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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Bechukotai

 

Imagine that the President of the United States was coming to visit you in your home in ten days.  (No politics here, pick the President of your choice, current or former.)  Would you be going about your business as usual?  I think not.  The President of the United States chose you for a personal visit!  You would be so excited that you were chosen for this special opportunity.  You would be telling all of your friends and you wouldn’t be able to sleep.  You would start by preparing your house to be sure it is spotless and without any blemish.  You would be touching up the paint and removing anything unsightly.  You would be thinking about what food to serve and what type of dishes you need to acquire for the purpose.  You would be thinking about what to say to him, and you would be losing sleep over all the details of making the visit perfect and the President comfortable.

Well, the President, as great as he (or the position he holds) may be, is only a human being.  In about ten days, Hashem will visit each and every one of us in our home.  What do I mean by that?  On the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan 3,331 years ago, Hashem “came down onto Mount Sinai”  (Shemot 19:20) and gave us the Torah.  The world is our home, as it says in Tehillim  (115:16) “the earth is the domain of human beings.”  So Hashem came to visit us in our home to give us the Torah.  Let’s take this a step further.  The first three words of the Ten Commandments that Hashem spoke in Sinai are: Anochi Hashem Elokecha – I am Hashem your G-d.  Now the English language is severely limited compared to Hebrew.  The word “your” in English could be singular or plural, and I believe that almost everyone who reads the English translation of the Ten Commandments assumes that Hashem is talking to the multitude of people gathered at the foot of the mountain.  However in Hebrew, the word for “your” is different in singular and in plural, and in this case, “your G-d,” is in the singular.  Meaning, that Hashem spoke to each person as an individual. 

Chassidus explains that Hashem has a personal relationship, one on one so to speak, with each and every individual, not just as part of the collective.  If you think about it, it is a remarkable thing to realize that Hashem reached out to each individual to connect with him or her, and that therefore we can each have a direct, personal relationship with Hashem. 

That was 3,331 years ago, but actually it repeats itself every year.  The Hebrew word for year is Shana, which, consistent with the richness of the Holy language, has a few meanings, one of which is “repetition.”  Every year, the Jewish holidays, and the spiritual and mystical events that they mark repeat themselves again.  The air of freedom that permeated the world the first Pesach is revealed again every Pesach, and the great revelation of Hashem to every individual Jew on the first Shavuot is repeated every year on the sixth of Sivan.  So it is accurate to say that in about ten days, (on June 9 and 10 this year) Hashem will once again “come down” into the world, into our domain – the world, to connect and reestablish the relationship with each one of us.  So yes, Hashem is coming to visit each of us in our home.

So it would seem appropriate that we don’t just go about our business as usual, suddenly remembering on Shavuot that there is a great holiday when we received the Torah.  We would be well advised to prepare for this monumental event, to “clean our homes,” and remove the garbage, and to make sure that Hashem will be “comfortable” when He comes.  Practically speaking, this means studying extra Torah and stepping up our Mitzvah observance, reading up on the observances, customs and laws of the Holiday, and finding ways to be more conscious of our relationship with Hashem. 

There is however a major difference between a presidential visit and the visit from Hashem.  Hashem is the source of kindness and mercy, and He understands and is tolerant of human nature.  As the Torah tells us, if we just open up an entrance the size of the eye of a needle, Hashem will open for us an opening like that of a great hall.  Any small step that we take to enhance our relationship with Hashem is meaningful and brings us closer to Him.

So let’s do something tangible in our lives to prepare for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which marks the time when Judaism began.  In the words of the traditional Chassidic blessing for Shavuot, may you receive the Torah with joy and internalize it.  The more preparation, the more internalization.

Lag B'Omer

 

Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Lag B’Omer.  It is a day of celebration for two major events in our history.  I’ll get to that in a moment, but there is an interesting question about the name of the holiday.  Lag B’Omer means the 33rd day of the Omer.  Lag in Hebrew is spelled with the letters lamed (numerical value 30 and gimel (numerical value 3), so the first word is actually a number, 33.  Omer refers to the 49 days – seven weeks that we count from Pesach to Shavuot, remembering and recreating the counting that the Jews leaving Egypt did in anticipation of receiving the Torah.  The purpose of the counting was, and is, to transform ourselves from the exile mentality, being slaves to the world around us, and to free ourselves to connect to our true purpose, as messengers of Hashem to transform the world.  The way we do this is by transforming each of our 49 character traits, one day at a time.  Lag B’Omer is on the 33rd day of this count.  It is also the 18thday of Iyar. The fact that the name of the holiday is its name in the Omer, tells us that there is a real connection between the Omer and the holiday.

As I said before, there were two events that happened on this day, both in the same era, in the times of the Roman Empire.   Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, who died in a horrible plague of diphtheria over a period of 33 days during the Omer.  So the 33rdday of the Omer is significant in that story, because it was that day that the plague stopped.  While the significance of 33 days is apparent, this still leaves the question open, why is the holiday identified by the day in the Omer and not as the 18th of Iyar. 

The Rebbe explains that there is a special connection between the Omer and the second event that we celebrate, the passing of the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.  We “celebrate” his passing because on the day a great sage passes, all his life work comes together and rises above, creating a powerful impact on the world.  Rabbi Shimon’s impact on all future generations was so great that we still celebrate this day in our time.  In Israel tens of thousands of people, maybe more, visit his grave in the village of Meron, and Jewish communities everywhere mark the day with bonfires, music, dancing and feasting - on food and on the Torah and deep secrets of Kabbalah that Rabbi Shimon taught.  Why is this day specifically connected to the Omer and therefore called Lag B’Omer?

As usual, the full explanation is beyond the scope of this article, but I will just write a point that will hopefully give us an insight into the Kabbalistic connection between Rabbi Shimon and the counting of the Omer.  (The Kabbalah is especially relevant today, since Rabbi Shimon was the first to reveal to others the Kabbalah that had until then never been spoken beyond the one or two leaders of each generation.)  As I said before, the purpose of counting the Omer is to refine our character traits, one day for each of the 49 traits.  (See more on this here.)  We are composed of two parts, the Divine spark and the animal tendencies.  The Divine spark is tuned into holiness and wants to be involved only in spiritual pursuits.  The animal drive within us, known as the animal soul, wants only physical and material things.  This leads the animal soul into self-centeredness, selfishness and arrogance, to name a few.  So during the Omer, in preparation for receiving the Torah, we work on refining our character.  And while we may think that the “animal soul” as the lower spiritually than the divine spark, it is precisely by refining the animal tendencies within us and harnessing them to the soul that we connect with the highest levels of holiness.  This is because Hashem’s purpose in creating the universe and the human is for that purpose: the refinement of the physical and its unification with the spiritual.

Rabbi Shimon personified this concept of the unification of the highest spiritual levels and the physical world.  He is described as a sage in such a high level that his peers and students, great sages themselves, could not relate to his holiness.  This is the mystical reason that he spent many years in a cave studying Torah, because his spiritual level was beyond the world.  Nevertheless, his students did ultimately manage to connect with him, and it was specifically through the inspiration of his greatness and holiness that they were able to transform the physical world itself and bring unity between the physical and the spiritual. 

The work of fusing the physical world with the highest spiritual energy that was set into motion by Rabbi Shimon and the writing of his book of Zohar will be completed with the coming of Moshiach.  Lag B’Omer is therefore an auspicious time for this to happen.  Looking forward.

 

Pesach Sheni

This Sunday, May 19th, is the 14th day of Iyar, Pesach Sheni.  What is Pesach Sheni, how is it celebrated and what lesson can we learn from it?  Pesach Sheni is translated as the Second Pesach.  However, we don’t need to clean the house all over again and prepare kosher for Pesach foods..  The word Pesach refers to the Festival of Passover, and also the “korban Pesach” – the lamb offering that was performed in the Holy Temple on the day before the Festival, known as Erev Pesach, the 14th of Nissan.  A few families would get together and purchase a lamb, and a member of the group would bring it to the Temple on Erev Pesach to be offered.  Parts of the animal were burned on the altar, and the rest was roasted on a spit and eaten by the group at the Seder on the 15th night of Nissan.  There are many laws relating to the Pesach offering, including restriction on who is permitted to eat it.  Only members of the group could eat that particular lamb, and they had to eat it together as a group.  The lamb had to be eaten within the boundaries of Jerusalem, well roasted, at the end of the Seder meal.  (We mark this nowadays by eating the Afikomen Matzah at the Seder.)  All males had to be circumcised in order to eat the Pesach, and also be “Tahor” – loosely translated as ritually pure.  Anyone who had had any connection to a human corpse, whether by touching, carrying, being under the same roof or attending a funeral, could not partake of the meat of the Pesach.

When the Jews left Egypt, they carried with them the remains of the 12 sons of Jacob who had been buried in Egypt, fulfilling the oath that their fathers had made to Joseph when he died.  The people who carried the remains were therefore Tamei – ritually impure, and did not have time to go through the complete seven day process of purification with the ashes of the Red Heifer.  So they were not able to eat the Pesach offering, and they felt left out of this great Mitzvah.  They came to Moshe and asked “Why should we be left out from offering the Pesach at its time?”  Moshe took their request seriously and asked Hashem what could be done for them.  In response to their sincere request to be able to participate in the Pesach, Hashem instituted Pesach Sheni – another chance, for all generations, for anyone who had been Tamei or far away on the 14th of Nissan, to fulfill the Mitzvah a month later, on the 14th of Iyar.

The laws of the Pesach Sheni are similar to that of the original Pesach in terms of who can eat it and where and how it should be eaten.  It must also be eaten with Matzah and bitter herbs, in purity, in Jerusalem, however there is no need to remove the Chametz (leavened food) from the house.  Today we don’t have the Holy Temple, unfortunately, so we don’t have the observance of the actual Pesach Sheni offering.  Nevertheless, we do mark the day by skipping the parts of the services that are skipped on holidays and special days, known as Tachnun.  It is also customary to eat some Matzah – ideally hand baked Shmura Matzah -  on this day to commemorate its special significance.

The Rebbe commented on this story and taught a powerful lesson for us today.  The people who were doing the Mitzvah of carrying the holy children of Jacob’s remains could have easily accepted that their circumstances caused them to miss this other Mitzvah.  What can you do?  Hashem gave a Mitzvah with specific restrictions to be done at a specific time, and they just didn’t make it this year. Instead they chose not to just miss the Mitzvah, but with what many would consider to be Chutzpah, they approached Moshe and demanded a chance to fulfill the Mitzvah.  And they succeeded!  Hashem gave them the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah, in the merit of their great yearning to not miss the Divine connection and energy that it provides.  Today we are stuck in exile, and we don’t have the Holy Temple.  Every year we miss the Pesach offering, and every day we miss the daily offerings in the Temple.  We don’t have the Divine revelations that were visible every day in the Temple, and we are missing so many other Mitzvot that we can’t observe today.  We should take cue from those righteous people in the desert.  It is important for us not to be complacent in our situation, but to pray, ask and even demand that Hashem bring Moshiach and bring back the offerings.  Every time we do this, we bring Moshiach that much closer.

Kedoshim

“Lo Tignovu” – Do not steal, is one of the many Mitzvot in this week’s Parsha, Kedoshim.  There are many forms of stealing, several enumerated in the Torah.  Brazen robbery, burglary in secret, cheating in business or withholding payment that is due.  Stealing is forbidden in any form, from any person on earth.  One of the types of stealing enumerated in the Torah is using inaccurate weights and measures.  Not only are we forbidden from using them, we are not allowed to make, purchase or own them.  If a weight or measure has been damaged in any way and is not accurate, we must destroy it.  It is very interesting that the Torah connects this particular Mitzvah, owning inaccurate weights and measures, with the Exodus from Egypt.  “You shall have honest scales, weights and measures, I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt.”  (Vayikra 19:36)   There is a lot of discussion by the Sages as to why the Torah invokes the Exodus relating to this particular Mitzvah.  Rambam says that one who denies this Mitzvah is acting as if he or she denies the Exodus, which was the beginning of all our commandments.  Why this Mitzvah in particular?  What about stealing in general, and all the other Mitzvot, are they not connected to the beginning of all the commandments?

The Rebbe gives a beautiful insight into this, and I will just paraphrase a small synopsis.  As I mentioned, this Mitzvah is not just about using inaccurate weights, but also just having them, and it is considered a serious sin.  The reason for this is that for an honest person to go out and  steal is not a common thing.  We know that what is not ours is not for us to take, and it is something that a person who wants to follow the laws of Torah, living ethically and morally, would never consider.  But we all have a constant struggle with our negative drives, known as the “Yetser Hara” –evil inclination, that is constantly seeking devious ways to lead us down the wrong path.  This is the nature that Hashem created us with, in order for us to willingly choose the right path, and for our correct choices to be the result of our own work, not given to us as a free gift.  This Yetser Hara is a part of us, and is insidious.  We know that an honest person will not be persuaded to steal, so instead the process begins with something innocuous like having a weight or measure that is slightly off.  From having it comes using it, and as that becomes a habit, from there the slippery slope could end in outright stealing. 

So the prohibition of having inaccurate weights and measures is to protect us not only from acting negatively, but also from entertaining the possibility of doing so.  Negative potential can lead to negative action, so we must protect ourselves at the very beginning from any negative trait.  This is the message of the connection to the Exodus, the beginning of all commandments.  Rambam is explaining that we need to protect ourselves at the very beginning - to constantly monitor our feelings to ensure that we don’t adopt negative traits that may lead us to disrespect another person or their property.

The name of the Parsha is “Kedoshim” – be holy, and this Mitzvah is part of this holiness.  Holiness is not only what happens in the Synagogue, the Yeshiva or on Shabbat.  True holiness means to behave in our daily activities with honesty and integrity, and even more than that, to shy away from anything that may have the slightest hint of dishonesty.  When all our activities are permeated with honesty and holiness, Hashem blesses our efforts with honest income and honest abundance, so that we can continue to bring the light of honesty and holiness to the world.

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