Apr 11

Return on Investment

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In the Haggadah, we recount the Ten Plagues that G-d inflicted upon the Egyptians. The Toldos Adam quotes the Medrash which says that these plagues, like all of G-d’s rewards and punishments, were done “measure for measure.”

  1. The Egyptians made the Israelites carry water, and did not give them time to bathe themselves, so the water turned to blood.
  2. The Egyptians shouted and yelled at them and did not give them rest, day or night, so they were afflicted with frogs that kept them up day and night.
  3. They made them clean the markets and streets, and animal excrement is a fertile breeding ground for lice, so they were struck with lice.
  4. They made them capture dangerous animals for them, risking their lives, so there was a plague of wild animals.
  5. They made them labor alongside their animals and shepherd their animals, so their animals died.
  6. They struck them until their bodies were covered by bruises, welts, and boils, so they were afflicted with boils.
  7. They hit them with stones, so they were struck with hail — stones of ice (he adds that they are called “stones” in the Book of Joshua).
  8. They made them farm the fields, growing their grain and planting trees, so their crops were afflicted
  9. They made the eyes of Israel dark with exhaustion and sadness, so they were afflicted with darkness.
  10. Finally, they struck Israel, who G-d calls “my child, my firstborn,” so their firstborn were killed.

We also read in the Haggadah that no matter how much we already know, it is a Mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at the Pesach Seder, and the more one goes on and speaks about it, “behold, this is praiseworthy.” This translation, while accurate, is incomplete. Because the word we translate as “praiseworthy,” “meshubach,” comes from the word “shevach,” which refers to the increase and improvement in a field, vineyard or orchard, or even on top of a financial investment. The “shevach” is the profit.

Behold, this is “meshubach:” The Haggadah is telling us that if we spend extra time talking about the Exodus, describing it to our children, bringing to life for ourselves and others what it means to go from slavery to freedom, to become His Nation — this will pay dividends. There will be a profit. We and our families will be inspired not only during Passover, but throughout the year.

Our Sages also tell us that G-d’s rewards are greater than His punishments — everything is “measure for measure,” but there’s a stingy measure and a generous measure, and the latter is used for blessings. So if the plagues meted out on the Egyptians seem harsh, G-d’s blessings are much greater. When we talk “extra” about the Exodus at the Seder, says the Haggadah, we will be richly rewarded!

Mar 28

We Can Choose Our Direction

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Having discussed whether animals are pure or impure, whether they are kosher to eat or not, the Torah now turns to discuss the purity and impurity of human beings.

up-or-downYet there is a fundamental difference between the purity or impurity of man vs. animal. An animal is either kosher, or not — its state is determined from birth. And when it dies, a kosher animal becomes impure if it was not slaughtered correctly — meaning that only human intervention prevents it from becoming impure. In both life and death, an animal does not change its own state. A human being, on the other hand, can become pure or impure repeatedly throughout his or her lifetime.

This distinction between the purity of animals versus human beings is parallel to the fundamental difference in our natures. An animal is a creature of instinct; it performs the mission that G-d gave it without conscious thought. Only human beings get to choose how to behave, which is both a blessing and a curse.

A human being combines a physical body and a Divine soul, and repeatedly chooses which nature to follow. We can attach ourselves to the Divine, or (ch”v) pursue our base instincts. In death the body and soul separate — the purity of the soul leaves the impurity of the body. As a result, the corpse reflects the deepest level of impurity. Not only physical contact, but even traveling over a grave or sharing a room with a body is sufficient to make a person impure.

Throughout our lives, we, unlike the animals, can choose to make ourselves more G-dly and pure. May we always make the right choices!

Mar 21

The Sign Has it Wrong

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A friend took the attached photo at the enclosure for the collared peccary, a species native to Central and South America (as you can see on the map), in the Jerusalem Zoo. In red letters and in three languages, the sign declares: the peccary is not a pig!!

not_a_pigThere’s only one problem: the sign is wrong.

Biological taxonomy distinguishes between the Sus domesticus (domestic pig) and Pecari tajacu (collared peccary), as it does between Sus domisticus and Sus barbatus (the bearded pig) — but from a Biblical perspective, all three are certainly the “chazir,” the pig mentioned in this week’s Torah reading [Lev. 11:7]. It’s quite understandable why people make the “mistake” of thinking a peccary is a pig, because the domestic pig and peccary appear much more similar to each other than to the bearded pig, and all three look far more similar than assorted varieties of dogs (for example).

The same is true of the camel family. We might think of the camel as an animal with a hump, but all four species of the Camelid family found in the New World (llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas) have none. When you look at their faces, one would have a very hard time telling any of the four apart from dromedaries and bactrian camels.

In these cases, appearances are not deceiving. What we see with our eyes is what the Torah tells us to expect: that regardless of where you travel, you won’t be able to confuse Kosher animals with anything else. All the animals that look like camels actually are — and they all ruminate but do not have a cloven hoof [11:4]. They are, as the Torah tells us, the only domestic livestock that have this pair of characteristics. [The Torah also identifies two wild animals which ruminate but do not have cloven hooves; there is some debate about what they are.] All varieties of pig, including the peccaries, have the opposite pattern: they have cloven hooves but do not ruminate. In this, they are even more unique, as no animals, domestic or wild, share this combination.

The Talmud (Chulin 59a) takes this even a step further, from the Oral Law: you can check the mouth of an animal whose hooves have been cut off: if it has no upper front teeth and you know it isn’t a camel, it’s a Kosher animal. And of course, if you know what a pig looks like, you needn’t check the mouth: anything else that has cloven hooves is Kosher.

This is true all over the world — even on continents unknown to Eurasians until hundreds of years ago. The Torah boldly proclaimed that no other livestock have one characteristic and not the other except these two animals, which no tribe wandering the Middle East at the time could possibly have known. The Torah even knew that the peccary, a family of animals found only in the New World, is indeed a pig!

Mar 14

Challenging the Obvious

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Purim_graggerOne of the recurring themes of the Book of Esther is that what we see, what we may believe to be obvious, may be quite the opposite of reality. The very name “Esther” (whose original name was Hadassah) means “hidden” — similar to the verse we find in the Torah, when G-d says “Hasther Astir es panai” — “I will surely hide My face” [Deut 31:18] when the Jews turn away from G-d. The very presence of G-d is hidden throughout the story of Purim, and His name is never mentioned in the Megillah. Instead, when reference is made to “the King” rather than “King Achashverosh,” the commentaries often explain that there is a double meaning: both Achashvesrosh, and the King of Kings.

When we read the Book of Esther, what reason do we see for the King’s decree authorizing the annihilation of the Jewish people? The obvious blame falls upon Mordechai, the scholar. Haman, the King’s closest advisor, walked through the streets and expected everyone to bow before him. Mordechai alone refused to bow, because Haman wore an idol around his neck. How foolish! How extremist! Isn’t it obvious that Haman wanted people to bow to him, not the idol? And because of his obstinate behavior, Mordechai got Haman so angry that Haman planned to kill off not just Mordechai, but all the Jews.

But that, say our Sages, is the opposite of the true cause. It was not Mordechai’s actions that nearly brought about a catastrophe still greater than the Holocaust (for there were no Jews who were not under Achashverosh’s rule), but the behavior of those who did not listen to him!

The Megillah begins with the great party thrown by Achashverosh. This is included not simply because it precipitated the death of Queen Vashti, and thus set the stage for Esther to become Queen. Rather, this party was to celebrate Ashashverosh’s power, and the fact that G-d had abandoned the Jews. Our prophets had foretold a seventy year exile, and Achashverosh miscalculated at what point the seventy years began. By his calculation, the time had elapsed and the Jews had not been redeemed. This is why he showed up wearing the holy vestments of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, and used the vessels taken from the Holy Temple as the serving utensils at the party!

Mordechai said that no one could go to this party, that it would indicate disloyalty to G-d and lack of faith that He would fulfill his promise. But most of the Jews said, how can we express disloyalty to the king? He promised kosher food, and that no one would have to eat or drink anything they didn’t want to consume — so not going would be ungrateful as well. And so they went. And this, the Sages say, is what actually set the stage for their destruction. What saved them was when they admitted their error, even missing the Passover Seder to fast, as Esther commanded Mordechai to tell them to do.

Sometimes things can appear to be very obvious, yet the truth is just the opposite. Without looking deeper and turning to wise counsel, we could make a terrible mistake. “Venehapech Hu,” “it was all reversed,” doesn’t just refer to Haman’s decree — it means reality may be the opposite of what we perceive!

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