Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: A Life Apart

This week’s parsha tells us of the Metzora – someone afflicted with Tzaraat – who must be put חוץ למחנה ישראל, sequestered from the Jews’ encampment.

Why is utter isolation the appropriate punishment for the Metzora?

The Gemara in Arachin (15b) gives in an interesting explanation:

"אמר ריש לקיש מאי דכתיב {ויקרא יד-ב} זאת תהיה תורת המצורע זאת תהיה תורתו של מוציא שם רע"
“Reish Lakish said: What is stated ‘This shall be the law of the Metzora’ (Vayikra 14:2) – This shall be the law of one who slanders”

This affliction comes upon one who has actively slandered others. Thus, it seems befitting that the punishment for this person is alienation. By slandering others, he is misusing the gift of speech – a potential means of connection to others and building of society – in order to wreak havoc and bring destruction to humanity. Such a person shows that he is not fit to live among the rest of the people.

Unfortunately, we see too often that slander is used to “get ahead” in the workplace and in life. Man will “play” one person against another in an attempt to curry favor with both, thinking this will make him successful. But the Torah tells us that this behavior will ultimately lead to his downfall. The message here is clear: in the end, it is the slanderer who will become isolated and alone.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz זצ״ל explains why Chazal (Nedarim 64b) includes the Metzora among the four who are considered dead even in life: 1. The Poor man; 2. The Childless; 3. The Blind Man; and 4. The Metzora. Each one of these categories of people are in some way or another excluded from “society.” The poor man cannot afford his basic necessities as others can, the barren are excluded from family activities, and the blind man cannot sense what others sense. In these ways each one is “removed” from the general public. The Metzora too, due to his own infractions, cannot partake of civil society. He is considered “dead”, not privy to live life (חיים) among others.

I once heard from Rav Yecheskel Weinfeld שליט״א an interesting idea. The word for life – חיים – is plural. This signifies to us that true life is not one of isolation. Rather it is to be shared with others. This dovetails beautifully with the message of the Metzora. He who is actively engaged in antisocial behaviors, using his speech to undercut and hurt others, is to be expelled from civilization – from “life.”

Both the Kli Yakar and Rav Hirsch tell us that, in his isolation, the Metzora is now forced to reflect on his deficiencies and repent, so that he can once more become worthy of being a part of this nation.

But while we antagonize the actions of the Metzora, the Torah does not allow us to forget his plight. The Gemara in Moed Katan (5a) quotes the verse “He [the Metzora] is to call out “Contaminated, Contaminated!” (ibid. 13:45). The Gemara explains that this proclamation is to serve the double purpose of warning others of his affliction, so that they will not come to contamination, and also to: “inform the public of his anguish, so that they may pray for him.”

This Gemara has always fascinated me. The Metzora has done irrevocable damage to people’s lives, families and the general good of the community, to the extent that we disallow him any association with others. Seemingly, if there is a poster-child for a cancer on society, this person is it! When banishing him, shouldn’t we be saying: “Good riddance!”? Yet we see the complete opposite response is expected. The Torah demands of us to pray for him, that he should fix his ways and learn his lesson. I believe this is because while we banish the Metzora for his crimes against humanity, through that process we cannot lose our humanity; we must still be able to empathize and care for everyone.

Speech is an amazing thing. It has no physical characteristics (דבר שאין בו ממש), yet we see that it has the power to build and destroy, alienate and connect. We would be wise to be careful in our everyday activities to use speech not to put-down and belittle, but rather as a tool to create and empower.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Parshat Vayikra - The Teacher’s Teacher

This week's parsha welcomes us to a new Sefer and the world of Korbanot. The parsha begins: “He called out to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying” (Vayikra 1:3). Rashi explains that ויקרא (“He called out”) which appears superfluous, comes to teach us a rule – that every statement, saying, and command from G-d to Moshe is preceded with a קריאה (a “calling”) which is a language of endearment, a language that the ministering angels use.

In communicating with this endearment, G-d does so only with Moshe. The rest of the nation could not hear. Meaning, that this was a prophecy to which only Moshe was privy. Rashi says: “The voice [of G-d] would go, and reach Moshe’s ears, and all of Israel would not hear it.” Rashi continues: “One might have thought that there was a ‘calling’ at breaks (i.e. the breaks in the text indicated by blank spaces).” One might have thought that a break indicates the beginning of a new and distinct prophecy which would be preceded with a new “calling”. The Torah teaches us that no, only when G-d actually speaks is it a new prophecy, but the breaks do not indicate a new prophecy. (This is the explanation of the Mizrachi, translated by Artscroll.)

If the breaks in the text did not serve the purpose of indicating a new and distinct prophecy, what purpose then did the breaks in the text serve? Rashi continues: “to give Moshe the time for contemplation of one parsha and the next, and between one topic to another. קל וחומר  (all the more so) that time between subjects is necessary for a הדיוט (an ordinary person) who learns from another הדיוט.”

Rashi, quoting the Torat Kohanim (1:3), explains that G-d gave Moshe the time to contemplate and to understand the subject, and from the rule of kal vachomer we learn that ordinary people must also give and be given that time to contemplate.

The Taz in Divrei David (a commentary on Rashi) asks: still, what is the point of the breaks? Obviously Hashem has the ability to give Moshe the wisdom to contemplate quickly, thus mitigating the need for the breaks. We learn from this, explains the Taz, that one cannot rely solely on mental acuity and intellectual prowess, and that even wisest among us must still give themselves the proper time for contemplation.

However, one could ask, what is the logic and reasoning behind this kal vachomer? We can understand that while Moshe was the greatest prophet to have ever risen, and was master of all wisdoms, perhaps even he needed that time to contemplate when learning from G-d Himself. When learning the Torah from G-d, Whose wisdom cannot be fathomed, His essence cannot be grasped, and His grandiosity cannot be comprehended, of course Moshe would need the time to properly digest the concepts. But, who is to say that in the case of two “ordinary” people, where both are on the same level, that time must be given for the other to comprehend? What is the proof of the Torat Kohanim?

In truth we have to ask, what is the intention of the Torat Kohanim? Is it trying to tell us that due to the “lack” of the student we must give the רווח (space) to understand? I.e. the requirement to give time stems from the lack of the student. Or perhaps it is telling us that when a teacher teaches, whether or not the student is lacking, he must be careful to teach in a way that the students have the ability to comprehend. If it is due to the lack on the part of the student, then our question stands. But if the Torat Kohanim is giving an exhortation about the mark of a good teacher – that a teacher is lacking in not giving ample time for his students to comprehend – then we have our answer. From the fact that G-d gives Moshe – the most wise and humble of the prophets – the time to contemplate, we can learn that in our dealings, as “ordinary people” we must present our ideas in a way for them to be comprehended.

This idea can be helpful in a myriad of aspects of teaching, including how loud one projects, how slowly one speaks, or a hundred other pedagogical methods which can aid the clarity of the message and comprehension of the student. But this is also a powerful lesson regarding the most basic underpinning of teaching: the teacher’s mindset and motivation for teaching.

A Rebbe is not there for himself; his objectives in teaching should be based solely on the comprehension of the students. And, barring other factors, if the student is not understanding, then he has failed his mission. For if they are not understanding, what is being accomplished?! That the Rebbe himself said a good shiur? That he felt honored? That he understood the subject?

I was once talking to someone who had a thirteen-year-old son in a “top tier” Yeshiva High School, and he was decrying the amount of sources and analytical approaches the teacher was “cramming” into the students. He felt his son was not understanding. This father, who himself is a tremendous Talmid Chacham, told me that he was not the only one; other parents had also expressed concern that their children were not comprehending. When the parents finally mustered the strength to talk to the Rebbe, he responded, “I teach the students on the level where I am holding. I was the top of my class, and I want them to witness true scholarship.”

When I heard this, I was blown away. How is it possible for someone, who has been entrusted with the holy task of חינוך (education) to think in such selfish terms? How could he get it so wrong? The truth is that this “Rebbe” is teaching for all the wrong reasons. He is not teaching with the aim of התבוננות and הבנה of his students, which would clearly warrant a tapering down of the level of the shiur. Rather he is involved in a nihilistic and self-serving pursuit under the guise of virtue, all while using the students as his footstool to raise up his own honor. I once heard from a very prominent Rabbi, that this type of teacher would be included in the prohibition of being המתכבד בקלון חברו; for a teacher that neglects the progress of the students, is the same as one who actively degrades them.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik זצ״ל would often remark that his favorite title was not Rav, Rosh Yeshiva, or Posek; rather it was מלמד, just a simple teacher, for G-d Himself is called teacher: המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל. Rav Soloveitchik felt that the highest calling, that which emulates G-d himself, is that of a teacher. And we learn from Hashem, in giving that “space” to Moshe to contemplate and comprehend, a demonstration of the proper way to accomplish the holiest of tasks – teaching Torah, with the holiest goal: to better the student.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vayakhel - Pekudei - A Symbolic Connection

This week’s parsha, in continuing the theme of previous parshiot, recounts the steps and actions toward the building of the Mishkan. Among the vessels described is the Kiyor – the washing basin from which the Kohanim would purify their hands and feet before starting their service in the Beit Hamikdash.

In previous instances, when mentioning the Kiyor, the Torah does not tell us of the source of the material with which it was made, until now. The Torah says: “He [Betzalel] made the Kiyor of copper and its pedestal of copper, with the mirrors of the woman who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Shemot 38:8). Rashi, sourcing himself in the Midrash Tanchuma, explains the significance of this information: “The daughters of Israel had in their possession copper mirrors which they would look into when they would beautify themselves…When their husbands would be exhausted by the racking labor they would go and bring them food and drink…they would entice their husbands to desire and would conceive with them and give birth there.”

Rashi continues that Moshe initially rejected the offering from the women because they were made for the “evil inclination,” but G-d demands that the offering be accepted for “these are dearest to Me of all, for through them, the woman established many legions of offspring in Egypt.”

Like we have seen many times before, there is always something very deep behind the back-and-forths between Moshe Rabbeinu and G-d; there is a lesson to be gleaned and a philosophy to be expressed. So too here, it is worthwhile to delve a bit into the dynamics at play.

What was Moshe’s initial thought process that caused him to reject the offering of mirrors from the women? And what about G-d’s response explains why He not only commanded for them to be accepted, but even says that they are the most precious to Him?

When one takes a closer look at the original source of Rashi, the Midrash Tanchuma (Pikudei:9), we are struck with the intensity with which Moshe refused to accept the mirrors. The Midrash uses the word (זעף (ס״א נזף, which can be translated as “rage.” Seemingly, Moshe’s refusal to accept the mirrors was not out of personal preference. Rather, Moshe’s reaction suggests his rejection was based on the perception of an inherent incongruence between the mirrors and the Mishkan. What is the problem with including the mirrors in the Mishkan? What could cause such a visceral response?

I would like to propose that when the woman brought the mirrors, Moshe’s reaction was directed towards the idea of taking objects that are used to facilitate human procreation and “mixing” them with the most holy of structures that man has created, with the holiest of purposes: to house G-d Himself in this finite world. If we were to think about this deeply, we would understand that in a sense, the act of procreation is the most basic testament to man’s limited nature. The clearest delineation between man and G-d is G-d’s נצחיות – immortality. For if man were a God, he would not need self-preservation to ensure the future of his name. The need to procreate is a byproduct of man’s mortality. Moshe found the coupling of these things (i.e. the concepts of the Mishkan and the mirrors) to be incongruent. He rejected the inclusion of the mirrors because he saw them as a symbol of the finitudes of man.

Hakadosh Baruch Hu response to Moshe is: Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than all the other vessels, for through them the woman established offspring for the nation in Egypt.

As previously stated, the women used the mirrors to entice their husbands to have relations. Despite the burden of slavery and the atrocities foisted upon the nation, the woman did this because they did not lose hope in the future redemption that G-d had promised them. The women’s faith, shown through the mirrors, were not representative of man’s limitations, but rather were symbols of the deeply felt faith in G-d’s providence, even in the darkest of times. The mirrors were transformed into a mark of humanity rising up into a bond with the Divine. When man connects to G-d, he surpasses his limitations and connects to the Infinite. This is perfectly congruent with the concept of the Mishkan and so came G-d’s demand to accept the offering.

Perhaps this is why of all things, the mirrors were converted into the washing basin for the Kohanim. The Kiyor was used to purify the Kohanim, who would serve as the emissaries between the people and G-d in a personal connection of devotion, thus coupling Man and G-d in a special union. The Kiyor would forever serve as a symbol and reminder of G-d’s desire to connect with man in this world, and of the nation’s undying faith in His promises.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Parshat Ki Tisa - The Humble Servant

This week’s parsha tells of the difficult episode of the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets, while his student Yehoshua waits at the bottom. Moshe comes down, and Yehoshua tells him, “The sound of battle is in the camp.” Moshe responds, “It is not the sounds of shouting of might nor the sound of shouting of weakness; a distressing sound do I hear!” (Shemot 32:17-18).

The Ramban comments that Moshe was a master of all wisdoms, including the wisdom of sounds, thus he could easily discern what type of sound it was. In light of this, Moshe knew exactly what he was hearing. If so, why did Moshe speak in such vague terms? Why didn’t Moshe state what really was going on? The Ramban explains that although Moshe did in fact know what the noise was, in his great humility, he did not want to speak badly about the people in saying they were worshipping the Golden Calf.

Although not speaking negatively about others may be a great virtue, what makes it a showing of great humility? Wouldn’t that be more accurately described as practicing the virtue of silence, or the strength of “holding back”? Moreover, in this instance, doesn’t Moshe have a valid reason to speak badly about them? Didn’t the nation just receive the Torah from G-d Himself – and yet is already transgressing Hashem's laws? Seemingly there is more than enough justification to criticize them. What connection is there between the trait of humility and refraining from correctly criticizing the Nation?

From the actions of Moshe we can learn a tremendous lesson; that even though one may be correct in his disapproval of another, he must still keep quiet. A person doesn't need to be right if it will come along with being disrespectful or derogatory. What is the is point of being right, if it will bring about nothing positive and further risk adding fuel to the fire? If Moshe had said something derogatory at this point, no one would have blamed him; on the contrary, he was more than justified! But, out of humility, he instead chose to be silent about the transgression, not to draw attention to it, for the sake of Klal Yisrael. I heard personally from the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yechiel Yitzchak Perr shlit”a a line that serves as a beautiful sum-up of this lesson. He said: “Life is not about being right, it is about being a good loser.” Remaining silent, and being the “loser,” can often be the greatest victory.

However, this ability to remain silent and to hold back the innate need show that we are right, can only come if one has worked on his humility. Through humility, one comes to the realization that only G-d runs the world, and therefore he can accept that not everything will go his way. (Actually, when things don't go our way, it's the biggest proof that it’s G-d who runs the world!) He has no need to to “come out on top” or “get the last word in.” This was the “great humility” of Moshe who was עניו מכל אדם. He was able to hold back, and from this great act of humility came great kindness as well.

The Gemara in Nedarim (38a) says that when Hashem commanded Moshe to carve the second tablets, G-d intended only to give it to Moshe and his offspring. As it says, “Carve for yourself (לך), two tablets of stone like the first ones.” The Gemara learns from “לך” that it means: to you [Moshe], and not to Klal Yisrael. But, the Gemara continues, Moshe had a טובת עין; he looked at Klal Yisrael favorably and gave the Torah to them as well. From this Gemara we get further insight into the greatness of Moshe. He could have kept the whole Torah for himself and his children, but because he saw goodness in everyone, he chose to share it with them. Moshe was a true servant of G-d in every way.

The meaning of being an עבד ה׳ (a servant of G-d) is to make His will our will, and His desires our desires (Avot 2:4); we should want to sanctify His name among the world and bring more honor to His kingdom. Moshe understood that ultimately it was Hashem's will for the entire Nation to receive the Torah, and therefore, being the greatest servant, he gave it to them. Through his humility, the self abnegation and complete ביטול of his רצונות in the face of G-d’s Will, Moshe was able to come to a true alignment with G-d's ultimate desire. Because it is through relinquishing our image of the way the world “shouldbe, and accepting G-d’s complete dominion, that we are then able to truly discern the will of Providence.

This explains why Moshe didn’t speak derogatorily about the nation when they served the golden calf. He intuited that it was the ultimate will of Hashem to give the Torah to the Jews. Knowing this, how could he speak badly about the nation that is so beloved to Hashem? The humility of Moshe combined with his ayin tova allowed him to act, not based on his natural emotional response to the situation, but in light of a bigger picture. A picture that would bring the most honor to his Master.

Shabbat Shalom
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