use it for spiritual purposes, especially the study of Torah and prayer. To, God forbid, take this Divine, spiritual gift and use it to speak lashon hara or falsehoods or any of the other sins involving speech, is therefore a basic corruption of our spiritual status as human beings.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bamidbar - The Lesson of the Degalim

The second chapter of Parshas Bamidbar discusses the division of the Jewish population in the wilderness into four camps, each containing three tribes, surrounding the camp of the Levites,  with the Tabernacle in the center. Each of these four camps was to have a degel - banner - that symbolically represented the tribes within that camp (and, according to many sources, each tribe had its own banner as well).

The midrashim and commentaries discuss the symbolism and significance of these degalim (banners), and the division of the nation into camps, at great length. However, after all the discussion, we still need to understand what purpose there was in dividing up the nation in this manner and assigning each tribe its own symbol.

Many commentaries note that this system, with the regulated division of forces and the assignment of banners and symbols, closely resembles that of a military organization. Some understand this in the simple manner that this was intended to prepare the Jewish nation for military operations upon entering the land of Israel. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that this was much more than simply a practical arrangement for pragmatic purposes. The midrashim clearly see in this division - "each man by his banner" - a spiritual lesson of profound significance. Indeed, the Medrash Tanchuma (Bamidbar 14) states that our future redemption will be in the merit of the banners (בזכות הדגלים אני גואל אתכם)!

It would seem that the basic message of the degalim was twofold. The first message of the degalim was to symbolize the unique status of the Jewish people as separate and distinct from all the other nations of the world. Thus, just like a military force moves and camps with banners, so that all who see them will know they exist to serve their king and nation, so too the Jewish people moved and camped with banners to declare that they exist to serve God. Thus, the most basic message of the degalim was that we must recognize that, like soldiers, we live to serve God and to obey His every command. It is this which sets us apart from all the other nations of the world. While every human being is obligated to serve God, just as every citizen is obligated to serve his king and nation, a Jew exists only to serve God, and every aspect of his life must be directed to that purpose.

By contrast, the second message of the degalim is that the fact that we all - as Jews - exist for the single purpose of serving God does not mean that we all are expected to serve God in exactly the same way. On the contrary, we see from the degalim that God not only acknowledges the diversity of the Jewish people but actually celebrates it. Every tribe had its own unique strengths and virtues that enabled it to serve God in its own unique fashion. Thus, the tribes camped separately, but were held together by the central camp of the Tabernacle, symbolizing the Torah, which must always remain our exclusive focus. (See my previous post: Noach - The Value of Diversity.)

When, as a nation, we truly internalize the lessons of the degalim, that we all must devote our lives to the service of God - each in our own way - then we will truly merit the coming of the redemption.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Behar-Bechukosai - The Strange Lesson of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi

In Parshas Behar we read (Leviticus 25:17):
ולא תונו איש את עמיתו ויראת מאלקיך כי אני ה' אלקיכם:
“And you shall not hurt the feelings of one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am HaShem your God.” 
This is the prohibition of onaas devarim - hurting the feelings of another Jew. Torah law prohibits us from causing suffering to our fellow Jews, even just hurting their feelings through insensitive speech.

The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni here, Vayikra Raba 33:1) tells us of an interesting object lesson that the great sage, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, used to bring this lesson home to his students:
רבי עשה סעודה לתלמידיו, הביא לפניהם לשונות רכין ולשונות קשין. התחילו בוררין את הרכין ומניחין את הקשין. א"ל, בני, כך יהא לשונכם רך אלו עם אלו!
Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] made a feast for his students, in which he brought before them [cooked dishes of] soft tongues and hard tongues. The students began to choose the soft tongues and setting aside the hard tongues. He said to them, "My sons! So should your tongues be soft with each other!"
It's a cute lesson. In fact, it almost seems too cute. The students of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were not children. They were all respected scholars in their own right, who were perfectly capable of understanding such a simple concept without using such a dramatic presentation. Why did Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi choose to make his point in such a manner?

The Chofetz Chaim
Perhaps we can understand this by reference to a public letter written by the Chofetz Chaim, R' Yisrael Meir Kagan (d.1933) in which he bemoans the existence of public strife between rabbis and Torah scholars. In the course of the letter he talks about the common tendency, especially with regard to religious disputes, for each side to justify their own behavior and to place the entire blame for the dispute on the other side. However, the Chofetz Chaim writes, this a basic error, for even if, in principle, they are indeed correct in their position, it is virtually impossible for a person to engage in such strife without falling into the trap of improper behavior and, even worse, bringing about a grave chillul Hashem (desecration of the honor of God)

In this context, the Chofetz Chaim discusses the tragic deaths of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, for whom we continue to mourn until this day, and he writes:
ואיתא בגמ׳ שעונם היה על שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. ועתה נתבונן נא, דהלא רק אונאת דברים הוא׳ והוא רק לאו בעלמא ואין חייב על זה מיתה בידי שמים, ולמה מתו? אלא שעי״ז נסבב הילול ה׳ גדול בעולם שתלמידי חכמים רבים זה עם זה ומבזים התורה ומצותיה לעין כל.
ועל זה אני אומר, מורי ורבותי, למה לא נירא מארזי הלבנון, קדושי עליון, שבודאי היה לכל אחד תירוץ בפני עצמו שאין בו אשם, ועיקר האשם על חבירו ולא עליו, ואפילו הכי אנו רואין שתורתן וקדושתן לא הגינו עליהן ושלטה מדת הדין בכולן.
The Talmud states that their sin was that they did not show proper respect for each other. Now, let us consider this. Their sin was only onaas devarim, which is an ordinary prohibition that does not bear the penalty of death by Heavenly decree. So why did they die [for this sin]? Because, when Torah scholars fight with each other it brings about a great chilul Hashem in the world, bringing public disgrace upon the Torah and its mitzvos.
And on this I say, my teachers and rabbis, how can we not be afraid [to engage in strife] when these (i.e. the students of Rabbi Akiva) Cedars of Lebanon, exalted holy men, each of whom certainly could provide a good explanation to justify their actions, and to place the blame entirely on their fellow and not on themselves, and even so, their Torah and their holiness did not protect them, and the attribute of justice was dominant over all of them.
The Chofetz Chaim is pointing out that as severe as the sin of onaas devarim is, there is an even greater obligation upon Torah scholars to avoid such behavior with each other, for such behavior causes the honor of God and His Torah to be diminished in the eyes of the world.

This was the reason for the unusual object lesson of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was the student of the later students of Rabbi Akiva. In fact, the Talmud (Kiddushin 72b) states that he was born on the day of Rabbi Akiva's death. For the generation after Rabbi Akiva, this lesson was far from a an obvious and simple lesson. They had seen, with their own eyes, how the entire world of Torah had been laid desolate  through the deaths of these great scholars. They fully understood how easy it could be to fall into the trap of strife and discord with their fellow rabbis.

They, in turn, conveyed this message to their students; one of the most prominent of whom was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Thus, for Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, this lesson was literally a matter of life and death, both for his students and for the survival of the Jewish people, for the Jewish people can only survive with the Torah. When it comes to these most basic lessons, we use every technique available to us to continually reinforce and internalize them, so that they become part of our very nature and being.

This story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi teaches us two profoundly important lessons. On the simplest level, it teaches us of the importance of speaking gently to our fellows, especially for Torah scholars. However, it also teaches us that, when it comes to learning the most basic lessons of Torah and mussar (character development), there is no such thing as a "silly" lesson. Any technique that will help us reinforce these lessons, in ourselves and in our children and students, is valid and legitimate, even if it involves making strange analogies from food.