Mar 07

Without Credit

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arrogantIn this week’s Torah reading, we begin the book of Leviticus, with the word “VaYikra”, “And He called.” G-d called out to Moshe, as He did every time He wanted to speak to Moshe or give a new Commandment. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) tells us that this was a term of endearment, used by the ministering angels to call to each other. G-d calling Moshe in this fashion was a great honor.

But if you look in a Torah scroll, you’ll find that the final letter of the word, the Aleph, is written in miniature. It’s there, but doesn’t have the same stature as the rest of the letters.

Our Sages blame Moshe for this miniature Aleph. He could have written a normal one, but he didn’t. Why not? Because G-d called Bila’am with “Vayikar,” without the Aleph, which Rashi describes as an off-hand and denigrating call. Moshe wasn’t interested in self-promotion, and was in fact uncomfortable writing that he was being honored with “VaYikra”.

Moshe’s behavior runs completely contrary to everything we know about leaders. Kings sit on thrones, hold absolute power and demand obedience. People clamor for the opportunity to be President, to be powerful and respected. And Moshe? “I know G-d is speaking to me, I know He is honoring me… but really, I’d rather not talk about it.”

To be completely self-effacing, to not care for one’s own honor but only the good of others, is a universally respected ideal. But it can only come from within — you can’t depend upon it. Communism was based on the idea that everyone is equal, that everyone should work together for the common good. In practice, today communism is synonymous with totalitarianism. It allowed the cruelest to rise to the top.

Requiring that we think of others, rather than our own honor, is replicated throughout Jewish thought. The ideal form of charity, Maimonides tells us, is when the donor remains anonymous. When motivated to do so, people do tremendous things behind the scenes, and often their greatness is only revealed after they pass away. No one runs for office to be a leading Rabbi, they just become known among their peers because of their scholarship. Universally they are known for having no pretenses, for caring little about their own honor.

This is the ideal that the Torah demands of us — the reason Moshe was the leader, and knew to stand up to Korach and anyone else who wanted to distort G-d’s message, but yet was called “more humble than any man.” How much more can we accomplish, if we don’t care who gets the credit afterwards?

Feb 21

What are we Building, Anyways?

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The TempleIn this week’s reading, Moshe gathers the entire nation of Israel together. He says, now it’s time to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Everyone with a giving heart should bring their gifts. But first, he tells them that they have to observe the Sabbath. “For six days you shall do the labor, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to G-d” [35:2].

Why was this necessary? The Sabbath, Shabbos, is one of the Ten Commandments. The nation has already been told to observe it. So why repeat it now? According to the Sifsei Chachamim, this question is what bothered Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi. And Rashi answers: the Torah needed to tell us that building the Mishkan doesn’t supersede the Sabbath.

Shabbos is about pausing from creative activities that change the world around us. It’s about taking time to think and reflect, and make sure we are going in the right direction to meet our goals. G-d is telling us — even if you’re building the Mishkan, My Holy Residence in this world, you still need to take that time off.

In that respect, the Mishkan serves as the paradigm for anything which we are building, even when it is for G-d and Torah: building a new synagogue, launching a new program, founding a new charity. The Torah says that we can pledge funding or talk about designs on the Sabbath, but we can’t do the labor — even when it’s for a holy purpose. No matter the situation, we need an opportunity to reconsider. Are we doing it the right way? Is there something we could be doing better?

In his famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey makes his seventh and final habit to “Sharpen the Saw,” to keep the body and mind in shape. While he talks about physical health, he also talks about mental, emotional and spiritual health. That opportunity is built into the Jewish calendar, for us to spend one seventh of each week with family and friends, pulling back from the work world to pause and reflect. Even if our goal is the holiest of causes, says the Torah, we still need that opportunity!

Feb 07

A Little Less Chutzpah

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opinionIn this week’s reading, we’re told that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was to wear a Tzitz, a band of gold across his forehead. And the band said “Kadosh LaShem,” Sanctified to G-d.

The Talmud tells us that the Tzitz atoned for azus panim, literally “boldness of face” — presumptuousness, brazenness, chutzpah. Think about a “bald-faced lie” — sinning in an obvious, blunt, brazen way. The Zohar says that when the Kohen Gadol wore the Tzitz on his forehead, it subdued those who were brazen, comparing what was “written” on their foreheads.

In the Chapters of the Fathers, 5:23, there is a perplexing Mishnah. “He [Yehudah ben Teima] used to say: ‘The brazen go to Gehennom [purgatory], but the shamefaced go to the Garden of Eden.’ May it be Your will, HaShem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in your Torah.”

The author tells us what Yehudah ben Teima used to say, and then he starts davening (praying)! Looking forward to the rebuilding of the Temple, and praying for our share in Torah, is a recurring theme throughout the traditional Jewish prayer book — but what is it doing in the middle of a Mishnah?

I found the following answer (original source unknown): the author of the Mishnah wrote the saying of Yehudah ben Teima, and immediately thought of the brazen people in his own generation, who undoubtedly caused grief for the community — especially for “straight,” upright individuals. Those people, he wrote, were going to face cleansing in Gehennom for their behavior. And he remembered that when the Temple existed, the Tzitz on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol atoned for their sins, and indeed subdued them and prevented them from being so brazen in the first place. And so this short prayer burst from his heart, asking for this to happen soon.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, teacher of our class Be’eros, an advanced class on the Torah Portion, commented recently that he prefers to only write about current events if he has “something semi-insightful to add to what is already out there.” And, in turn, he quoted former New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich, who said that “the relentless production of a newspaper column… can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion.”

Today we live in a society where chutzpah is so “normal” that there isn’t even a word to describe it in common usage. Who talks about “brazenness?” Everyone’s got an opinion about everything and everyone, regardless of whether they’ve even looked into the issue. After all, we need to know what to tell the poll-taker when he or she calls to find out our opinion. As a result, we all think we know better than the experts. The pitfall is that when we respect on expert or authority but ourselves, anarchy is the result. What a difference a Kohen Gadol would make!

Jan 31

Building the Tabernacle

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This class is dedicated in memory of my father in law, Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld z”l, who, besides so many other accomplishments, was instrumental in helping the work of Project Genesis through his classes and answers to students. Please remember HaRav Azriel Yitzchak ben HaRav Avraham Zvi z”l in your learning

Our Torah portion, Terumah, talks about building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert — the precursor of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At first glance, you might wonder what the connection is between this portion and the last one.

As we discussed, last week’s reading discussed Mishpatim, judgments, laws necessary to create a moral and just society. Those are “baseline requirements,” things that apply to everyone, and the Torah certainly isn’t done speaking about those types of laws. Building the Tabernacle was totally different. No one was required to participate, not even a “suggested donation.” “You will take my donations from anyone whose heart moves him to do so” [Ex. 25:2].

What we do here at Project Genesis follows a similar model: everyone is able to come and benefit from all of our writings at Torah.org. We simply put out the word now and again that continuing our work, our efforts to reach out and build a Jewish future through Jewish learning, cannot happen without donations. In our case, we even offer great prizes — like the chance to win a $1000 gold necklace if you give prior to Feb. 15, and a grand prize of $100,000 cash — to encourage hearts to move. And everyone able to give, does so! Am I right?

Back to topic.

scales-money-globeWhy does the Torah intertwine these laws? Last week we mentioned that the Torah speaks briefly of building the Mizbeyach, the Altar, immediately between the Ten Commandments and the Mishpatim, the judgments, to show us that the place of judgment, the location of the High Court, should be next to that Altar. The lesson we learned is they are intimately connected, that following judgments is as important to G-d as our prayers.

Placing the donations for the Tabernacle after the judgments takes matters a step further. Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains that building a Jewish society with justice and humaneness is a prerequisite, before we can build something as holy as the Tabernacle. It is the foundation, without which the gifts to the Tabernacle are no Mitzvah at all.

This is true in the most literal sense. If a person steals a Lulav, the palm frond taken on Sukkos, then it’s no Mitzvah to use it. It is pasul, unfit — just as a frond whose tip is cut off or whose top leaf is split open.

And as we see, the Torah takes exactly the same precise and demanding approach to both types of laws. For example, even though one cannot take and use a stolen Shofar, the ram’s horn blown at the New Year, in that case one who does so has, in the end, performed the Commandment. Why is this different? Because in the case of the Shofar, the Mitzvah is to hear its sound. Since theft does not apply to listening to a sound, one cannot say that the person didn’t do the Mitzvah. But with a Lulav, the Mitzvah is taking and waving it, which one cannot do with stolen property!

Needless to say, taking stolen funds and giving them to charity is, similarly, no Mitzvah at all. What Rabbi Hirsch is telling us is that this is true in a much larger sense, as well — if we want to build a Holy Tabernacle, even within ourselves, even within our own homes, the first obligation is to strive for honesty, upright conduct and justice, in every area of life.

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