As a preparation for the upcoming holiday of Pesach, the custom is that, in addition to the reading of the regular Torah portion, chapter 19 of the book of Bemidbar (Numbers) is also read. Known as the portion of Poro (the Red Heifer) the Torah describes a Temple-era procedure of how an individual who had become contaminated with a certain source of spiritual contamination would be restored to his or her pristine state of purity. A perfectly red cow would be burnt and its ashes sprinkled on that impure individual.
Now many things about this practice are downright bizarre but what is perhaps most strange about this enigmatic mitzvah is that this entire passage is introduced with the expression, “This is the law of the Torah”. This implies that this ritual somehow encapsulates the essence of the Torah’s entire message to humanity. But how, and why?
The essence of Torah
Perhaps what stands out above anything else in this episode is one small detail – The very priest who was involved in purifying a spiritually impure individual would himself become contaminated. A completely counter-intuitive idea if you think about it. Indeed, why would any right-minded person be willing to jeopardize their own purity for the sake of somebody else? But, says the Torah, that’s exactly the point. That’s the law, the message, of Judaism. If I am not willing to give up something of my own spirituality in order to raise somebody else up, I am trapped in my own spiritual maze and, in the process, have completely misunderstood the goal of the Torah. In the words of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe,
“What good is Torah knowledge and piety if the main quality is lacking – ahavat Yisrael, love of another?” (HaYom Yom 8 Av)
Soul to Soul
I once heard an elucidation of this concept from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In a discussion on what differentiates a spiritual person from a materialistically-minded individual, he pointed out that the difference between the two words ‘Soul’ and ‘Soil’ actually provides the answer. Although possessing three letters in common, what sets them apart are the letters U in Soul and I in Soil. What this implies is that the person motivated by a Divine purpose (the “Soul” individual) is defined by his or her fixation on the other (‘U’), whereas the material man or woman (the “Soil” individual) prioritizes his life choices based upon considerations of what is best for him, and him alone (‘I’).
The Crux of the Torah
So if you do something for another and not only do you not get rewarded for it, but you also become impure for it, that is true self-sacrifice. When you really sacrifice yourself for another, not only do you not benefit, but you also in a sense suffer for it. Now that’s touching the Divine.
Do me a favor!
It was the moment of truth for Esther and indeed the entire Jewish people as their very future was on the line. Haman’s decree of annihilation against the Jewish people was on the verge of fruition.
The time had come for the Jewish queen to exert her unique influence in trying to overturn the evil Haman’s wicked plans. She was requested by her uncle Mordechai to approach her husband, King Ahashveirosh, and persuade him to rescind the sentence. But one obstacle stood in her way – “any man or woman who approaches the king…who is not summoned (is) to be put to death” (Esther 4:11). And since she had not been summoned by her husband during the previous 30 days, she herself faced the very real danger of incurring the death penalty, her royal position notwithstanding.
So she sent word back to Mordechai that she was unwilling to put her life at risk. Back came his stinging reply – “…And who knows whether it was just for such a time as that you attained the royal position?” (ibid 4:14).
In order to interpret Mordechai’s message it is first of all necessary to mention a concept that is often raised in mystical teachings. This is the question of why G-d sees it fit to send a lofty soul into this lowly, coarse physical world, an environment which is rife with tests and tribulations that often corrupt and sully the purity of that soul. Would any normal, thinking parent put their child in a dangerous jungle, exposed to all the dangers that such a place entails?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) answers that every neshomo (soul) is sent into this world to accomplish a particular mission. Quoting his own teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, he says:
“A soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years, in order to do a person a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one.” (HaYom Yom, 5 Iyar).
A staggering statement indeed. But this is exactly what Mordechai is saying to Queen Esther – you should know that the whole purpose that your soul was sent by G-d into this world was to go to Ahashveirosh and save the Jews.
This is a very deep concept. It obviously teaches us an unequivocal lesson about our purpose in this world. But it also sheds light on our attitude to helping out another person. Perhaps we need to spend more time thinking about developing a sense of pleasure in doing someone else a favor, even seeing it as a top priority in one’s life. In the Lubavitcher Rebbe obm’s words:
“It is a magnificent achievement to merit an innate sense for doing kindness to another, to derive deep pleasure from it. This can develop to the point that one cherishes the other more than oneself.”(HaYom Yom, 6 Adar I).
As lazy as toad
This week’s parsha, Vayikra, begins the third of the five books of Moses. One of the central themes of this book is the concept of animal sacrifices. Although no longer practiced, their symbolism and lessons endure. One of these lessons is that each person contains an ‘animal within’ and it is our job to refine and sublimate those animalistic tendencies towards G-dly ends.
One of the common traits that we share with the animal kingdom is the desire to maximize our self-gratification and physical tranquility. The problem with this is that once we surrender to these objectives this creates a lack of enthusiasm, or zerizus, with regard to our Divine obligations. It does not take much reflection or spiritual accounting to realize that when one pursues material pleasure as an end in itself one actually becomes enslaved by one’s passions, thereby hindering one’s ability to express one’s spiritual potential. Whilst man is of course permitted to enjoy rest and partake of worldly pleasures, these are not the purpose of his existence and should be set aside when necessary.
In yet another example of where Torah values seem to be at odds with those of contemporary Western mores, Judaism does not actually advocate physical tranquility as a desired goal. On the contrary, the Tanach clearly says that, “Man is born to toil” (Job 5:7). In other words, and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively at first glance, it is only when one breaks free of one’s indifference and laziness towards spiritual matters that one can actually become truly free.
This is perhaps the reason why the Torah, on more than one occasion, exhorts us to “strengthen yourself and be courageous to observe and fulfill Torah” (Joshua 1:7 et al), as well as why King Solomon’s repeatedly warns against the evil and ruin of laziness: “Just a little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little more folding of the hands and your poverty is suddenly upon you.” (Proverbs 6:10). Laziness gives birth to countless rationalizations – “I need the extra 5 minutes sleep” or “I’m too busy to help someone else out”. We in turn use rationalizations to permit ourselves to maintain the status quo. It is so harmful precisely because it is self-deceptive.
But before we start working on our enthusiasm it needs to be emphasized that the slogan “Do it Now” only applies to spiritual matters. Physical gratifications, on the other hand, should preferably be delayed to give one the opportunity to reflect whether they are really essential. Indeed it is a proven principle that any desire which tends to ease one’s burdens should be considered with suspicion. One need look no further than addictions, arguably the prototype of the desire for immediate gratification, where the addict gives no consideration whatsoever to the grave consequences that result from yielding to one’s desires leading them to an abyss no animal could possibly find themselves in.
This week’s Parsha w/ Peretz is dedicated to Josh Hochschuler by his loving family on the occasion of his birthday, wishing him a blessed and successful year.
We are all CPAs
There are no coincidences in life. It is always around the time of the year when we (should) start thinking about our tax returns that we read parshas Pekudei, or “Accountings”. The parsha describes in detail the sum of all the raw materials that the Jewish people brought to Moshe for the construction of the Tabernacle.
There is a teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement, that says that everything in a person’s life is instructive as to how to serve G-d. There are therefore special lessons that one can learn from an accountant. For instance, that every single item on a balance sheet matters and affects the end result. Moreover it is not enough to make an accounting of one’s assets and liabilities on rare occasions. Rather this must be done on a regular basis: if a person gives no time to think about his behavior then his actions become literally thoughtless.
Another lesson that one may learn from this profession is that, in addition to accuracy in our calculations, a person needs to have a certain degree of urgency when it comes to taking stock of our spiritual lives. When it comes to financial accounting we are extremely careful to exercise the utmost prudence so as to not misstate our ‘books’. Clearly the lesson to be internalized is that we should be no less scrupulous with our spiritual stocktaking.
But for some reason we often rationalize that we don’t need to show that same caution in matters of the spirit. Maybe it is self-love that blinds us to our own faults. But the fact remains that being oblivious to one’s spiritual faults, which is a direct result of not taking the necessary time to examine our deeds, can be disastrous. Denial in this sphere can be analogous to feeling one’s way in a dark forest – just as in darkness one may fail to recognize what is dangerous, so too by being in a state of denial one may not see danger signals which may lead one to mistake harmful things for beneficial ones.
One of the hallmarks of wisdom is the awareness that the relentless pursuit of material pleasure is endless and ultimately elusive. Once this penny drops, a person is forced to deal with issues of Why am I here? and What am I supposed to accomplish with my life? Answers to these questions force change upon a person, no longer allowing him to live in blissful ignorance.
So what we need is a wake-up call: not, G-d forbid, an IRS audit, but certainly a desire to make that truthful accounting that will be the impetus to make the necessary changes in our lives.
This week’s Parsha w/ Peretz is dedicated in loving memory of Ya’akov Shimon ben Chaim and Sara bas Dov haLevy on the occasion of their yahrtzeits by their children, Rebecca Sklaver and Gerschon Suster
The secret to unity
Nobody’s quite sure exactly how the recent upheavals in the Middle East will pan out. However what many onlookers have been impressed by is the degree of unity that the anti-incumbent movements have displayed. But will this show of unity last?
This week’s parsha actually addresses the issue of unity. The word Vayakhel itself means “and he gathered”, based upon Moshe’s assembling of the Jewish people immediately prior to their building of the Tabernacle. It is actually where the Hebrew word, Kehilla (community) derives its name from.
“Like one person, with one heart” v. “With one heart, like one person”
When the Jewish people arrived at Mt Sinai, the Torah (Exodus 19:2) surprisingly describes them in the singular form, just as it would describe one individual. Rashi (1040-1105) notes that at this very moment they were like, “one person, with one heart.” But apparently the Jewish people were not the only nation to achieve unity because when the Egyptians were pursuing the Jews after the Exodus, the Torah also describes the former in the singular (Exodus 14:10). But this time, commenting on the usage of the singular form, Rashi says they were like “with one heart, like one person.”
But the order of these phrases is indeed critical because the question one should ask oneself when one views a movement or a nation is what is the unifying factor at play here? Is it a goal or is there more of an underlying cause? In other words, is it a conditional love for one another or is it an unconditional love that will weather all types of storms?
And it is exactly this that Rashi is trying to communicate in the different ways he describes the Jews and the Egyptians. His comment suggests that the Egyptians lacked true unity because their motivation was their common goal of wiping out the Jewish people. It was merely this common purpose (“one heart”) that brought them together as a nation (“one person”), not anything inherent in their make-up. Take away the goal and they would have returned to their disparate ways.
In contrast, the Jewish people possess an inherent unity based on the fact that we are like “one person” or, in the words of the 18th Century mystic Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi,
It is on account of this common root in the One G‑d that all of Israel are called “brothers” — in the full sense of the word, and not only figuratively, in the sense of “relatives” or “similar in appearance” and the like…it is just that the(ir) bodies are distinct from each other. (Likkutei Amarim Ch.32)
So it’s not as if we are defined by our common purpose. Rather there exists an intrinsic unity that serves as a springboard for any common goal that the Jewish people have, not the other way round.
With this in mind we can now understand why unity was a necessary precondition to both receiving the Torah and the building of the Tabernacle. If our unity merely is a consequence of our common goals it will never last. It must be first like one person, and only then with one heart.
And maybe that’s why the outlook for modern-day Egypt is pretty grim.
When others go astray – Ki Tisa
A truly remarkable, and frankly incredible, event dominates this week’s parsha. We read how a mere six weeks after arguably the most awesome event in human history, the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai by the Almighty Himself, the Jewish people are prompted to look to a golden calf for leadership and guidance. It doesn’t take a sophisticated Torah scholar of the caliber of Rashi or Maimonides to scratch one’s head in disbelief at this sudden and tragic turn of events. I mean, the whole story just doesn’t make any sense – how on earth could this seemingly enlightened and spiritually aware group of people go so wrong so quickly?
But before we get carried away with their wrongdoing, let us just ponder the following Talmudic principle. You see, when it comes to judging the actions of others, particularly the reprehensible ones, the Talmud exhorts us to judge others favorably (Avos 1:6). Easier said than done? No doubt about it. Perhaps it is such a difficult mitzvah to uphold precisely because some of us suffer from deep insecurities about who we are, only feeling comfortable about ourselves when we are putting others down. So judging others harshly simply serves the purpose of massaging our already fragile egos.
But surely there must be some exceptions to this Talmudic teaching, like the golden calf episode, for example? It appears not. You see, our Sages say that “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination for evil is also greater” (Sukkah 52a). In other words the next time you see a person in power act in a mystifying fashion or you see someone stumble in a way that captures your righteous indignation, consider that maybe they fell so far precisely because their potential for greatness far exceeds anything that we, the onlooker, might possess. Perhaps we just can’t relate to these objects of our ire because they actually faced challenges far more daunting than those ever presented to us.
But there is actually one exception to this teaching of favorable judgment – oneself. Were one to apply this outlook to oneself, it would be nothing short of spiritual suicide. One would find oneself wallowing in excuses and complacency, getting away with almost anything in the name of one’s potential.
So when all’s said and done, who are we to judge others?
School of Hard Knocks – Parshas Tetzaveh
The opening verse of our parsha describes the provision of the oil for the Menorah (the candelabra in the Holy Temple) which was prepared by crushing olives.
It is clearly with specific intent that the Torah requires that the olives be crushed. Indeed elsewhere in Scripture (Jeremiah 11:16) the Sages of the Talmud (Menachos 53b) note that there actually exists a comparison between the olive and the Jewish people:
Just as the purpose of the olive is the oil which is extracted from it, so too the purpose of the Jewish people is realized only after it reaches the end of its processing.
In other words, it seems that the only way for the Jewish people to produce their spiritual potential is once they have been squeezed and crushed through agonizing suffering and toil. Although this has played itself out throughout our history, why did the Almighty have to make it this way?
Well, let’s think about it. We are all familiar with the adage, “No pain, no gain”. Everybody is acutely aware that the most precious things in life come through prodigious effort. Indeed, it is precisely because we may have struggled so hard for something that we come to appreciate it as much as we do. Those things that we access with ease are clearly not valued as much in our eyes. It therefore seems that we too, like the olive, yield our best when under pressure.
It is for this exact reason that the Torah describes our slavery in Egypt as being in an iron crucible, an image that connotes a process of purity and refinement. But whilst this is painful process of cleansing which we all experience both individually and nationally to extricate the deeply wedged dross, we must bear in mind that it is not just painful for the refinee but also for the Refiner. Does a parent not wince in pain when he or she gives their infant child to the doctor to have its vaccinations? Does the fact that the parent knows that this is for child’s benefit in any way minimize their compassion and empathy for their offspring’s plight?
Perhaps this concept of producing our best when under pressure explains why our Sages say that when the Messianic era comes and suffering and difficulties are no more, we will actually yearn for these days. Only then will we come to see how precious these efforts were in Hashem’s eyes as well as finally understanding how much we too benefited from being pressed like olives.
Parshas Terumah – The Humility of Wealth
A concept that has always intrigued me is Judaism’s attitude to wealth. Is its pursuit or acquisition desirable or is wealth viewed with contempt in the same way that so many other religions and philosophies tend to see it?
And then I came across the following piercing statement that the Rabbis issued when discussing the Mishkan (the mobile Temple that accompanied the Jews in the wildnerness), the construction of which is the subject of this week’s parsha. The Midrash states:
“The world was not worthy to use gold. Why then was it created? For the sake of the Mishkan.”(Bereishis Rabba 16:2)
An emphatic statement indeed. Certainly not “greed is good”, but clearly an acknowledgment that gold and wealth most definitely have their place in the Divine plan. Maybe what the Rabbis were in fact implying was that wealth was not an end in and of itself. Gold doesn’t have any intrinsic value. What it was created for, though, was to be a vehicle for a holier and more spiritual purpose. Make no mistake, our Rabbis were saying, wealth used in the right way has the potential to transform this world into a dwelling for the Divine Presence, just like the Mishkan was designed to be.
Perhaps this notion of wealth will help us understand a piece of Talmud that I and many others have struggled with. The Talmud relates how one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (he’s so famous he has a street named after him in most Israeli cities!), credited with preventing the Torah from being forgotten from the Jewish people almost 2,000 years ago, “honored the rich” (Eruvin 86a). Now Rebbe, as he was known, was himself an extraordinarily wealthy individual and therefore in no need to bootlick in order curry favor with anyone else. The reason he honored the rich was because of his awareness of the trust which G-d had vested in them to utilize their bounty to spread good and blessing around them and in the world at large.
In other words G-d has deliberately decided that certain individuals should have more wealth than others, but not for their own benefit. Rather, having wealth is G-d’s way of telling the wealthy that they need to use what they’ve been given to affect much more than themselves. An incredible responsibility if you think about it.
And armed with this humility they will be instilled with the awareness of why gold was created in the first place.
This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, happens to be the 18th section of the Five Books of Moses.We all know that Judaism attaches a great deal of importance to the number 18. After all, it’s the numerical equivalent of the word Chai, or Life. So the question becomes, what constitutes living a Jewish life?
Let’s look at the Holy Tongue for a possible solution. The word in Hebrew used to denote concentration in prayer is kavannah. In a fascinating play on words, this word also means direction. You see, from a Jewish point of view, the key to a life of purpose and meaning is having a definite direction. And yet most Jews nowadays would seem to have lots of direction in many areas of their lives – which neighborhoods they want to live in, where they’ll send their kids to school, where they’ll spend next year’s vacations etc. Infact if someone were to say that they have no idea about how they will make a living or where they want to live they would be regarded as careless at best and perhaps insane at worst.
But is this the kind of direction that the Torah is imploring us to have? Whilst having a definite direction in many areas of life is healthy, sadly many of us lack direction in the most fundamental question of all – “Why was I created?” Am I just a random conglomeration of atoms or an individual created in the Divine image endowed with a cosmic mission to make this world a suitable dwelling place for the Almighty?
A former president of IBM, Thomas J Watson, was known to have distilled his company’s entire philosophy into one word – THINK. If only we could stop for a moment from our busy schedules, iphones, texting, facebooking and tweeting and just think about for what purpose we were created, our lives could change direction in a nanosecond. And then we could start living up to our true potential. Unfortunately one of side effects of living a non-directed life is its lack of consistency in terms of priorities. What might be coveted at one stage of our lives becomes insignificant in another. In contrast, with a G-d centred direction, each stage becomes another expression of the same goal. And with our energies striving towards the same objective, we succeed in fulfilling our divinely appointed purpose.
Now, wouldn’t that be a life worth living?
Welcome to the inaugural “Parsha with Peretz” – a weekly email where I get a share a short message from the weekly Torah portion or closest festival.
I’ve been fascinated for a while with a particular midrash (Rabbinic insight) into the events surrounding this week’s parsha. The Rabbis relate that when the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mt Sinai, no echo of G-d’s voice was audible. And this fact, according to the Rabbis, was supposed to be a big deal! But this always bothered me. Why was the fact that there was no echo proof that this was a monumental spectacle? I mean, if you go the Grand Canyon (which I admit I haven’t) and shout out your name, presumably there’ll be this massive reverberation of your scream, pointing to the awesomeness and enormity of the place. So really, the lack of an echo might actually prove that G-d’s voice and message weren’t actually that powerful after all.
But then I came across this ingenious interpretation. You see, an echo is caused by something that gets in the way of the sound waves. Since there’s an obstruction in their way the waves bounce back off the object, hence the seeming repetition of the sound. Rather like when you throw a ball against a wall, it comes right back at you. So when G-d spoke to the world, had there been an echo, that would have shown that there was actually some opposition to the message. But at that time, and maybe the only time yet in world history, there was nothing that got in the way. Not inanimate objects, nor the vegetable kingdom, nor animals and most impressively, not even mankind. At that stage the message was absorbed, internalized and completely in sync with creation. Amazing if you think about it.
So what’s that got to do with us (I can hear you ask)? Sometimes part of us gets in the way. There are parts of doing mitzvos and being a good Jew/person that we really connect with and enjoy – we don’t oppose them. On the contrary we’re pretty enthusiastic about doing them. And yet there are other things that we just can’t be bothered to do or simply will not do. Maybe it’s laziness or ideological opposition, but we just don’t connect with this mitzva or this idea. Well, maybe part of our spiritual and emotional growth is try and get to the root of this opposition and unravel it, bit by bit. And then we can start living with the joy of Judaism and not the ‘oy’ of Judaism.
We’ll be surprised how much happier and at peace with ourselves we’ll become.
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Have a wonderful Shabbos,