Apr 07 2016

A Time of New Beginnings

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newTorahOrgOur Torah reading begins this week with laws regarding purity after giving birth, after a woman brings a new life into the world. We will also celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Jewish month. The word for month itself, Chodesh, shares the root of Chadash, new. Each month is a new beginning, an opportunity for renewal. And this month in particular, Nissan, is the first of months for Jewish holidays. It is the month in which we celebrate Passover, the time of our birth as a nation.

Passover is also an opportunity for individual renewal. Again there is an interesting parallel in Hebrew terms: the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a cognate of Meytzarim, confines or boundaries. Our Sages say that Passover gives us an opportunity to leave our personal meytzarim, to break out of spiritual boundaries, to ascend to heights we did not previously believe we could reach.

For Project Genesis, there is an additional reason why this is a moment of renewal and rebirth, as we celebrate the launch of the new Torah.org. Please do visit our new website, as it is truly renewed. We are still in the middle of the daunting task of importing tens of thousands of files, but we have a wonderful guide to Passover and other changes that we considered important enough to launch now.

As with the new month, with a new birth, with every Passover — this is only the beginning. Great things are yet to come!

Mar 31 2016

Follow the Leader

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In this week’s reading, we learn of the deaths of the two eldest sons of Aharon HaKohen, the High Priest. “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his censer, and put fire in them, and put incense on each, and brought before G-d a strange fire, which He had not Commanded them. And a fire went out from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d.” [Lev. 10:1-2]

The commentaries help us to understand what it was that they did wrong. Why was a fire-offering inappropriate, and why did it warrant such a dramatic response?

One explanation offered by the Medrash is that they did not consult with their father or their uncle Moshe prior to making this offering. The Medrash even says that they were looking forward to the time that Moshe and Aharon would leave this world, imagining that they would then become the leaders.

Now both Nadav and Avihu were loyal sons, and they were both on an incredibly high spiritual level. How can the Medrash say that they were looking forward to the time when their father had passed away?

It could well be that the Medrash is telling us their subconscious motivation, which they might have not expressed or even recognized within themselves. Great as they were, the Medrash implies that they did not recognize the need to seek guidance before acting. They were not, as yet, in charge. And they had to consult with the leaders of the people, those who could tell them what was beneficial or appropriate.

Precisely because they were on a high spiritual level and dealing with the highest levels of holiness, the greatest level of sensitivity was required. This is why the consequences were great.

Our Sages tell us that a person must “make” a Rav for himself [Chapters of the Fathers 1:6], to find a Rabbi and teacher who can provide advice. This is the Jewish path, a tradition given from teacher to student throughout the generations.

Mar 18 2016

Humble Enough to Err — and Admit It

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4095-fallen-king-chessThis week’s reading begins the third book of the Torah, VaYikra, or Leviticus. The word VaYikra means “called,” as in G-d Calling to Moshe.

Looking at the text, we find that the aleph, the letter at the end of VaYikra, is written in small text. Rashi says that there is a key difference between the word VaYikra and the word VaYikar. They are not simply cognates of each other. The former implies closeness, dearness, importance, the way the ministering angels “call” to each other. The latter is a casual, distant encounter, expressed when HaShem spoke to Bila’am who wanted to curse the Jews.

The Ba’al HaTurim explains that Moshe deliberately chose to write the aleph small, because he did not want to glorify himself and say that HaShem would speak with him like the angels call one another.

Later in our reading, we learn that this level of humility is required of every leader. The Torah tells us what a Jewish King should do if he sins. But actually it does not say “if he sins” — it says “when he sins” [4:22]. It is taken for granted that a leader is nonetheless a mere mortal like everyone else, and he is going to make mistakes.

And to that, Rashi comments that the word for when, Asher, is related to the word happy, Ashrei — as in, happy is the generation whose leader is willing to admit error!

No human being, not even Moshe, was perfect. The Torah tells us when he erred, rather than glossing over his mistakes. The Torah did not want to demean Moshe — it praises him as “more humble than any man” [Num. 12:3]. Rather, the Torah wants us to know that no one is perfect, and the Torah does not expect us to be perfect. We are humans, and “to err is human.”

What the Torah expects us to do is to look over our actions, determine our mistakes even after we have made them, regret them, and learn from them. We are not given the capability to be perfect — what we are given is the capability to grow. Part of growth is learning from our mistakes, and looking forward to doing better tomorrow.

Mar 11 2016

All In This Together

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mountain-climbers-reaching-summitThis week, Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, our program director, shared with me a collection of Torah thoughts and concepts from Rav Avraham Elimelech Biderman of Bnei Brak, Israel. In a few short paragraphs Rav Biderman tied together our reading (Pikudei, the last portion in Sh’mos, the Book of Exodus), the Hebrew month of Adar, the holiday of Purim (the 14th of Adar, which this year begins on the eve of Thursday, March 24), and the fact that this week we conclude the reading of a book of the Torah — which means that in synagogue, after the final words of the portion are read, the assembled say “chazak, chazak, v’nischazeik” — “be strong and be strengthened.”

The Chasidic masters would often find lessons in the words of the Torah outside their plain meaning. In our reading we learn that among the many things that the craftsmaster, Bezalel ben Uri, did in building the Tabernacle, “he coated the heads of the pillars [with silver], and bound them to the structure” [Ex. 38:28]. Rebbe Yisrael Taub of Modzhitz noted that the word coating, v’tzipah, is a cognate of the word for awaiting or looking forward to something, metzapeh. He said that there is an allusion here to G-d “waiting hopefully” for each Jewish person to “head” in His direction, to make the first steps towards Him.

Each of us must make a start, as it says earlier: “And now, if you truly listen to My voice and keep My covenant” [Ex. 19:5], and Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains, “if you accept this upon yourselves now, it will be good for you from now on, because all beginnings are difficult.” The first step is the hardest. And G-d is waiting for us to take that first step.

Every Jewish person is included in this; no one can imagine that somehow G-d does not care about him or her. Because as Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter (the Chiddushei HaRim) said, the name of the month of Adar is the acronym of Aluf Dal Rash” — the “Aluf,” the great leader, rests His Divine Presence [even] upon the simple and lesser people, the “Dalim v’Rashim.” This is what we see in the Purim Megillah, that the King’s servants pointed out to the evil Haman that Mordechai the Jew was not bowing to him. Mordechai is referred to repeatedly as Mordechai the Jew, rather than Mordechai the righteous or Mordechai the leader. The most important thing about Mordechai was the simple fact that he was a Jew, regardless of whether he was great or lowly.

The month of Adar, Rav Biderman explains, is the time in which we remember that we must fight the people of Haman, the nation of Amalek. Amalek came and fought the stragglers among the Jews as they first crossed the Sinai desert, when no one else would dare attack them. And the entire Jewish people was told to turn around and fight them, to eliminate the hatred represented by Amalek, because every Jew is important, and every Jew is responsible for every other — including the stragglers.

This brings us to the fact that this is the closing of the book of Exodus, when we declare “be strong and be strengthened.” This happens during Adar for this is an ongoing battle. The Jews set upon by Amalek were those losing hope, and we must never lose hope, and must unite to oppose Amalek. If a person strengthens him or herself again and again, then G-d will strengthen and assist, and the person will be strengthened. We have to take the first step, and we have to keep trying, and we must look to and depend upon G-d to help lift us higher. Because if we strengthen ourselves, if we take that first step, then G-d will strengthen us!

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