May 29 2015

We Live to Give

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selflessThe Talmud [Rosh Hashanah 17b] records an exchange between Bluriah, a convert, and the Rabbis. She questioned an apparent contradiction: the Torah says that G-d does not show favor [Deut. 10:17], but the Kohanim bless the nation in this week’s reading [Num. 6:26] that G-d should show favor to them. How, she asked, can this be?

Rebbe Yossi HaKohen provided Bluriah with a parable: imagine a person standing before the King and promising to pay a debt by a certain time — and swearing to do so on the King’s life. The time comes and goes, and the debt remains unpaid. The debtor comes before the King to assuage his anger, and the King says to him: “I forgive the embarrassment, but now go deal with your friend!”

The Rabbi explained that the situation is the same before the King of Kings. If a person sins against G-d, G-d can be asked to show favor. But between people, He cannot be bribed, He cannot show favoritism.

In this week’s reading, we also see an outstanding example of people not trying to earn favoritism from HaShem. This week’s reading recounts the individual offerings of the heads of the tribes, at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. Over and over again, we read the very same words — because each offering was the same as every other.

The Medrash says that although the Nasi, the leader of the tribe, of Reuven wanted to bring his offering second after Yehudah, HaShem commanded that the tribes should follow the way they camped in the desert — thus placing the tribes of Yissacher and Zevulun, which traveled under the flag of Yehudah, ahead of Reuven, the second of the four tribes with their own flag.

The Medrash explains that the head of Yissacher was told to bring second, because the tribe of Yissacher told all the tribes what to offer. What does this Medrash mean? What was so special about this offering, “a silver platter, weighing 130 shekels, and a silver basin, weighing 70 shekels, both filled with fine flour mixed with oil…” which was duplicated by all the tribes?

One answer given is that the duplication was the advice.

We have a natural instinct to be different — and to be better. But if someone is “outperforming,” that means that others are not. And indeed, sometimes it feels like there is a competition to “keep up with the Joneses,” and to outdo them.

This is exactly what the head of the tribe of Yissacher, Nesanel ben Tzuar, chose not to do. On the contrary, he chose to precisely duplicate Nachshon ben Amminadav’s offering of the previous day, so that none try to outdo the other. Otherwise, one would add upon the other, until the twelfth Nasi was bringing all he owned!

Nesanel ben Tzuar emulated the behavior of HaShem Himself, as found in the Medrash concerning Bluriah. HaShem does nothing for Himself — we have nothing to give Him except the opportunity to receive His Kindness. Nesanel ben Tzuar similarly cared not for himself, but only to avoid favoritism, any preference of one Nasi over the others.

We are enjoined to emulate HaShem and His attributes — but we might not have thought about the desire to outperform in that context. Obviously, in constructive matters like the workplace, and all the more so learning Torab, we should strive to do “better than ever.” But even for the best of purposes, we shouldn’t try to outspend others.

May 21 2015

First Time Reader

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first-time-readerSomeone asked me a question today on a passage in the Torah. In the middle of our discussion, he felt he needed to excuse his ignorance as a beginner. He said, “This is the 1st time I’m reading this text!” To that I responded, “Beautiful — I wish it was my first time reading the text, too.”

When the Torah writes of the arrival of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, it says “Today they came to the desert of Sinai (Exodus 19:1).” Why didn’t it say “On that day they came..” since it is a historical account? The commentary of Rashi writes, “Because the words of Torah should be new to you like they were given today.”

When I study the Torah, I’m tempted to filter the verses through my own previous conception of what the text means. I’ve read it a number of times over the years, and I’ve developed some conclusions in my mind about the messages being conveyed. In addition, I have previous life experience, including performing the Torah’s Commandments, which can also give me preconceived notions about the message to be found in the verses.

In either case, I can end up imposing my impressions on the text. If, instead, I exercise humility, set my previous knowledge aside, and open my mind solely to what the text is saying, it is likely I will come much closer to comprehending the message of the text, or a new facet that I had not seen before.

If the Torah were introduced to the world today, for the first time, it would be much easier to open our minds and hearts to its message. We’d be cracking open a new book, from a new Author, with the excitement inherent in learning something completely new. The text itself would have a chance to speak. That is why the words of Torah should always be new to us, as if they were given today.

In the holiday prayers, Shavuos is called “The time of the giving of our Torah.” Our holiday celebrations do not simply mark the time that things happened in the past — rather, G-d renews the spiritual benefits of each day in its time. On Shavuos, we can feel a spark of the original experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai. Each year, it is as if the Torah is being given again, anew. Shavuos provides us the opportunity to receive the Torah as if it were a brand-new book, and to make a new commitment to listen to the direct message of the Author, G-d Himself.

May 15 2015

A Triple Promise, Fulfilled

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Our reading this week begins with an unusual juxtaposition: “HaShem spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them that when they come to the land which I am giving them, they shall let the land rest, a Sabbatical for HaShem.” [Lev. 25:1-2]

Here Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) asks a question, which has been repeated countless times as an expression meaning “what has one thing to do with the other?” “Ma Shmitta Etzel Har Sinai?” — What do the laws of Shmitta, the Sabbatical of the Land, have to do with Mt. Sinai more than any other Mitzvah? The entire (Oral) Torah was given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai — so why the emphasis on Shmitta?

The Chasam Sofer offers the possibility that Shmitta has a unique relationship, for it tells us something about the authenticity of the Sinai experience. Why? Because Shmitta offers a guarantee that the land will produce in the sixth year to cover not merely the sixth and seventh, but the eighth year as well.

The Kli Yakar elaborates on this point. We all understand the basic ideas of crop rotation. After two or three years of use, the crops have drawn out the nutrients and left the field “weakened.” Prior to modern fertilization techniques, it was necessary to leave the field barren for a year so that it could recover those nutrients.

The Torah tells the Nation of Israel to “break the rules.” First of all, it tells people to plant the field continuously for six years, and that the field will continue producing. But even more, the Torah promises a triple crop in the sixth year, precisely when the field should be practically useless!

The Chasam Sofer asks a simple question: “Who could ever promise, ‘I have Commanded my blessing upon the land, and it will produce a crop to last three years?'”

If we were to sit down and write a Bible, would we make this promise? How long would we last if we did? At the very least, let’s promise the triple crop in the eighth year… then we can claim that people didn’t follow us, and thus didn’t get the blessing! The Torah insists that the triple crop will come in the sixth year. The Chasam Sofer says that the very audacity of this claim… is the best verification of Who made it.

May 08 2015

To Shepherd the World

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shepherdIn this week’s reading, we find the Commandment not to slaughter a mother animal and its own child on the same day. Why are we instructed to do this? What is the Torah trying to tell us? The Sefer HaChinuch, Rav Yosef Babad’s compendium of the 613 Commandments, identifies two possible reasons.

First of all, we are to be good stewards of G-d’s world. Even on this small scale, we should remember not to exhaust a natural resource — for G-d Created each type of creature for a reason. But second, the Chinuch explains, this Mitzvah instills the concept of mercy, as well. Although we need animals for food, we still need to think about the animal and its child.

Doesn’t this seem contradictory? The act of slaughter itself seems inherently cruel, even barbaric. It could even be argued that killing both on the same day is better, so as not to leave one without the other. So what is the point of refraining from doing so?

The Commandment, though, is not for the benefit of the animal, but for how it changes us. The world requires that we keep a balance, rather than going to extremes. We are not told to be vegetarians, but neither are we permitted to eat anything we want. There are certain types of animals which we are allowed to eat, and those need to be slaughtered in a particularly careful and merciful way — and even then, we must be mindful of which animals we are slaughtering.

The same is true in regards to eating itself: we can neither starve ourselves nor gorge ourselves, but must keep a balance. Drinking in moderation is encouraged (for Kiddush and at other times), but not getting drunk. And this attitude extends to many other areas of our lives — better than taking a vow of silence, for example, is to limit ourselves to saying only positive things.

There is also, in this Mitzvah, a lesson about our responsibility to others. The Rabbis taught that on the eve of the holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, a who person sold both a mother animal and its child needed to bring this to the attention of the buyers. This is because it was normal on those four days to slaughter a purchased animal immediately and consume it for the holiday — and the seller could not lead the buyers to inadvertently violate this Mitzvah.

Each and every Commandment has layers of lessons found within — all helping us to develop and better not only the world, but ourselves.

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