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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

The Torah gives us many instructions on how to relate to one another, the overarching Mitzvah being “Ve’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha,” love your fellow as yourself, written in this week’s Parsha (the second of two), Kedoshim. There is a positive Mitzvah to return a lost item, to return a stolen item, to help someone load or unload their animal, and many other instructions that the Torah gives that require us to act in order to help another. It is therefore intriguing that one of those Mitzvot, one on which life and death may hinge, is written differently, in the negative. “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa,” do not stand by when your fellow bleeds. Why would the Torah not say: “Save your fellow’s life?” 

The great commentator Rashi, in explaining this verse, writes: Do not stand by your fellow’s blood - to see his death and you are able to save him or her, for example if on who is drowning in a river or a robber is about to attack. Rashi, in his great wisdom and unique writing style, uses a couple of words that give us insight into the answer to our question. It seems obvious that we have to help save a person’s life. If the Torah tells us to help protect another person’s property, how much more so their life? So that kind of goes without saying. What this verse is dealing with is a situation where one might believe that he or she should not act, because there may be some danger involved. The Torah is telling us, says Rashi, that even I a case of potential danger, IF YOU ARE ABLE TO SAVE THE PERSON, do not stand by. The implication being that in a case where your efforts will be futile, you do not need to put yourself in danger.

The Rebbe taught a deeper meaning to this verse and Rashi’s interpretation. If we look carefully at Rashi’s words, we can read it as follows: To see your fellow’s death, you are able to save him or her. If Hashem put us in a situation that we see another person in trouble, the very fact that we are present to see it, means that we are able to help. We believe that what happens around us is by Divine Providence, and if we are in a certain situation, it is by Hashem’s will that we be there and act if necessary. Sometimes it is a test of our ethics and morals, and sometimes it is an opportunity for us to earn a great mitzvah by stepping in and helping another, perhaps saving their lives.

We may be in a situation where we see someone bleeding, literally or figuratively, perhaps emotionally or spiritually. We might think, why do I need to get involved? Why is it my business? The Torah tells us that we may not stand by and ignore the problem. As Rashi says, if you see it, it means you can help. In fact, Hashem wants you to help. We live in a generation when many of our youth are in despair, despite the affluence in which we live. We can’t be apathetic. If we see a person struggling in life, it is our responsibility to reach out and help them. The same applies to our youth who may not feel their connection to our heritage. This is a form of spiritual bleeding, allowing the soul’s life-force to go neglected. Each of us, the Torah says, has an obligation to not stand by idly, but to do something to bring our lost souls back to Jewish life.

Parshat - Tazriya-Metzora

Someone asked me an interesting question this week. This is a direct quote: 

“Hello Rabbi:  How can tzara’at show on the garment? Is it the same resemblance as on the person? White color etc...? Just wondering while studying today’s daily section of Torah.”

This excellent question is based on the laws of Tzara’at, which is usually translated as leprosy, except it’s not. During the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, if a person had a mark on his or her skin, if it met certain criteria, including color, size discolored hair and other details given in this week’s Parsha, that person had the disease of Tzara’at and entered a state of “Tum’ah” – ritual impurity. This person had to stay outside of the city until cured. It’s not leprosy because there is also Tzara’at on a garment or cloth, and even on a house. So what kind of disease is this? The Rambam discusses this question in his “Mishne Torah.” Here is then answer in Rambam’s words (Laws of Tzara’at 16:10):

(“He means “he or she,” “him” means “him or her,” and “man” means “man or woman.”)

Tzara'at is a collective term including many afflictions that do not resemble each other. For the whitening of a person's skin is called tzara'at, as is the falling out of some of the hair of his head or beard, and the change of the color of clothes or houses.

This change that affects clothes and houses which the Torah described with the general term of tzara'at is not a natural occurrence. Instead it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hora, "undesirable speech." When a person speaks lashon hora, the walls of his house change color. If he repents, the house will be purified. If, however, he persists in his wickedness until the house is destroyed, the leather implements in his house upon which he sits and lies change color. If he repents, they will be purified. If he persists in his wickedness until they are burnt, the clothes he wears change color. If he repents, they will be purified. If he persists in his wickedness until they are burnt, his skin undergoes changes and he develops tzara'at. This causes him to be isolated and for it to be made known that he must remain alone so that he will not be involved in the talk of the wicked which is folly and lashon hora.

The Torah warns about this, stating Deuteronomy 24:8-9: "Take care with regard to a tzara'at blemish.... Remember what God your Lord did to Miriam."Now, this is what the Torah is implying: Contemplate what happened to the prophetess Miriam. She spoke against her brother. She was older than he was; she had raised him; and she had endangered herself to save him from the sea. She did not speak pejoratively of him; she merely erred in equating him with the other prophets. Moses did not object to any of this, as Numbers 12:3 relates: "And the man Moses was exceedingly humble." Nevertheless, she was immediately punished with tzara'at. Certainly, an inference can be made with regard to the wicked and foolish men who speak extensively about great and wondrous matters. Therefore, a person who seeks to structure his course of conduct should distance himself from their gatherings and from speaking to them so that he will not become caught up in the web of their wickedness and foolishness.

This is the path followed by the gathering of wicked fools: In the beginning, they speak excessively about empty matters, as Ecclesiastes 5:2 states: "The talk of a fool is characterized by a multitude of words." As a result of this, they come to speak negatively of the righteous, as reflected by the verse Psalms 31:19: "May the lying lips be silenced; those which speak falsehood about a righteous man." As a consequence, they will become accustomed to speaking against the prophets and casting aspersions on their words, as reflected by the verse II Chronicles 36:16: "They would abuse the messengers of God, scorn His words, and mock His prophets." And this would lead them to deny God's existence entirely, as reflected in the verse II Kings 17:9: "And the children of Israel spoke in secret things that were not true against God, their Lord."

In this vein, Psalms 73:9 states: "They set their mouths against Heaven and their tongues strut on earth." What caused them to "set their mouths against Heaven"? Their tongues which previously were given free reign on earth. This is the speech of the wicked that is caused by loitering on the street corners, frequenting the assemblies of commoners, and spending time at the parties of drunkards.

In contrast, the speech of proper Jewish people concerns words of Torah and wisdom. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, assists them and grants them merit because of it, as Malachi 3:16 states: "Then those who fear God conversed, each person with his fellow and God listened and paid heed. And a book of remembrance was composed before Him for those who fear God and contemplate His name."

One of the things we learn from all of this is that the physical world is not always as it seems, and there is much more than our eye sees. In fact, this idea of “what is reality?” is the subject of the new JLI course “What Is?” that starts this Wednesday, April 25. We will go on a fascinating journey exploring what reality is, are we and the world real, and many other existential questions. This course will help expand our understanding of reality, of the universe and of life. You can try the first lesson free with no obligation, just please let us know you are coming. For more details please click here and here. I hope to see you there.

Parshat - Shemini

 Pesach ended a week ago and we are headed into the summer.  This is a good time to think about what lessons we have learned from Pesach and what we can take from the great festival into the year.  It would be a shame if all the energy that we put into Pesach, the preparation, the change of kitchen, the Matzah, wine and all the other special foods, two Seders and so much more, not to mention the expense, did not make a difference in our lives and move us at least a little higher spiritually.  Of course every Mitzvah is a Mitzvah in itself, so it is never lost, but it would seem like there should also be a lasting effect from such a great event.

The answer might be found in the Parsha that we read this week, Shemini.  The word Shemini means “eighth.”  When the Jews were traveling in the desert, they built a portable sanctuary, the Mishkan, in which to bring offering to Hashem.  The service was complicated and required a lot of training for the Kohanim (loosely translated as priests), at that time Aharon and his four sons, so for seven days Moshe showed them what to do, as we read in the previous Parsha. This week’s Parsha opens with the events of the eighth day, when Aharon and his sons started doing the service, and for the first time a fire came down from heaven to consume the offerings, signifying the revelation of Hashem’s presence.  

We can wonder why it is called the eighth day.  Eighth implies that is a continuation of what came before.  In this case, the seven days prior were just training days and preparation, and this was the first day that the real service was done by the Kohanim, so it should be called the first day.  Many commentaries discuss this question, and one answer given by the great sage Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619) in his book “Kli Yakar” that is printed in many chumashim, is that the number seven relates to mundane, worldly matters, and the number eight connotes the supernatural.  There are seven days in a week, related to the seven human emotions (see an explanation here), and also related to the seven divine attributes of creation.  Eight represents that which is above creation, and that is why, for example, the Bris (circumcision) is on the eighth day after birth, because the Bris is a covenant with Hashem that is above logic and above understanding, which endures no matter how a person lives his life.  If you think about it, however, according to this explanation the question becomes even stronger.  The natural and the supernatural are two different levels which seemingly are not connected, so why would the supernatural be the eighth?  it is a completely different dimension, not part of the count of seven that is the natural.

Chassidus explains that the whole point of the Sanctuary is to bring together the natural and the supernatural.  When Hashem’s presence was revealed, it affected the world and lifted us to a higher level in our own day to day activities.  So although it is a higher dimension, we call it the eighth, because the purpose of the revelation is to be connected to the seven and permeate the natural world with holiness.

Perhaps this is what we should take from Pesach.  Pesach is an uplifting time, with all the beautiful observances that I outlined before.  It is important that we don’t allow the inspiration to dissipate, allowing the feelings and inspiration to stay separate from our day to day life.  The message of Pesach is freedom from those things that limit us in our growth and the expression of our true selves, the core of our being, our Neshama (divine soul).  By infusing our everyday life with this concept, by considering how we can harness the mundane for a higher purpose, we fuse the natural and the supernatural, and the Pesach spirit continues throughout the year.  On a practical level, this means not to allow days and weeks go by just going with the flow and allowing the maelstrom of daily activities carry us without thinking about our mission.  Make every day meaningful, and use the recent Pesach spirit to make this year more meaningful than the one before, by doing another Mitzvah, either adding an additional Mitzvah or by doing a Mitzvah with additional excitement and with enhanced observance.  If we do this not just because we want to do good, but in order to connect to Hashem by fulfilling His will, then we will have a complete eight, the seven days of regular life infused with the spirit of Hashem.

Parshat - Yizkor

This week we have a phenomenon that occurs from time to time on Festivals.  When Friday is Yomtov (a holiday) as this Friday, the seventh day of Passover is, we have a problem cooking and preparing for Shabbat. Since we are not allowed to cook on Shabbat, all cooking must be done the day before. On the other hand, while we are permitted to cook on a holiday using a pre-existing flame, we may only do so for the day itself, not for the next day. So how do we prepare for Shabbat when Friday is a holiday?

 

The answer is that there are two levels of prohibition relating to preparing on a holiday for the next day. There is a Biblical prohibition to prepare if the food will not be ready for consumption on the day itself. However this Biblical prohibition does not apply if the food would be available on the day of the Holiday, regardless of the intention to actually use it on that day. So technically a person could cook a meal for 100 people on the Holiday, as long as the food is ready on that day, even if there is no intention to actually consume it until later. 

 

 

 

However in order to protect the sanctity of the Holiday, recognizing human nature that people may use the day off from work to cook up a storm and forget about the holiness of the day, the sages established a “fence”.  They prohibited any cooking or other preparation that is not specifically intended for use on the holiday itself.  However when the holiday is in a Friday, this fence would make it impossible to prepare for Shabbat.  The sages therefore set up another way for us to remember the sanctity of the day while preparing for Shabbat. That is called “Eruv Tavshilin.”  We set aside a Matzah and a cooked food like an egg before the Holiday and set it aside to be eaten on Shabbat. The Eruv reminds us that the only reason we are allowed to prepare for the next day is because it is Shabbat, and it also reminds us that we need to remember on the Holiday to leave some food for Shabbat.  We are then permitted to cook and prepare on Friday for Shabbat, as long as we fulfill the Biblical requirement to have all the food ready for consumption on the Holiday, before Shabbat begins at sunset. 

 

 

 

 

The Eruv needs to be made before sunset on Thursday.  You can find the Eruv Tavshilin procedure here.   

 

 

 

While on Pesach we celebrate our Exodus from Egypt, the last day of Pesach is dedicated to the future Messianic redemption from the current exile. In fact, the culmination of the Holiday is celebrated at Chabad with a festive meal, including four cups of wine, known as Moshiach’s Feast. I invite you to join us at Chabad for this meal on Shabbat late afternoon. We hope and pray that we will celebrate this meal not just as a hope for the future but in real time with Moshiach, post redemption!  

 

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