Feb 27 2015

The Purim Menorah


Here we are, at the Shabbos preceding Purim, and what are we going to read about? Lighting the Menorah! Of course, the Torah reading concerns the lighting of the original Menorah by Aharon and his descendants in the Tabernacle and Temple, but it’s still somewhat disconcerting when Torah thoughts about “lighting the Menorah” are published at Purim — except that turning things upside down is in the spirit of Purim, after all.

Achashveirosh-HighPriest-Megilas-LesterChanukah and Purim are the two Rabbinic holidays on the Jewish calendar. What they share in common is that the rabbis perceived, in both of them, an existential threat to the Jewish people. The Greeks prohibited Torah study, circumcision, Sabbath rest and other Jewish observances, while Haman simply plotted to kill us all.

Both of them, however, began in the same place: with a repudiation of the Jewish G-d.

Megillas Esther does not begin with Haman’s elevation as chief advisor to the king, but with the huge feast made by King Achashverosh for all his subjects. Why did the king make this feast? Because, by his (mis-)calculation, seventy years had elapsed, and the Jewish exile had not ended.

He and his advisers knew the Jewish prophets had predicted exile. But they also knew that the prophets had said that this exile would last only seventy years, after which time the Jews would be permitted to return to their land. His feast was a celebration of the “fact” that the Jewish prophets had been proven wrong. This is why he dressed himself in the raiment of the High Priest, and used vessels from the Holy Temple to serve his guests. Only once it was clear to him that the G-d of the Jews had (ch”v) abandoned them, could he contemplate their annihilation.

The Greeks were the same, but they just approach the “Jewish problem” from the other side — divorce the Jews from their G-d, they said, and there will be no more Jews.

Both the Greeks and the Persians were right: the survival of the Jewish nation depends upon our attachment to G-d, both physically and spiritually. During the period leading up to Chanukah, faithful Jews were able to overcome all obstacles and reestablish the Torah’s preeminence over the Jewish nation. On Purim, the Jews rededicated themselves to G-d and Torah, and G-d saved them from danger. In both cases — whether the danger facing us is physical or spiritual — rededicating ourselves to G-d and Torah is what will guide us through.

Feb 13 2015

The Wise Men of Chelm


wise-men-of-chelmDid you know that the city of Chelm truly had wise men? Or that the stories of “The Wise Men of Chelm” were old fables, deliberately cast upon the Rabbis of Chelm to belittle its Sages?

This week’s Torah reading comprises a long list of Commandments. Immediately after receiving the Torah, it is logical that G-d would immediately tell Moshe to record several of the most critical laws. Yet almost exclusively, these laws are interpersonal in nature; the laws in this week’s reading primarily regulate how we interact with others, rather than with G-d.

The instructions discussed are introduced as “Mishpatim,” judgments. Our Sages explain that “judgments” are laws necessary for civil society — if they were not given to us by G-d, we would need to create our own laws (as governments do around the world) to prevent anarchy. But this, they explain, is the point: they were given by G-d. Not only are they as important as any other Commandment, they are primary to our relationship with our Creator.

In a famous story from the Talmud, Hillel is approached by a prospective convert who insists upon being taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel recognized that despite the ridiculous nature of the request, the questioner was motivated by a sincere desire to understand what Judaism was all about. And so Hillel told him: “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another. All the rest is commentary — go and learn!”

Hillel was not minimizing the Torah; he was encapsulating its wisdom. The Torah wants a person to be as sensitive towards the feelings of others as he or she is to his or her own. Even a servant has to be treated with dignity, and fed, clothed, and given living quarters like a member of the family.

How often have you heard that when people focus “too much” upon the rituals of Judaism, that they lose touch with its interpersonal requirements? Experience proves the opposite: that those who are truly expert at learning and understanding Jewish law are also giants of interpersonal conduct.

Here, then, is the connection to the stories told to misportray and deprecate the Rabbis of Chelm — there are actually places called Chelm in both Poland and Lithuania, and it is the latter city that featured a school which focused not only upon development of Torah knowledge, but upon Mussar, Jewish ethics and self-improvement. Even more than most, the school was devoted not merely to informing, but changing the student.

The school of Chelm, led by Rav Simcha Zissel Broyde, existed during a period when many were downplaying the treasures of Jewish wisdom. This is what led to stories designed to portray the great Rabbis of that city as fools — and the equally invalid idea that Jewish ritual somehow distracts from our obligations to each other. When we discard these misconceptions and embrace Jewish wisdom, we will find it changes not only how we pray and even how we tie our shoes, but how we regard and interact with those around us.

Feb 06 2015

Connect with a Teacher


When Yisro comes to meet Moshe and the Jewish Nation, he finds that Moshe is taking questions all day. Moshe explains that everyone who has a question about G-d’s Laws is coming to him for the answer, and everyone with a disagreement is coming to him to know who is right.

Yisro says to him that the burden is obviously too great for one person. Rather, he suggests that Moshe select judges for the nation, “judges of thousands, judges of hundreds, judges of fifties, and judges of tens” [Ex. 18:21].

Even in the desert, it wasn’t enough for there to just be Moshe, teaching the people. It had to be possible for every person to make a connection with a teacher, who could show him right from wrong. If the question was too great for the “judge of tens,” he could turn to the “judge of fifties” for the answer.

Both Moshe and Yisro were motivated by the good of the people, rather than their leader. The entire model was (and remains) one of service to the community. As Yisro said, the judges had to be upstanding, G-d-fearing individuals, people of truth who were not anxious for personal gain. Over the long term, he knew this would be even more beneficial than rare contact with Moshe himself.

The Talmud frequently points out that not everything we learn is black and white, something that one can find in a book or by listening to a lecture. The opportunity to develop a personal connection with the teacher means the opportunity to learn from simply being in their presence, and seeing how they address everyday situations. It is important to connect with a teacher and guide, a link back through Jewish history, to truly understand the majesty of our birthright.

Jan 30 2015

Everyday Miracles


everydaymiracles2This week, we read about the formation of the Jewish people. They are taken out of Egypt to form a new nation, and the first thing the Jewish people see is an open miracle: the opening of the Sea to let them cross.

Shortly after letting the Israelites go, Pharoah regretted his decision, and he and his army came chasing after them. The newly-freed Jewish people naturally feared for their lives, and, downtrodden after centuries of slavery, began to lose hope.

The Medrash says that the waters did not separate until Nachshon ben Aminadav entered up to his neck. The message was clear: although one should never rely on miracles, sometimes it’s going to take a miracle to get through. And miracles will happen.

When you think about it, all of Jewish history is a miracle. When a nation is exiled and dispersed, it fades away. When it is oppressed and hated, it is more rapidly abandoned. Its members simply dissolve into the surrounding culture. Yet the Torah tells us that despite all of these empirical truths, the Jewish people will be dispersed, will remain few in number, will find themselves hated and pursued in host countries — yet they will survive, and the message of the Torah will spread to the world.

And miracles happen.

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