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The Long Short Way

The talis, or talit (prayer shawl), with its tzizit fringe strings hanging down from its four corners, is one of the most well-known Jewish symbols.  In Biblical and Talmudic times, the talis looked considerably different.  Six of the eight strands were the natural off-white wool color, like all of the strands on ours.  Their remaining two strands were dyed with techeilet, a type of bright turquoise that made those two strings stand out starkly from the rest (the tradition of how to make the dye was then lost for centuries, but after extensive research it is now being revived).  Although the Torah itself doesn’t explain the purpose of these techeilet-colored strings, the sages of the Talmud do give an explanation.  They said that the techeilet thread is similar to the color of the sea, the sea to the sky, the sky to a sapphire stone, and a sapphire stone to the Almighty’s Throne of Glory (which is described in a verse in the book of Ezekiel as similar to a sapphire stone).  The idea is that no matter what one becomes preoccupied with in his mundane, day-to-day life, he will see the strings, and the techeilet in particular, and be reminded of the Almighty and spirituality.  But this explanation seems convoluted.  Why does the Torah decree a lengthy chain of items and phenomena to remind us, only eventually and in a roundabout way, of the Throne of Glory?  If the Torah wants people to recall and be mindful of that metaphoric Throne, it should cut out the seemingly unnecessary two intermediate steps.  There should be a few sapphire-colored tzitit strands which could directly remind one of the Throne of Glory.  Why does the Torah need the extra steps of the techeilet, the sea, the sky, and the sapphire stone?

 

In his book First Things First, Stephen Covey distinguishes between two approaches to change.  When a problem doesn’t need a long-term solution, like cramming for an exam, quick fixes can sometimes work.  But in a natural setting, as on a farm, there is no way to cheat the system.  If one is too lazy to plant in the spring and summer, there is no way to make up for lost time in the fall.  There will be nothing to harvest.  One can make the mistake of thinking that like passing a test, spirituality is attainable via shortcuts.

 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895 – 1986) suggests that the sequence of reminders from the techeilet to the Throne of Glory addresses methods of achieving personal growth and attaining spirituality.  In these areas, there are no quick fixes.  A person must ascend in gradual steps until he or she finally reaches the Throne – genuine spiritual connection and accomplishment.  If steps are omitted, the resulting shortcomings inevitably and eventually catch up with a person, and the result is frustration, despair, and setback.  True spiritual-religious achievements, much like muscle building, must be developed slowly and incrementally and cannot be pursued impulsively based on momentary inspiration.  They involve changing bad habits, developing good ones, and most important of all changing the way one thinks about oneself and the world.  A couch potato cannot get into shape by running all day right before a marathon.  Long-lasting spiritual depth can only be reached by slowly walking the road of toil and great effort; changes and attempts at growth that a person makes without walking that road will ultimately not last.  The message of techeilet is that like on the farm, true spiritual growth is not a sudden metamorphosis but rather a slow going and gradual evolution.

This article appears in the July 1 edition of Jewish News.

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Thoughts on Parashat Bechukotai

Studying is Not Enough:  The beginning of Parashat Bechukotai describes the type of observance of the Torah that will result in meriting the great blessings listed subsequently.  “If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them” (Leviticus 26:3).  The rabbis of the Midrash explain that since the second part of the verse is clearly talking about actually observing the commandments, “walk in My statutes” refers to laboring in Torah study (see Rashi).  Is “laboring” in Torah study meant to be taken literally?  If it would merely be a poetic or rhetorical way of referring to Torah study, the Torah would already be expressing a sufficiently novel idea.  It would be saying that studying the Torah is just as important, valuable, or meritorious as actually doing the mitzvot and would therefore make the nation deserving of the blessings listed in the Parasha.  Another Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah), however, makes it clear that labor is indeed meant literally.  It states that the Almighty decreed that forgetfulness be part of human nature because if we would never forget, we could just study Torah and not need any labor.  Studying Torah is enough to learn facts and information.  To understand, to analyze and to integrate, one must labor.  This message seems especially important in our time.  One rabbi already remarked in the middle of the Twentieth Century – way before Google, Wikipedia, and Kindle – that people confuse research with deep analysis and thoughtful insight.  If we understand things too quickly because we have already imbibed all of the facts and information – if we think that merely knowing something is understanding it – we risk losing the critical ability to think with nuance and depth.

Supernatural Victory:  One of the blessings in the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai describes the military strength that the Jewish people can receive in a time of war.  “And five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand; and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword” (Leviticus 26:8).  According to the usual rules of military engagement, the victorious side would need to have greater numbers in its army to chase away its enemy.  If it did not have the advantage of greater numbers, it could still potentially win if its army compensated by fighting with greater skill or strategy.  This would become less and less likely as the numeric disadvantage grew.  The blessing mentioned here promises that even when the Jews are severely lacking man power – the Torah’s example is even when there are twenty enemy soldiers for each Jewish soldier – the Almighty’s assistance will assure victory.  The second example the verse gives of an otherwise unlikely victory, however, is puzzling.  It says one hundred of us will be able to chase away ten thousand enemies.  According to the ratio of the first example, one hundred should only be able to chase away two thousand – each Jew would chase twenty enemies.  If we will be blessed with victory even when there are one hundred enemy soldiers for each Jewish soldier, why does the Torah even mention the smaller miracle of each person being able to disperse only twenty enemies?  Rashi, picking up on the inconsistent ratio, explains that it teaches the power of Jewish unity.  “The few that fulfill the Torah cannot be compared to the many that fulfill the Torah together.”  The Talmud comments that the load that one person can carry on his shoulder is only one third of what he can potentially carry together with a second person.  The colossal challenges that we face in our synagogues, communities, and as a nation require immense energy, insight, and resources.  To the extent that we are able to bear the load of these challenges together, the smaller and more manageable that load will become.

These thoughts are based on the classes of Rabbi Yeruchem Halevi Levovitz.  A version of this post appears in this week’s Jewish News.

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Spritiual Ossification

hardened-heart Apparently when it comes to giving tzedaka (charity), there is no neutral ground.  One might think that while giving tzedaka requires proactive generosity of the heart, refraining from giving merely lacks that added generosity.  The Torah, however, when discussing the mitzvah of tzedaka says that “thou shalt not harden thy heart and shut thy hand from thy needy brother” (Devarim 15:7).  “Shutting of the hand” seems not to result passively from a mere lack of generosity.  It results from a step in the negative direction, a “hardening of the heart.”  This would suggest that the Torah’s view of the human psyche assumes that our neutral state is one of giving and generosity of heart – unless it has been damaged by hardening of attitude and outlook.  Why would that be?

hardened arteriesPerhaps this is further evidence that the Torah sees sin and negativity as deviations from our essential nature which is good, generous, and positive.  If we don’t harden our hearts, we will naturally be generous and give.  If left pure and uncorrupted, we would make good choices and do good things.  According to this philosophy, on some level growth isn’t about building and creating new skills, habits, and paradigms, but rather about tearing down and eliminating bad ones.  When we will successfully break out of the mire of bad and petty character, an innate light of goodness will shine forth on its own.

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Heavenly Signs

When Rachel named Naftali, she explained his name with a cryptic statement.  According to Rashi, it is a reference to Rachel’s unique prayers.  She felt like she was the only one that wasn’t having the children that she so desperately desired – and that the Almighty wasn’t granting her wish.  Instead of taking it as fate and giving up, she stubbornly implored Him with prayer after prayer.  When she was finally answered, she named the child in a way that recalled her struggle, fervent prayers, and ultimate success. (Naftali was, actually, born to her maidservant Bilhah, but she nonetheless viewed the newborn as her accomplishment in some sense.)

signsThe dramatic saga that Rachel branded into Naftali’s name teaches an important lesson about spiritual growth.  Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz  (ca. 1873- 1936 ), revered, visionary Mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva in Pre-World War II Poland, taught that Rachel’s journey of having children was, in essence, a spiritual quest, to change and better the world through the family she would raise.  One might think that we should, in fact, take that repeated failure as some type of Heavenly sign that it’s just not meant to be.  Rachel teaches us, therefore, that when a person yearns to achieve something big, something spiritual, he or she must not get discouraged by defeat and failure – even when it appears to be providentially ordained.  As Winston Churchill once said: “Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” If you really want to do something great – make it happen, no matter what.

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Tuning into the Broadcasts

family 1920s radio Who was the mystery person that was listening from the background when the angels visited Avraham and Sara to proclaim that they would be having a child?  The Torah describes Avraham sitting with the angels that were disguised as wayfarers and Sara in the tent.  When the angels deliver their prophetic message, it mentions that Sara was listening through the tent entrance, and then it also cryptically refers to someone standing behind the tent – but without identifying that person.  Targum Yerushalmi writes that the person standing behind the tent was Yishmael and he was the one that heard the words of the angels.  But this interpretation raises a question.  If the Torah is referring to Yishmael, what significance does it have that he heard this prophesy?  Why does it matter?

Vintage on airRabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (born 1912), the prominent elder Israeli Rosh Yeshiva and author, suggests that the significance of Yishmael’s inclusion in this episode may be to relate something of significance regarding Yishmael himself – that he too was enabled to hear the angels speech.  Apparently, when angels supernaturally appear, not all people are necessarily privy to all of their messages and communications.  The ability to receive or hear the angels may be dependent on a person’s moral or spiritual character or, perhaps, some type of special merit.  Regarding this particular episode, the Torah alludes to the fact that Yishmael was deemed worthy of this experience in this instance.

BroadcastingThe Almighty transmits many messages, using many different messengers; our eyes and ears aren’t always sensitized to detect them. Some are reminders to awaken and appreciate all of the good fortune that we constantly enjoy.  Others may encourage us to improve ourselves or to face up to ways that we’ve failed, and yet others may attempt to teach us how to recognize particular strengths and talents that we already possess.  Our challenge is to habituate ourselves to live mindfully and think about our lives, relationships, and circumstances in a way that will help us hear the lessons that they are meant to impart.

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From Way Down Low to Way Up High

college-classroomAs the Torah alludes to multiple times (see Rashi, Parashat Lech Lecha), Avraham and Sarah successfully attracted many students of their teachings and way of life.  Although the Torah usually portrays Eliezer as a typical servant, according to the Talmud and Midrashim he was actually Avraham’s most outstanding student.  In addition, he not only imbibed his great master’s teachings, but he also became a teacher of Avraham’s philosophy to others as well (as cited by Rashi).  According to some contemporary commentaries, Eliezer was actually not formally Avraham’s servant at all, but rather a profoundly dedicated disciple that expressed his loyalty by acting as a servant (Sher, R. Isaac, Leket Sichot Mussar).  Against this backdrop, a comment of Targum Yerushalmi (an Aggadic Torah commentary and translation of unknown authorship written in Aramaic and sometimes incorrectly referred to as Targum Yonatan, cited and explained by Ayelet Hashachar Al Hatorah) becomes very striking.  Targum Yerushalmi nonchalantly refers to Eliezer as “Eliezer ben Nimrod,” Eliezer, son of Nimrod.  In stark contrast to Avraham and his household, Nimrod is one of the archvillains of Avraham’s era and one of the first in world history to lead the masses away towards false gods.  family treeThey were polar opposites: Avraham represented and embodied enlightened monotheistic faith, while Nimrod represented and embodied benighted idolatry and pagan heresy.  Even without this added detail regarding Eliezer’s lineage, the fact that Avraham was able to inspire such a dedicated student is impressive and inspiring.  But to think that Avraham was somehow able to pierce the presumably severely calcified and hardened heart of a very member of Nimrod’s own family, and that Eliezer was somehow able to pull himself out of the deepest depths of godlessness and rise to the top of positive spirituality is nothing less than amazing.

breaking outAlthough it appears at first glance that Eliezer’s background and ancestry were liabilities and obstacles that impeded his spiritual journey in the house of Avraham, it is possible that it was these same factors themselves that became the assets that actually enabled him to reach his outstanding achievement.  The appreciation of the profundity of ethical and religious teachings runs much deeper when they are contrasted with their alternative than when they are examined in a relative vacuum.  One that has lived through a darker night will appreciate the same light of day in a deeper way.  It is true that immersion in an environment that is hostile, unfriendly, or even indifferent to true spirituality can make the first steps forward more difficult and challenging.  But when some threshold of enlightenment and commitment is reached, that same negative exposure can powerfully propel one far ahead.  In the words of the Talmud, “Rabbi Abahu said, ‘Where ba’alei teshuvah (penitents) stand, people who have never sinned cannot stand!'” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 34b).  Had Eliezer been the son of a typical father, he may have still been impressed with Avraham’s teachings and become a disciple.  If that was the case, however, it is likely that he would not have become such an outstanding student that enjoyed such a close relationship with Avraham and that personally further promulgated his teachings.  Instead, against the backdrop of a childhood of growing up in Nimrod’s house, Eliezer’s rejection of the old catapulted him further forward than his mere acceptance of the new ever could.  Eliezer, son of Nimrod, and his great spiritual journey highlights the value of contrasting opposing worldviews and life-styles as a potent motivational tool for self-transformation.

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Practical Halacha: Nullification of Vows for Women

Question:

Are women required to recite the Nullification of Vows (Hatarat Nedarim) text in the presence of three rabbinic judges, like men do in synagogue on Erev Rosh Hashanah?

Answer:

There is no halachic reason to exempt women from Hatarat Nedarim.  Nevertheless, it is not customary for them to do the same procedure that men do, for whatever reason (possibly tzniut), although some poskim recommend that a woman make her husband her agent to do it on her behalf (but this would not work for an unmarried woman).  Most likely, women rely on the declaration of Kol Nidrei which nullifies all vows of the coming year in advance.  This would only work, however, if they recite it along with the chazzan and understand the liturgy.  (Based on Piskei Teshuvot)

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