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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat Tazriya-Metzora

 This week we read a double Parsha. Let’s talk for a moment about what that means. The Torah is divided into 54 Parshiyot, and every week, generally, we read one Parsha. When Shabbat coincides with a festival, we step out of the regular order and read a portion in the Torah that talks about the festival, and then go back to where we left off.  However, the number of weeks in a year fluctuates.  Our leap year has 13 months, or about 55 weeks, while a regular 12-month year has fewer than 52 weeks.  That is why there are a few Parshiyot that can either be separate or joined, and this week’s reading is an example of a double Parsha, Tazria and Metzorah.  The themes of these two Parshas are similar, dealing mostly with the laws of Tzara’at, a spiritually based disease that afflicted people in the times of the Temple, and other forms of human ritual impurity.  These rules are generally not relevant now in a practical sense.  Tzara’at does not occur today, and the laws of impurity do not, for the most part, affect our lives.  Nevertheless, as in all areas of Torah, studying these subjects connect us to Hashem’s will, and on a deeper level there is a message that is relevant to each of us in our daily lives, even today.  

I will discuss Tzara’at a little.  Rambam explains that Tzara’at is not a physically based disease.  This is evident by the fact that the word Tzara’at refers to splotches that appear on a person’s skin, on his or her hair, clothing or even on a house.  There is no connection between these widely varying objects except for the laws of Tzara’at.  If a person, garment or home develops certain types of marks, colored white, red or green, depending on the situation, a Kohen (priest) would examine them to see if they met the criteria of Tzara’at, in which case he would pronounce “Tamei” (loosely translates as impure).  The person with Tzara’at would have to move out of town and be alone until healed, the mark on the clothing would be cut out and the affected stones of the house removed.  If the Tzara’at returned to the garment, it would be discarded, and in the case of a house, it would be demolished.  If the mark was not Tzara’at, the Kohen would pronounce it “Tahor” (meaning pure). 

The Talmud tells us that Tzara’at was a punishment and atonement for seven sins, the primary one being the L’Shon Hara (speaking negatively about another). This is an insidious sin, which is extremely difficult to keep away from.  Any kind of negative talk about another, unless it is to save another person from harm, is included in this sin.  Imagine what would happen to the Press if it refrained from gossip and negative reporting. Think what would happen if politicians refrained from gossip.  This is also true in so many other areas of our society.  What a beautiful world it would be, and how far from possible it seems.  Yet the damage from gossip is so great that the Torah considers it worse than the three cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery and murder!  Removing a person from society gives him or her a chance to contemplate his or her behavior and do Teshuva. Rambam says that the Tzara’at would begin on a person’s house as a warning, then on the clothing, and if that did not work, then on the person him- or herself.  The Kohen was charged with the decision of whether the mark was Tzara’at or not, forcing the afflicted person to interact with him.  The Kohanim were public servants of the highest order.  The priestly family was known for its kindness and compassion, traits they inherited from Aaron, who is described in the Mishna as one who loved all creatures and made peace between them.  The Kohen would not be satisfied to pronounce a person impure and leave it at that, and a Kohen would shudder at the thought of having to banish someone from society.  He would do everything he could to work with this person and guide him or her to the right path, to inspire him or her to give up their negative behavior and reach the point where the Tzara’at would clear up.  The Kohen would rejoice in the opportunity to pronounce the person healed and welcome him or her back into society.

Today the Kohanim do not function as they did in the Temple, and the mystical purification of Tzara’at does not happen, but the concept is very much alive.  We must always be cognizant of the dangers of negative talk.  There is a Talmudic saying that L’Shon Hara kills three people, the one who says it, the one who hears it, and the victim.  This is true even if the victim never hears about the gossip.  Chassidus explains the great power of words. The world was created by Hashem’s words, after all. Negative words have a negative impact on the person regardless of whether he or she knows about it.  I know that it may be difficult to wrap our minds around this since we are used to believing only what we see with our physical eyes.  Nevertheless, the Torah teaches us that this is so in the spiritual realms, too.  If the gossip is true, it is likely that the person who is doing something wrong is struggling spiritually and emotionally to overcome a challenge.  The negative mystical energy generated by the negative talk gives more power to the negative behavior and makes it that much more difficult to overcome.  Sound far-fetched?  Well, scientists know today what the Torah has been teaching for thousands of years:  The entire universe is interconnected, and a small action in one place can affect the entire ecosystem.  This is also true of words.  So when we are tempted to repeat a juicy tidbit about someone, or we hear someone starting to tell it, we should contemplate the seriousness of this issue, remembering that when the Temple stood, a person would be banished from society for it and clothing and homes would be destroyed because of it. This recognition may help us control our urges and refrain from speaking or hearing negative chatter.  The world will indeed be a much better place if we strive to live up to this ideal.

Is There a Jewish Glass Ceiling? - Weekly Facebook Live Torah Studies Class

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Parshat Shmini

Pesach is over. Is it really? There is a song that many communities sing after the Seder – Chasal Sidur Pesach – translated as The Pesach Seder has ended. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), founder of the Chabad movement, authored, among other great works, a prayer book based on the teachings of the great Kabbalah master Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as “the AriZal.” In that prayer book, Rabbi Schneur Zalman left out the Chasal Sidur Pesach song, with the explanation that the Seder of Pesach never really ends. Pesach is not just about remembering the historic event of the Exodus. The celebrations, customs, and observance of Pesach, including eating Matzah and refraining from Chametz, provide inspiration that should last throughout the year. The Holiday of Pesach has four names, and I will briefly discuss a lesson that we can take with us from each of the names.

Zeman Cheiruteinu – the Time of our Freedom. As we leave the Holiday and move into our day-to-day lives, it behooves us to remember that we each have a mission on earth. Every individual can make a difference because every individual was chosen by Hashem to do something to improve the world. There are many reasons why we may sometimes lose sight of that. Financial pressures, family obligations, the day-to-day grind of life, our desires to chase pleasures that are easy to pursue and make us feel good at the moment, our habits, our lack of self-worth and wavering faith in ourselves, and a myriad other distractions. Pesach reminds us to stop and take stock of who we are and why we are here, and to assess what extent our actions and activities are in line with our mission. This is important because we can only be truly happy when we are living a meaningful life. Is there something wrong with pursuing a career and being busy, and also having some fun? No, but Pesach tells us that all of this should be consistent with our purpose, and that we should be in control and not allow everything that is coming at us from all directions to control us. That is freedom.

Chag ha’aviv – the Spring Holiday. The Torah emphasizes that the Exodus happened in spring. Spring is when the world starts blooming. The flowers grow, the fruit trees bud, the grain begins to ripen and the whole of Nature seems to wake up. It was during this season that Hashem performed all of the great miracles relating to the Exodus. This reminds us that all of Nature is controlled by Hashem. When we open our eyes and look beyond the surface, we realize that all of this beauty and the intricacy of the ecology cannot just be happening by itself. The entire universe was created by the word of Hashem, and it is that Divine energy that keeps it going constantly. Contemplating this every day helps us in our quest for freedom because we realize that everything has a purpose, and we have been given the great privilege of helping to fulfill that purpose.

Chag Hamatzot – the Holiday of Matzot. The physical difference between leavened bread and Matzah is that leavened bread puffs up, whereas Matzah is flat. This concept further reinforces what we learned above: Our ego and personal feelings sometimes lead us to forget our purpose. Eating Matzah on Pesach reminds us to seek the essence, to strip away all of the distractions and focus on our essence. The inspiration from Pesach then allows us to eat Chametz, but keep it in check and harness all our abilities and desires in the service of our core mission.

Pesach – usually translated as Passover, but the real meaning of Pesach is to leap. In order to overcome all of the things that hold us back, we sometimes need to take a leap. We find ourselves stuck at a certain level and don’t feel confident enough to move forward spiritually. Often when an opportunity to do a Mitzvah presents itself, whether a Mitzvah between a person and Hashem or from one person to another, we shy away because “I am not that religious,” or “there are so many other things I’m not doing.” While we generally try to grow step by step, sometimes that is just not enough and we find ourselves stuck where we are. Pesach reminds us that we have the ability to take a leap. Go ahead and do that Mitzvah and don’t be afraid about what you perceive as your inadequacies. Hashem Himself came to Egypt and redeemed a people that included many idol-worshipers, and brought them to Sinai to receive the Torah. No matter where you are on the observance spectrum, you can leap forward and grab a Mitzvah. This is the power that Pesach gives us, and this is, again, true freedom.
May the inspiration of Pesach remain with us, and may we merit the opportunity to observe the Seder “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Chol Hamoed Pesach

Today is the third day of Pesach.  There are essentially three parts to Pesach. The first two days have the status of a full Yomtov - Holiday - when we refrain from all work, except cooking food for the day, or carrying in the street (even without an Eruv), which are permitted on Holidays although forbidden on Shabbat.  The last two days of the Holiday have this status, as well.  The four days in between - the Intermediate Days - are called Chol Hamoed, which translates loosely to "the weekdays of the Holiday”.  On the one hand, they are still part of the Holiday, which we observe by celebrating, saying special prayers and refraining from work.  On the other hand, they are "weekdays", so we are not forbidden from work.  What that means from a practical standpoint is that we do only the work that is absolutely necessary.  So, we go on trips and go to work if we have to keep our jobs, but we try to cut back on work as much as possible.  (Of course, since Shabbat is one of those four days this year, the Shabbat rules apply.)

Originally, the way it is written in the Torah, the Holiday included one day at the beginning, one day at the end and five days in between, for a total of seven days, and this is the way it is still observed in Israel today.  Outside of Israel, we observe an extra day.  The first day commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the last day commemorates the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, which happened on that day.  The Torah tells us to eat Matzah for seven days, so this celebration spans the entire time-- from when the Jews left Egypt until the day that their enemies were no longer a threat.

In observance of Chol Hamoed, I am going to be brief, and conclude with best wishes for a continued happy Pesach.  Just one point to add:  On the eighth day of Pesach we read the prophecy of the coming of Moshiach and the future redemption.  Our Sages have said that just as we were redeemed from Egypt in the month of Nissan, so we will be redeemed from this exilein [?] Nissan.  It is customary to enjoy a meal at the end of that day known as the "Moshiach Feast" with Matzah and four cups of wine.  I invite you to join me at 7:30 PM on Tuesday April 18th at 3070 Louis Road for this uplifting occasion.   Chag Sameach. 

Parshat Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol

Well, here we are, a few days before Pesach.  If you are like the overwhelming majority of Jews, you are busy doing some preparation -- cleaning the house, buying food and other supplies for the Seder, inviting guests or arranging to be at a Seder, and so much more.  (By the way, at Chabad we can help you with many of your supplies, including hand-baked Matzah, a great selection of Haggadahs, Seder plates, Kiddush cups, and much more.)  There is also the spiritual component of Pesach, for which it is also a good idea for us to prepare.  As in all matters of Judaism, the physical and spiritual go together.  The point of the Holiday is not just to remind us of a story that happened over 3,300 years ago, but also to celebrate “Zeman Cheruteinu”, the time of our freedom.  A lot has been written about the concept of freedom according to Torah, especially in Chassidic writings, and I have given some classes on the subject.  You can see an example here .

I want to focus now on a beautiful message based on a talk I heard from Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, which gives a deeper insight into an important aspect of the Haggadah, and a lesson for us as we strive to attain inner freedom and meaning in life.  It is a Biblical Mitzvah to recount the story of the Exodus on Pesach night.  It is also a Mitzvah to “tell your children…what Hashem did for us when we left Egypt.”  We fulfill these Mitzvot at the Seder, having our children ask the Four Questions, reading the verses of Exodus in the Torah, and discussing their meaning as laid out in the Haggadah.  The first passage we say after the child asks the four questions is “Avadim hayinu – we were slaves in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of there with great miracles.”  A little later, we talk about the history and lineage of the Jewish people.  “In the beginning our ancestors (meaning Avraham’s father, Terach) were idol worshippers, and now Hashem has brought us close to His service.”  We say these two passages, each dealing with a different aspect of our humble beginnings leading toward a glorious future, based on a difference of opinion in the Talmud.  The Mishna says that when we recount the story of the Exodus, we should begin the story with the negative, the shame of the past, and end with the positive, the glory.  (This is a powerful general message about how we look at our past and recognize how we overcame negativity and then, with Hashem’s help, rose to great heights. You can read more on this subject here .)  What is the negative that we start with?  The Talmudic sage Rav says that we begin with the spiritual lowness, Terach’s idol worship, from which we emerged to receive the Torah at Sinai. Shmuel says that we begin with the physical bondage that we suffered at the hand of Pharaoh from which we emerged with great miracles.  To satisfy both opinions, we say both.

Rabbi Sacks offers an explanation, based on Rambam, that these two great sages are not disagreeing.  Instead, they are discussing two separate aspects of the narrative and providing two separate lessons for our lives.  As I mentioned earlier, there are two parts to the Mitzvah of retelling the Exodus story on Pesach night.  One is the general Mitzvah of telling the story which applies to adults, whether there are children present or not.  The second is to tell our children.  When our children ask us why this night is different, we tell them about the great miracles that Hashem performed for us.  This is the first section that we say right after the Four Questions:  we were slaves and Hashem miraculously freed us.  Once we have answered the child’s questions, we move on to the adult discussion.  This is not focused on what Hashem did for us, but on what we need to do for Hashem.  We moved away from idol worship and adopted faith in Hashem.  The beginning of faith in Hashem, as a child, is based on the miracles He performed for us.  But as we mature, we realize that true freedom is not about what we are receiving and what is being done for us.  It is about us getting out of ourselves and living for a higher purpose, focused on what we have to do for Hashem.  This is the path to our personal Exodus, releasing the shackles of our material, emotional and even self-imposed spiritual limitations, and soaring to great heights of true spiritual expression, the freedom that can come only when our Divine soul expresses itself in our everyday actions.

There is a verse that states: “As in the days of your Exodus from Egypt I will show you wonders (Micah 7:15), referring to the future redemption through Moshiach.  May we merit this redemption this year, there is still enough time for it to happen.  Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy a roasted Paschal lamb in Jerusalem?  Happy Pesach and this year in Jerusalem.

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