Thursday, September 29, 2016

Returning to the Root of Our Existence

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Nitzavim
Returning to the Divine Spark of Our Soul
We definitely feel the teshuvah (repentance) in the air as the full moon rises in the Elul sky, and we awake to the call of the neighbors’ shofars. It strikes me that for most of us, teshuvah is about getting rid of the smuts of our negative emotions and habits such as selfishness, jealousy, anger, judgment, lashon hara, disrespect, lack of modesty etc. Thinking about the meaning of the word תְּשׁוּבָה/teshuvah – return, it seems that rather than being preoccupied with what to return from, the focus needs to be on to where and what we are returning. I would like to return to who I really am, to the person Hashem created me to be – to become aligned with the Divine spark of my soul. Teshuvah is about searching for our essence by visualizing our higher selves and reconnecting with the part of ourselves that may be hiding behind layers of errors caused by fear, pain, anger etc. In the process of searching, we usually remove everything that’s in the way in order to find our lost jewel. However, if we get stuck in clearing away the garbage but forget about the jewel what have we accomplished? Throughout the sin-confessing process of teshuvah, let us not forget that each of us is a precious Jewel, which just needs a bit of polishing to adorn the crown of the King.

Returning to Our Place Within the Community of Israel
Parashat Nitzavim designates the goal of our teshuvah. We are called upon to return until Hashem our G-d:
ספר דברים פרק ל פסוק ב וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ:
“Return to Hashem your G-d, and listen to His voice with all your heart and soul both you and your children, just as I command you this day” (Devarim 30:2).

Eight verses later, at the end of the paragraph, the Torah seemingly repeats itself, directing us to once again return to Hashem.

ספר דברים פרק ל פסוק י כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ:
“…since you will be heeding the voice of Hashem your G-d, to keep His commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law; once you return to Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul” (Devarim 30:10).

If we compare the language used to describe each of the returns to Hashem, we discover that the first return is described as עַד הָשֵׁם/ad Hashem, whereas the final return is described as אֶל הָשֵׁם/el Hashem. What is the difference between returning ad or el Hashem? “Ad Hashem” is returning “towards G-d” – approaching, but not fully attaining. The Torah often uses the preposition עַד /ad, indicating a state of ‘towards, but not included in the category’ (עַד - וְלֹא עַד בִּכְלָל/ad, velo ad bichlal (Berachot 26b and more). This is genuine yet incomplete repentance, obscured by many veils. Perhaps, this first stage of teshuvah refers to individual teshuvah which every Jew can do even while in exile. However, complete return to our essential selves – אֶל הָשֵׁם/el Hashem cannot be achieved as individuals on foreign soil. On Rosh Hashana we come before Hashem not only as individuals but also as a flock of sheep. Who we are is not defined by our individual virtues alone, but rather, by finding our true place within the greater whole of the nation of Israel. This can be compared to a stitch in an embroidered challah cover. The stitch by itself may be absolutely perfect, yet it only expresses its fullest beauty when connected with the other stitches, forming an intricate pattern. The struggle to find our true place within the greater group, where we can both contribute and receive is an important part of returning to our highest selves cleaving completely to Hashem. The spiritual progress of any individual Jewish is intrinsically dependent on the spiritual state of the entire Jewish people (Tal Chaim, p. 18).

Ultimate Teshuvah on the Holy Land
Although there are Jewish communities in exile, returning to Hashem and ourselves can only be fully accomplished in the place designed for our ultimate purpose. The Jewish people is compared to a grapevine that will only yield an abundance of healthy succulent fruits when planted on suitable soil with optimal conditions (The Kuzari, 2:11-12). True teshuvah pertains to both body and soul, and the Land of Israel is the only place where a Jew can become both physically and spiritually aligned to Hashem’s will. The soul-root of every Jew is in the land of Israel, where we can thrive to our fullest, on an individual, communal and national level. This concept is supported by the intermediate Torah verses between the two directives to return to Hashem. After describing the initial stage of teshuvah, the Torah goes on to describe how Hashem will gather us from the furthermost corners of exiles, return us to the Land of Israel, circumcise our hearts, and bless our produce and offspring. Meriting this Divine assistance will enable us to achieve the final culmination in the teshuvah process – a new kind of teshuvah, where we will not only return towards Hashem עַד הָשֵׁם/ad Hashem, but rather a complete all-embracing cleaving אֶל /el – to Hashem:

ספר דברים פרק ל (ג) וְשָׁב הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה:(ד) אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ:(ה) וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ:(ו) וּמָל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ:(ז) וְנָתַן הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הָאָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וְעַל שׂנְאֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר רְדָפוּךָ:(ח) וְאַתָּה תָשׁוּב וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל הָשֵׁם וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם:(ט) וְהוֹתִירְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ לְטֹבָה כִּי יָשׁוּב הָשֵׁם לָשׂוּשׂ עָלֶיךָ לְטוֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂשׂ עַל אֲבֹתֶיךָ:
“Then Hashem your G-d will return your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where Hashem, your G-d, has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are dispersed in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And Hashem, your G-d, will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. Then Hashem your G-d will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. Hashem your G-d will afflict all these curses upon your enemies, and foes who persecuted you. You, however will return and harken to the voice of Hashem, and obey all His commandments that I command you this day. Then Hashem your G-d will grant you abounding prosperity in all of your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good. For Hashem will again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your fathers” (Devarim 30:2-10).

Even if we are unable to rise to the challenge of the highest level of teshuvah cleaving completely to Hashem, it is important to recognize and appreciate each little baby-step of teshuvah. Our desire to change and improve in itself has value, leading us on our way to attaining complete spiritual elevation.

Taking us By the Hand through the Teshuvah Process
Rashi asks why the Torah uses the form of the word shav when describing how Hashem will return our captivities rather than heshiv, which means causing others to return. The form shav indicates that Hashem himself returns with us. Since the Shechina dwells among Israel in exile, at the time of our redemption, Hashem Himself is redeemed as well (Megillah 29a). In addition, the day of the ingathering of the exiles will be so great and difficult, that Hashem himself will hold the hand of each and every Jew personally escorting us back home, as it states, “You will be gathered up one by one, O Children of Israel” (Yesha’yahu 27:1); (Rashi, Devarim 30:3). Rav Shmuel Tal explains that ‘exile’ can also refer to the distance of our soul from its source. Thus, we may learn from Rashi’s explanation that Hashem’s presence always dwells within the teshuvah process of both the individual Jew and the general community of Israel. In addition, we learn that Hashem himself takes each of us by the hand in order to help lift us up and out of sin and exile. He guides us personally to return to His presence, by removing the blocks of our ‘heartwalls’ (Based on Tal Chaim, pp. 26-28).

­­­­­­­­­­Why Bother Doing Teshuvah when We Relapse Year after Year?
When I look through my old confession-journals, I find many repetitions, from year to year. Resolutions I took upon myself were short-lived and each year after the High Holidays passed, it seems like I slid back from the ladder of teshuvah. “So what,” I ask myself, “does teshuvah accomplish if it is so ephemeral?” Why go through all the motions of teshuvah only to relapse year after year? This can be compared to a religious Jewish family preparing for Pesach. Everyone is busy cleaning, dusting, scrubbing and polishing. Yet, soon after Pesach, the muck, dust and dirt begin to sneak back in and by next Erev Pesach the home is no cleaner than the previous year. So what is the value of cleaning if everything becomes dirty again? Rav Tal explains that even the short time that the home is sparkling clean adds greatly to the holiday Simcha. In addition, if we never cleaned our house for Pesach, the accumulated dirt would make our home more filthy year by year. This applies to the concept of teshuvah. Even if we only manage to keep our resolves of repentance for a short time, the time we enjoy our newfound connection with the Divine spark of our soul has value in itself and imbues the High Holidays and Sukkot with an added dimension. Moreover, more and more blocking barriers would accumulate around our heart, making it harder and harder to return to the essence of our soul, if we didn’t take advantage of this favorable yearly time for teshuvah (Tal Chaim, p. 15-17).

Revealing the Light of Hashem Within Us
Sin can be compared to darkness; as soon as we turn on the light, it is dispelled. Likewise, we can dispel the darkness of depravity. Once we infuse our thought, speech and actions with deep Divine connection, our prior faults evaporate. This is because darkness and sin has no true existence. They only comprise lack of light and Divine Presence. As soon as we repent, Hashem shines His light upon us, melting away the stain of sin (Ibid., p. 10- 11). Through teshuvah towards ourselves, our people, the world and all the worlds, the entire existence will return to the Light of the Light of life. This is the secret of the light of Mashiach – the soul of the world (Based on Rav Kook, Orot HaTeshuvah 15:10). May we merit climbing the ladder of teshuvah, growing closer to complete alignment with the essence of our being! May we all return to the root of our existence, revealing our shiny jewel within which will adorn the crown of the ultimate King! 

Shana Tovah Tikateivu V’Tichateumu!
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why Do We Need to Tithe the Produce of the Holy Land?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ki Tavo
Ingathering the Exiles by Performing the Mitzvot of the Land
Today I got the following SMS from my downstairs’ neighbor and tenant Yehudit:
Boker tov (good morning) I see there is a lot of fruit to be picked… Do you want help with this? Just let me know when and how.” I am happy to share the fruits in the garden in exchange for picking help, especially since the pomegranate trees in my backyard are out of range of my cordless phone, making it difficult to find time to pick them. “Just bring me the fruits, I will take ma’aser and give you your share!” I told Yehudit. Taking ma’aser (tithes) of the fruits and veggies that grow in our garden is a mitzvah that we, who live out on the land, get to perform daily, sometimes several times a day. It is one of the mitzvot ha’teluyot b’aretz – special mitzvot that we only perform inside of the Land of Israel. The Vilna Gaon believed that the performance of these mitzvot connected to the land brings redemption closer as he explains based on the opening verse of Parashat Ki Tavo:

ספר דברים פרק כו פסוק א וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ...
“It shall come to pass, when you come to the land…” (Devarim 26:1).

This refers to the ingathering of the exiles, similarly it states, “when you come to the land, you will plant,” (Vayikra 19:23), which means you must fulfill the commandments contingent on living in Eretz Yisrael. For the ingathering of the exiles depends on the blessings which follow the fulfillment of both verses, according to our Sages in the Talmud (Megillah17b; and Sanhedrin 98a) …this was the Vilna Gaon’s great aspiration (Kol HaTor 3:7). We are very fortunate that we get to fulfill this aspiration and witness Jews returning to our holy land from the four corners of the earth! Why is the mitzvah of taking tithes so important and what does it involve?

The Fruits of the Land are Holier than Us
In the Land of Israel, the fruits are “holier than thou.” What this means is that the essence of the fruits and vegetables from the Land of Israel is already in tune with the final redemption, whereas we are still in the process. These fruits are so holy that part of their holiness cannot be accessed today. Only at the time of redemption (may it be soon), will we and the Kohanim be able to eat them in purity and holiness. The fruits of the Land of Israel include a part that is already imbued with the holiness of the Temple, and can only be eaten at the Temple Mount. Therefore, growing fruits in the Land of Israel brings us closer to the final redemption. “But you, O mountains of Yisrael, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people of Israel; for they will soon be coming” (Yechezkiel 36:8). The Talmud comments, “…there is no more revealed end [of days] than that… (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a).

The Tribe of Levi – Dedicated to Fulltime Temple Service
When the Jewish people originally inherited the Land of Israel, each tribe was allotted a portion corresponding to its spiritual essence. However, the tribe of Levi did not receive any portion of land, because they are chosen for the fulltime occupation of serving in the Temple. The demanding work of farming was not to detract from their one hundred percent dedication to the Temple – the place where Heaven and Earth meet. When the Kohanim would sacrifice, the Jewish people and the entire world would receive atonement, become elevated, and connected with Hashem.

Offerings of Elevation
How did the tribe of Levi support itself while engaged in selfless work to benefit the world? In addition to receiving specific parts of the sacrifices, each of the remaining tribes were to give ten percent of their produce to the Levites (Bamidbar 18:21, 18:24), who assisted the Kohanim in the Temple service and accompanied them with musical instruments. This tithe is called מַעֲשֶר רִאשוֹן/ma’aser rishon – first or primary tithe. The word מַאַשֶר/ma’aser literarily means “from ten” referring to the ten percent which every tribe was to give to the Levites. The Levites supported the Kohanim by giving them ten percent of the produce they received, (See Bamidbar 18:26, 18:28). This tithe is called תְרוּמָת מַעֲשֶר/terumat ma’aser – contribution from the tithes. Receiving their main sustenance from the Levites, it was sufficient for the rest of Israel to give the Kohanim an undefined small amount (According to the Torah all we needed to give was שהוא כל/kol shehu – something, even just one grain of wheat (Rambam, Laws of Terumot, Chapter 3, Halacha 1). The contribution given to the Kohen is called תְרוּמָה גְדוֹלָה/terumah gedolah – the great elevation, since we become elevated by means of giving an offering to the Kohen whose service connects every Jew with their Father in Heaven.

Integrating Working the Land with the Holiness of the Temple
In addition to the tithes for the tribe of Levi, Parashat Ki Tavo mentions מַעֲשֶר עֳנִי/ma’aser ani – the tithes for the poor to be given every third and sixth year of the Sabbatical year cycle. This tithe is one of the many ways that the Torah ensures that the poor will be supported and have all their needs met.


ספר דברים פרק כו (יא) וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ: (יב) כִּי תְכַלֶּה לַעְשֵׂר אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁת שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר וְנָתַתָּה לַלֵּוִי לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה וְאָכְלוּ בִשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְשָׂבֵעוּ... (טו) הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמְּךָ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֵת הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לָנוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ:
“You shall enjoy together with the Levite and the stranger among you, all the bounty that Hashem your G-d has bestowed you and your household. When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield – in the third year, the year of the tithe – and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; that they may eat their fill in your settlements… Look down from your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers” (Devarim 26:11-15).

The remaining years, (one, two four and five following the Shemitah (Sabbatical Year) every Jewish farmer was to appear in Jerusalem with his מַעֲשֶר שֵנִי/ma’aser sheni – secondary tithe, from the produce that he had grown himself in the Holy Land. He was to take off time from the demanding work of the Land, in order to become spiritually elevated while immersed in the holiness of the Temple environment. The ma’aser sheni assures the connection and integration of the physical work of the Land, with the spiritual holiness of the Temple. The mindful eating of the holy produce of ma’aser sheni at the holiest place on earth and the conscious thankfulness to Hashem with every bite chewed elevates the eating and reminds the farmer, that it is only Hashem’s blessing rather than his personal effort, which brings about this abundance.

Perpetuating the Agricultural Tithes
Today, due to our long winded exile, we are, unfortunately, unable to keep all the laws of tithes the way the Torah originally intended. No one today, is able to eat anything in ritual purity, as we have not yet been able to access the means to properly purify ourselves from contact with death. Therefore, it is neither possible for us to elevate ma’aser sheni – the tithe to be eaten in purity and holiness at the Temple Mount, nor for the Kohen to eat terumah. However, since the laws of tithes of our produce are written directly in the Torah, and are so important, we are required to keep these laws even in a more limited way today, in order to ensure that we do not forget them. I feel honored to be perpetuating the holy laws of the Land by keeping them in the manner possible today, and by teaching them to my students, ingathered from the exile to the Holy Land. May the day come soon that we will once again be able to fulfill all the laws of the tithes in the highest way intended by the Torah! I can’t wait to bring my tithes of grapes, figs and pomegranates, in decorated baskets to relish in the holiness of the Temple Mount.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Whom Do we Benefit by Dressing Modestly?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ki Tetze

Self-Expression versus Modesty
When I first heard about the concept of tzniut (modesty), I didn’t understand it at all. I was a new, 19-year-old girl in the Yeshiva, coming from a more than open-minded Western background. For a nature-loving, flower-power girl who believed in full self-expression, without hiding any part of herself, connecting the word ‘modesty’ – a synonym for humility – even loosely to women’s dress code seemed absolutely absurd. Many of my friends, whom I considered humble and modest, walked around naturally in their birthday suit on islands for likeminded naturalists. After several years of searching for the connection between modesty and covering up, I can easily relate to the struggle with tzniut that many women face today. Understanding the meaning of modesty, unrelated to dress code, is in itself a challenge- especially since self-expression has been on the top of the list of my values even as a one-year old, when I would sing for passersby from my father’s shoulder. During a gradual process, while becoming a channel for Divine expression has surpassed the need for egocentric self-expression, I have nibbled at the concept of modesty, which is bit-by-bit becoming more palatable. Modesty entails being thankful for our G-d-given gifts rather than taking personal pride in projecting our talents and assets outwardly. More important than a preoccupation with expressing ourselves in words, song and art, is tuning into what others need to hear, see and learn from us. Rather than being motivated by the need to receive credit and recognition, a modest person operates in this world as a humble servant, desiring to use her talents for the benefit of others.

Modesty in Dress – A Service to Mankind
How can we apply the concept of modesty to our wardrobe? How do we dress as women who desire to use our assets to benefit others rather than gaining personal recognition? Whom would we benefit by wearing long sleeves and closed necklines? We need to understand that the beauty of our body is a G-d-given gift, granted to us for holy marital pleasure, rather than for receiving personal acknowledgement. Dressing publically in a way that accentuates our physicality, does not serve anyone, let alone ourselves. If we cannot benefit the public, by the choice of our clothing, then at the very least, we have a responsibility to avoid dressing in a way that does a disservice to others. Many women are unaware that men’s desire for a female body is not always holy. Therefore, dressing modestly avoids being a detriment to the male population. Since, a woman’s body may entice a man’s yetzer hara (negative impulse); we benefit men, by concealing our physical figure.

Protecting the ‘Weaker Sex’ from Temptation
Many women take offence by the notion of dressing modestly for the sake of avoiding “putting a stumble block in front of the blind” (Vayikra 19:14). They claim that they are not responsible to keep men’s appetite for women in check. Why should a woman suffer by wearing suffocating necklines in the heat of summer, just because a man cannot control his own animalistic tendency? I usually explain that just as it would be very inconsiderate to smoke in front of a person who is super sensitive to cigarette vapor, so is it inconsiderate to dress in a way that appeals to men’s lower instincts. Hashem created the nature of men and women in such a way that they would want to get married and fulfill the first commandment: “be fruitful and multiply” by building families. A woman naturally longs for an emotional and intimate bond with her soulmate, who will elevate her to become a mother of children whom she yearns to nurture. However, the male nature craves independence above all. To tie himself to a family can be challenging for a man. Therefore, Hashem imbued man with a very strong physical desire for women so that he too will seek a suitable mate, and elevate his desire through the holy marriage union. Any caring person would want to protect the weak from temptation. Therefore, realizing the nature of man and the intensity of his desire should naturally make a woman want to dress in a way that protects him from being enticed.

Do You Want to be a Face or a Behind?
The reason why many women are obstinate in this respect is that they have been force-fed tzniut down their throat since early childhood, in a way that makes them feel inferior, as if they do not have value as humans but are regarded merely as evil temptresses of men. In order to assert their own self-respect they reserve the right to dress as they please whether it bothers Rabbis and other men or not. Many women who dress seductively are motivated by an inferiority complex. A woman with low self-esteem intellectually, may compensate by asserting the power her body has over men. True self-confidence inspires an attitude of magnitude that affords dressing in a way that considers the limitations of others. Yet, dressing modestly is not only a way of showing consideration for others- it actually serves the woman herself by imbuing her with true self-respect. Realizing that the purpose of our body is to serve our soul – a spark of the Divine Indwelling Feminine Presence – naturally makes us want to dress in a way that causes others to view us as spiritual rather than physical beings. Covering our bodies with soft, flowing, loose wrappings highlights the light of our soul that shines through our facial features. Even though it is permitted for women to reveal their body in front of other women, out of self-respect, many women avoid doing so, as they want everyone to regard them as a face rather than as a behind.

Does the Shechinah Reside in the Nudist Beaches?
The holier something is the more covering it requires. This is why the Torah scroll is covered by both velvet and silver, before being enclosed in its special cabinet. The holiness of womanhood – embodying the Shechinah – necessitates a high standard of covering. Upon marriage, a woman rises to even higher holiness, as a potential mother. Therefore, a married woman requires an even greater level of modesty that includes a covering for her head. Just as greater levels of holiness require higher levels of modesty- so does lack of modesty cause the holiness of the Shechinah to depart:

ספר דברים פרק כג (טו) כִּי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ וְלָתֵת אֹיְבֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא יִרְאֶה בְךָ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְשָׁב מֵאַחֲרֶיךָ:
“Since Hashem your G-d walks in the midst of your camp to protect you and deliver your enemies to you. Therefore, let your camp be holy, let Him not find any nakedness among you and turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15).

Parashat Ki Tetze teaches us that immodesty in dress and demeanor chases away the Shechinah. Therefore, the holiness of the camp of Israel, permeated with the Shechinah, precludes public nakedness and improper sexuality, which is also called nakedness. As kind and as humble people may be on the nudist beaches, the Divine presence surely does not reside there.

The Burkini Outlaw
Today, it is not the nudists that cause the biggest stir in the news. Rather, a fully covered woman, who chooses to enjoy a swim at the beach is considered much more offensive by the authorities of the Western world. I can’t believe that in the Free World of the 21st century women, whether Muslim or not, have been arrested for wearing a modest swimsuit at the beach, while various degrees of exhibitionists and other perverts are free to expose their sexual appetites publically. This lack of religious freedom seems even more backward than the attempt to enforce women to wear modest dress in certain neighborhoods. I guess the Burkini threatens the Western World’s penchant for flaunting the flesh of full female forms freely. What it boils down to is that every woman is in charge of her own body. No one has the right to force a woman to either uncover or cover. However, I hope that every woman will choose how to dress wisely, showing consideration by thinking twice about the effect her uncovered body parts have on men, on the world and on her self-dignity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fostering Fruit Friendships

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Shoftim
My Emotional Attachment to Fruit-Trees
I have a sad, dead nectarine tree in my garden. It is the third nectarine tree to go, and I’m mourning because my trees are in some aspect like my children (not quite – obviously –but I do feel a strong attachment). Even when my husband prunes the fruit trees during their dormant winters, I may feel pain, if too much of the branches were chopped down, or the wrong branches were cut in the wrong way. Not that I could do it better myself – that’s for sure – and how can I ever expect my patient and kind husband to wait for me to tell him where to cut each and every branch? Even that, however, may not spare me from pain, as I might give him wrong instructions… Believe it or not, the Torah has very strict requirements regarding cutting down and even pruning fruit-trees. This is because a human being is compared to a tree, as we learn from Parashat Shoftim.

The special quality of plants and trees lies in their attachment to the earth, the source of our existence and nourishment. Whereas our intellect is connected to the animate, our emotions are compared to vegetation that embody growth and development. Just as vegetation is unique in its constant unification with its source, so too within humans, our emotive powers are always attached to our essence. This also explains why emotional traits and tendencies are so powerful, and why it is so difficult for a kind person to become severe, etc. By comparing humans to “a tree in the field,” the Torah is alluding that our emotional qualities are more essential than our intellect. When we work on ourselves, we need to focus on refining our emotions rather than our mind, for perfecting and polishing our emotive character has the greatest impact on our essence. I hope and pray that the dead nectarine tree in my garden represents some of my negative emotions that I am now ready to let go.

Do Not Kill a Fruit-Tree!
ספר דברים פרק כ (יט) כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר:

“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” (Devarim 20:19).

This verse describes a war-situation in which we are forbidden to destroy fruit-trees in the enemy city. Since fruit-trees give life to humanity and are intended for food, we are not permitted to cut them down – even in order to conquer the city. How much more so, may we not cut down trees wantonly. It is prohibited to uproot or cut down a fruit tree if we do not have an acceptable reason to do so (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:8). There are different opinions about what is considered “acceptable reasons.” Some halachic authorities permit cutting down a fruit tree if we need the place. Others permit cutting a tree down only if it is damaging the ground, and the surrounding trees (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 116; Shemirat haGuf veNefesh veBal Tashchit 15). Therefore, before cutting down any fruit-tree, please consult with a competent rabbi. Whereas, there is no halachic problem cutting off branches of a fruit tree if it will cause it to grow better, certain halachic authorities hold that destruction of any portion of a tree that does not result in its improvement is forbidden (Har Tzvi, Hilchot Sukkah, 101; Yechaveh Da’at, Vol. 5, 46). This makes sense since a fruit-tree is compared to a human being, and just like an operation could cause death, so have I experienced trees dying as a result of pruning. How much trepidation must a person have when pruning his fruit-trees. Good my husband is a doctor!

Take from Nature What You Need, But Do Not Destroy It
Our sages expanded the Torah prohibition of Bal Tashchit – “do not destroy” – to refer to vandalism of any nature. It includes any wanton or needless destruction of anything on earth.

רמב"ם, הלכות מלכים פרק ו, הלכה י  ולא האילנות בלבד, אלא כל המשבר כלים, וקורע בגדים, והורס בנין, וסותם מעין, ומאבד מאכלות דרך השחתה, עובר בלא תשחית...
Not only trees, but also whoever breaks vessels, rents garments, destroys a building, obstructs a wellspring, or wastes food in a destructive way transgresses the mitzvah of “Bal Tashchit” (“do not destroy”)… (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:10).

The Torah cautions us not to waste anything in the world, especially not food. In our world of abundance, we often take food for granted and are not always careful to avoid wasting it. On a deeper level, we can learn the importance of not squandering our talents and time on unworthy pursuits. The mitzvah of Bal Tashchit also highlights the Divine imperative to do what we can to preserve our environment. Sefer Hachinuch makes a connection between character development and avoiding even the slightest waste. He equates unnecessary destruction with “every evil thing” and explains that righteous people who inspire others to come close to the Torah must develop a higher sensitivity and love for everything good in Hashem’s world. Therefore, by conducting ourselves with concern for the environment, we gradually accustom ourselves to caring for not only our fellow human, but also for all of Hashem’s creation (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 529).

Guidelines for Fruit-Pickers
It can be challenging not to waste the fruits of the garden. During picking season, most fruit trees are surrounded by mounds of fallen fruits that attract flies and insects. Chickens will happily munch on fallen and damaged fruits, especially when picked up before they are completely sundried. As part of caring for all of Hashem’s creation, I endeavor to master the art of picking fruits, walking the tightrope between under and over ripe. We can learn to develop our sensitivity to these gentle G-d given beings, by considering texture and color. This way we may hear the soft call of the fruits asking to be picked. Grapes need to be soft to the touch and not hard as golf balls. Yellow plums must not be green, and you actually need to wait for red plums to turn purple. The trick is to tug very gently at a fruit. If it comes off easily without having to yank it, then it is fully ripe. It is a challenge to get to everything in time and to manage to put the fruits, which need extra time to continue ripening in the house, in the fridge at the right time, before they turn brown.

Using Each Fruit for Its Highest Purpose
Keeping the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit entails utilizing each item according to the way it is created to benefit us best. Each fruit has its purpose. You may serve the highest quality fruits in a fruit basket. Those with blemishes can be cut and used for fruit-salad. The mushy overripe fruits are ideal for a smoothie. Likewise, we sort the grapes into three piles: for eating, for grape-juice, and to feed the chickens. You can make fruit compote by cooking any combination of soft-pitted fruits for approximately twenty minutes to half an hour on low heat. I like to add raisins and cinnamon to my compote. There is no need to add sugar. A favorite compote with my students is made from apples, raisins, and cinnamon. Fruit compote keeps in the fridge for several weeks. Applesauce, pie, peach preserve and apricot ice cream grace my freezer. When fall kicks in, and the trees stand bare, I sigh a sigh of relief!

Practical Tips to Avoid Wasting Precious Natural Resources
Avoiding waste is relevant year round and we must always inculcate the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit into our overall awareness. Here are a few things we can do to reduce wasting paper – made from trees.

· Keep a place or box for scrap paper to be used for quick notes, shopping lists and art projects, etc.

· Save your work on the computer and only print out the final version.

· Adjust the default of your printer settings to print on both sides.

· Donate online and minimize the need for printed materials to be sent to you.

Trees need water, and especially during the hot and dry Mediterranean summers, water is scarce. Water is our most vital natural resource, since no human effort will ever be able to artificially manufacture water. Repeated water abuse is threatening our planet with dehydration. Let us develop positive habits for the conservation and recycling of water:

· Scrub your fruits and veggies in a big bowl and tub, and reuse the water to water your garden or houseplants.

· Reuse the water from rinsing your sprouts to water your plants. Notice how your plants will grow better with the extra nutrition contained in the “sprout water.”

· Do not wash your dishes with running water but in a tub. Soap the dishes with the water off and then turn it on to rinse. You will use less water this way and the water of the tub can be reused to water your grass or fruit-trees.

· Be mindful of waste with regard to watering gardens, and do NOT hose down your walkway to make it clean.

· When turning on water while waiting for it to turn warm enough for the shower, fill up a bucket or a few Netilat Ya’dayim cups for reuse.

We live in an era of instant gratification. The western “consumer culture” (an outgrowth of the hedonistic Roman perspective) persuades us to concern ourselves with our immediate comfort without considering future consequences. However, everything in creation contains sparks of vitality. We can elevate these sparks by making a conscious effort to compost, preserve and recycle rather than throwing everything away.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Was Jesus a Kind Spiritual Healer or a False Prophet?

Life Lessons from Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Re’eh

The Rise of Messianic Judaism
In Medieval Spain, many Jews hid their Jewishness in order to survive. They concealed their Siddur and Chumash (Pentateuch) behind secular books in their library. Today, we have a converse kind of crypto Jew. Behind their ArtScroll and Feldheim books, they hide the New Testament. Outwardly, they act as devout Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, Kosher, modesty etc., and are the nicest and the kindest people, always happy to lend a helping hand. Some are actual Jews. Others seek to convert to Judaism, or pretend that they are Jewish. Perhaps, they have convinced themselves that some ancestor’s Jewish name imbues them with Jewish blood. While they behave Jewishly on the outside, they secretly worship Jesus on the inside. Yes, you have guessed it. I am referring to Messianic Judaism – a movement of people who identify as Jews and embrace Jewish culture and religious tradition, while at the same time maintain a belief in the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the authority of the New Testament. According to the estimates as of March 2016, there are 262 Messianic organizations operating in Israel (Kehila News Directory). The estimated number of Messianics (alleged Jews proclaiming belief in Jesus) amount to almost 20,000 in Israel, while globally the reports range as high as 300,000 Messianic Jewish believers (Charisma Magazine, October, 2013).

It is no wonder that Israel’s Ministry of the Interior denies visas for many conversion candidates, out of concern to screen out Messianics. Likewise, trip organizers for Birthright have begun screening candidates interested in free trips to Israel to prevent Messianic Jews from participating. The number of Messianics is rising in Israel and the world. The fervent worship with heartfelt singing and easy access to ‘the lord’ attract many Jews and non-Jews alike. Without the heavy burden of the Oral Torah, with its strict halachic requirements, this movement entices the intuitive, spiritually seeking type. For some, being a Messianic is a stepping-stone towards full-fledged conversion or return to Halachic Judaism. While I do not harbor any negative feelings on a personal level towards anyone who believes in Jesus – on the contrary, several such women are very close to my heart – I would like to clarify what the Torah has to say about Jesus, based on this week’s parasha.

Worshipping Separate Existence
First of all, it is interesting that the name Jesus (יֵשׁוּ/Yeshu in Hebrew) is related to the word יֵשׁוּת/yeshut – existence or separate existence. The Torah teaches that there is no separate existence from G-d; we are all part of His Oneness. Chassidut emphasizes how we must work on freeing ourselves from the ego that claims יֵשׁוּת/yeshut and separate existence from Hashem. We are called upon to transform our יֵשׁוּת/yeshut to אַיִן /ayin – nothingness, for אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ/ein od milvado – there is nothing besides Him (Devarim 4:35). This is the constant challenge of a Jew – to overcome the pride of our ego and realize that nothing exists but Hashem. We are all part of Him, and no human being ever, has a claim to being more a son-of-G-d than anyone else. Messianic Judaism provides its worshippers with a feeling of concrete closeness to ‘the lord,’ saturating them with more instant gratification than the abstract worship of the incorporeal Hashem. The attraction of worshipping a human being is that it offers a physical anchor to hold onto, allowing people to feel spiritual without giving up independent existence. In spite of the spiritual devotion of the Messianics, unconsciously, their service actually serves the spiritual part of the ego, giving the sweet feeling of being concretely connected to the divine. Yet, in reality, this feeling of ‘connectedness’ stems from an illusion of being able to commune with the lord while still holding on to the separate existence of the ego.

The Test of Dream-Diviners & False Prophets
This week’s parasha describes the false prophet and the dream-diviner. A false prophet is someone who claims that Hashem spoke to him, and appointed him to forward his ‘divine message’ to others. In our time, the world is replete with enticing ‘Spiritual Intuitives,’ Transcendentalists, Occultists, Wiccans and Witchcraft. This varied spirituality menu is meant to test whether, despite all the attractive alternatives, we keep holding on to the Torah, worshipping nothing but G-d.
ספר דברים פרק יג
(א) אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ: יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵת: ג) וּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵם: ד) לֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא כִּי מְנַסֶּה הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶתְכֶם לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם: ה) אַחֲרֵי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן: ו) וְהַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ חֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא יוּמָת כִּי דִבֶּר סָרָה עַל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וְהַפֹּדְךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לְהַדִּיחֲךָ מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בָּהּ וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ:

“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you. Neither add to it, nor detract from it. If there rises among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, let us follow and worship another god, whom you have not experienced, even if the sign or the portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem your G-d is testing you to see whether you really love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul. Follow none but Hashem your G-d and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders. Worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him. As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death; for he urged disloyalty to Hashem your G-d, Who freed you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to make you stray from the path that Hashem your G-d commanded you to follow. Thus, you must remove evil from your midst” (Devarim 13:1-6).

False Prophet Features
We must believe in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher; no other prophet –past or future – can ever reach his level (Rambam, The Thirteen Principles of Faith, Principle Seven). Therefore, nothing may be added or detracted from the Divine Torah that Moshe received through His supreme prophecy. Anyone who claims that Hashem told him to abolish one of the mitzvot of the Torah or to add a new mitzvah to the Torah is bound to be a false prophet (Devarim 13:1). According to the uncensored version of the Talmud, Jesus was a false prophet who instigated Israel away from doing the Mitzvot. It is, furthermore, undeniable that the New Testament goes against the injunction not to add to the Torah
.
תלמוד בבלי, סנהדרין מג ע”א
והתניא בערב הפסח תלאוהו לישוע הנצרי וכרוז יוצא לפניו ארבעים יום ישוע הנצרי יוצא להיסקל על שכישף והסית והדיח את ישראל כל מי שיודע לו זכות יבוא וילמד. לא מצאו לו זכות ותלאוהו בערב הפסח: אמ’ עולא ותסברה ישוע הנצרי בַר הְפוכֵי לֵיה זְכות הְוָה, מסית הוא...

They hanged Jesus the Nazarene on the eve of Pesach. The proclamation went forth before him for forty days heralding: “Jesus the Nazarene is going to be stoned because he practiced sorcery, instigated and seduced Israel to Idolatry. Whoever knows anything in his defense may come and state it.” Since they did not find anything in his defense, they hanged him on the eve of Pesach. Ula said, “Do you suppose that Jesus the Nazarene is worthy to be given the opportunity to have his cause pleaded? Behold he was a מֵסִית/mesit – an instigator, concerning whom the Merciful [G-d] says, ‘Show him no compassion and do not cover up for him’” (Devarim 13:9)… (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, uncensored edition).

The Torah’s Safeguarding of Physical and Spiritual Life
These fierce words of the Talmud are not so politically correct in a time when the Western World is largely against capital punishment. I, too, feel appalled by the notion that a human being would have the authority to execute another. We grew up being tolerant and accepting of everyone. The result is a world filled with terrorism and confusion. No human being may take the law into his own hand and take someone else’s life. Only Hashem, in His Torah, has the power to command the death penalty in specific, very limited cases. The rabbis have always been extremely cautious to implement capital punishment: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed;’” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10). The Torah sanctions human life by all means, and murdering a human being is one of the only three cardinal sins for which the Torah requires one to give up his life. A person, who takes the physical or spiritual life of another, forfeits his own right to exist. This is precisely due to how much the Torah values and safeguards human life on all levels.

Rabbinic Reliance
The teaching of the Talmud regarding Jesus is a hard pill to swallow, since he is generally portrayed as the embodiment of love and kindness, and as a spiritual healer who uplifted the poor and weak. Even many of those who do not believe Jesus is the son of G-d or the Messiah, still feel he was a good person, based on artwork, pictures, books and articles. . Truthfully, no one really knows what kind of person Jesus actually was, as he lived more than 2000 years ago. We will have to choose between relying on the testimony of the Christians or of the Rabbis. As a Torah Jew, whom do you choose to believe?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How Does the Torah Require Us to Treat Converts?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ekeiv
Holy Conversion Candidates
I have been running a conversion program for more than 15 years as a subdivision of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin. What prompted me to start the conversion program? It was a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students – let’s call her Sylvia – who grew up in a typical secular Jewish home, where they kept Chanukah and ate matzah on Pesach. She enrolled in our program to explore her Jewish identity. She had barely arrived, when a comment made in one of the classes caused Sylvia’s entire Jewish world to collapse. “All my life, I grew up believing that I’m Jewish, but perhaps, according to strict Jewish law this is not the case,” sobbed Sylvia at my kitchen table. “I understand what you are going through is not easy. Tell me what’s going on!” I encouraged, as I handed her a tissue and put my comforting arm around her. “My Dad is Jewish and I thought my Mom was as well, since she converted to Judaism before I was born, but her conversion was not orthodox,” explained Sylvia. After her initial shock and identity crisis, I helped Sylvia undergo an orthodox conversion. This was the beginning of our conversion program. Sylvia now lives a committed chareidi (ultra-orthodox) lifestyle, married to a Rabbi in Jerusalem, and the happy mother of seven children! (Since then, our application form strictly detects the halachic Jewishness of students prior to arrival in our program). Over the years, Hashem has sent us the most amazing holy women seeking to convert in our program. These devoted conversion candidates have added seriousness and commitment to Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, and are a great inspiration for our Jewish students. They are generally more particular about keeping the mitzvot with all their minutiae, including the mitzvah of tzniut (modesty) in dress, speech and behavior. The community of Bat Ayin has been very welcoming to these holy converting souls, but I’m appalled to learn that this is not the case in many communities the world over.

The Edict Banning Converts
Over the years, I have heard from several conversion candidates that in their country, they were not welcome in the Jewish community. They were not invited for any Shabbat meals, and in some cases, they were even banned from the synagogue and from classes in Judaism. Some communities don’t accept even an orthodox convert as being truly Jewish. The Syrian Jewish community is the most extreme in this regard. In their edict of 1935, it states, “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jewish; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.” This edict was confirmed in 1946 by Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin who added: “The rabbi will not perform religious ceremonies for such unkosher couples… The congregation’s premises will be banned to them for any religious or social nature… After death of said person he or she is not to be buried on the cemetery of our community…” Community members who violate the edict are shunned – some have not even had any contact with their own parents for decades. The original edict was signed by five dignitaries. Since then, it has been reaffirmed in each generation by more and more rabbis. The version issued in 2006, was signed by 225 rabbis and lay leaders. To this day, 99% of Syrian Jews accept this edict. Jakie Kassin, the grandson of Rabbi Kassin, and the son of the prior chief rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn is quoted with the following statement: “Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert.” Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don’t want gentile characteristics.”

Excommunicating the Mashiach
This hostile attitude towards converts and their spouses stand in stark contrast to the teachings of the Torah:
ספר דברים פרק י (יז) כִּי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד: (יח) עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה: (יט) וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
“For Hashem your G-d is the G-d of gods and the Lord of lords: the great, mighty, awesome G-d, Who does not show favor and does not take bribes; Who executes judgment for the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger (convert), giving him food and garments. You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim 10:17-19).

Similar statements, emphasizing the mitzvah to love and treat the גֵּר/ger – stranger or convert kindly are emphasized numerous times in the Torah. We are called upon to emulate Hashem, Who loves and shows extra care towards all the weak of our congregation. No motive, even worthy ones such as to protect the community from assimilation can ever justify the pain and agony that the Syrian Jewish edict has caused to numerous converts and their families. What would prevent the Syrian Jewish community from excommunicating the Mashiach, himself, due to his ‘unclean’ gentile blood, stemming from David’s great grandmother Ruth – the righteous convert?

Who is a גֵּר/ger – Stranger?
According to the Torah, it is not clear who is a גֵּר/ger- whether it refers to a convert or to a non-Jewish resident. In the written Torah, the word גֵּר/ger refers to a stranger – a person who comes from a foreign land to live here. We learn this from the above quote: “For you were strangers (גֵרִים/gerim) in the land of Egypt.” Clearly, when the Israelites are referred to as גֵרִים/gerim, it certainly does not imply that they converted to the Egyptian religion. Thus, in our Torah verse, the term גֵּר/ger simply denotes someone living among a foreign people. These Torah verses present lofty principles, aspiring to sanctify and elevate the reality of the material world by implementing Divine values and act towards even non-Jewish Israeli residents with the utmost love and treat them as equals. According to this messianic ideal, we are required to show the highest level of care and concern for the weak of our society, even though they are not part of our people, providing they keep the basic Noachide laws, which are prerequisite for living in the land of Israel (Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 10:6). Yet, other Torah verses seem to indicate that the גֵּר/ger is a convert, who has accept all the mitzvot:

ספר שמות פרק יב (מח) וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַהָשֵׁם הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשׂתוֹ וְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ וְכָל עָרֵל לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ:(מט) תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכֲכֶם:
“If a גֵּר/ger lives with you he shall perform the paschal-offering to G-d. Let all of his males be circumcised, and then he shall come near to perform it, and he shall be like the native-born. One law shall there be for the native-born and for the גֵּר/ger who lives in your midst” (Shemot 12:48-49).

“You Shall Love the Conversion Candidate!”
In the written Torah it is not clear whether a גֵּר/ger refers to a non-Jewish resident living in Israel or to a full-fledged convert. According to the Oral Torah, the word גֵּר/ger refers solely to a ‘ger tzedek’ – someone who has accepted all of the Torah’s mitzvot and joined the Jewish people by a kosher conversion. The lofty ideals of the Torah are frequently presented in the form of general, abstract principles. On the other hand, the Oral Law is mainly concerned with the practical details as they apply to concrete reality. I would like to venture an additional way to explain the seemingly inconsistency regarding the definition of the term גֵּר/ger. Perhaps the Torah’s ambiguous terminology comes to teach us that the גֵּר/ger that we must love and treat kindly includes not only the actual convert but also the conversion candidate, who is still in the conversion process. He or she sacrifices so much to become part of our people and suffers greatly during the conversion process by not having any community where they truly belong. The Midrash teaches us the greatness of the conversion candidate, who is considered equal to a righteous Jew:

ילקוט שמעוני רות - פרק א - רמז תרא
אמר ר' אבהו בוא וראה כמה חביבין גרים לפני הקב"ה כיון שנתנה דעתה להתגייר השוה הכתוב אותה לנעמי שנאמר ותלכנה שתיהן עד בואנה בית לחם:

Rabbi Abahu said, Come and see how precious proselytes are to the holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it states, “They both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Megillat Ruth 1:19); (Yalkut Shimoni Ruth 1:601).

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Do We Need to Make a Favorable Impression on the Gentiles?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat V’Etchanan
Supreme Settlements
I had the privilege to grow up in a very organized and clean country. In Denmark, all the trains arrive and depart exactly on time! The people rarely throw candy wrappers in the street, and no one pushes anyone or takes his place in the supermarket lines. If you drop your wallet, someone will make great efforts to return it to you even if they have to run up myriads of winding steps after you. The Jewish people still have what to learn from this kind of Derech Eretz (good manners). Our longwinded exile, with its countless prosecutions, pogroms and terrorism has kept us traumatized and submerged in suffering. All these predicaments have deterred us from becoming the perfected community we have the potential to be. During exile, the focus has been on achieving individual perfection, but now that we have finally returned to our own holy land, it is time to create spiritual communities that shine their light to the entire planet. I believe that the settlements of Gush Katif served as exemplary communities, where harmonious families lived together in unity on their clean, green, treasured land. We are now mourning eleven years since the traumatic expulsion from Gush Katif, known in the in the Jewish world for its bug-free greens and in the entire world for making the desert bloom with cherry tomatoes and geraniums. A great percentage of Israel’s produce export derived from Gush Katif. For example, 65% of organic produce; 90% of bug-free leafy vegetables; 95% of cherry tomatoes; and 60% of herb exports. We will never fathom how our nation could be so misled as to demolish its supreme settlements, especially since this cruel expulsion only caused more terrorism and brought us further away from attaining true peace. We will never know why Hashem allowed the communities of Gush Katif – which accomplished so much in only 38 years – to be utterly overturned. Perhaps, it was in order that the accomplishments of these communities could be diffused into all of Israel, as the people of Gush Katif brought their radiant relic to the rest of Israel wherever they relocated. We surely have much to learn from them.

Why Do We Care What the ‘Goyim’ Say?
As Moshe prepares the Children of Israel for their forthcoming settlement in the Holy Land, he teaches them Hashem’s rules and regulations for building perfected communities in the Land of Israel:
ספר דברים פרק ד
(ה) רְאֵה לִמַּדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוַּנִי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהָי לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּאִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: (ו) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה:(ז) כִּי מִי גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּהָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו: (ח) וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם:

“See, I have imparted to you statutes and laws, as Hashem my G-d has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who on hearing all these chukim (statutes) will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’ For what great nation has a G-d so close at hand as is Hashem our G-d whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Torah that I set before you this day?” (Devarim 4:5-8).

Moshe emphasizes that we need to observe Hashem’s laws “for that is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” Why is it so important to make a favorable impression upon the non-Jewish nations? Many vehement Zionists raise justified objections regarding excessive concern with what the goyim (Gentiles or non-Jews) will say. True, in the political arena, we have witnessed that it is impossible to please the nations – “We give them a finger and they demand the hand.” So why does our Torah emphasize the importance of being a light unto the nations? We can find a clue to this question in the words of the prophet that reflect Moshe’s message: “…I will also make you a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Yesha’yahu 49:6). The role of the Jewish people is to be the ambassador and light-bearer for Hashem, facilitating the Divine redemption reaching to the four corners of the earth and encompassing every single creature. Therefore, it is vital for those who keep Hashem’s Torah meticulously to radiate wisdom and morality to the rest of the world.

The Importance of Secular Scholarship & Agriculture in Israel
Commentators ask why the Torah expects the nations to be impressed by the statutes of the Torah that do not make sense to limited human understanding? When we experience a person’s wisdom and righteousness, we learn to trust this person to the extent that we will comply with his wishes, even if he asks us to do something irrational. Likewise, when the nations see that Israel keeps the mishpatim (laws that do make logical sense), which are organized in beautiful order, they will accept that even the chukim, whose rationale is unknown, have deeper hidden reasons. Ultimately, by experiencing positive interactions with Jews and Israel, nations will become ready to trust the instructions of the final Mashiach. For this reason, the Vilna Gaon emphasized the obligation to learn the seven scientific wisdoms, which sanctify Hashem’s name and bring the redemption closer. He also noted that this knowledge is vital for perceiving the depths of the wisdom of the Torah. It was in order to fulfill the Torah directive, “To make you high above all nations… in praise, and in fame, and in glory…” (Devarim 26:19), that the Vilna Gaon studied secular subjects and authored books on Hebrew grammar and geometry (Kol HaTor, Chapter 5b, Sha’ar Be’er Sheva). Whenever the Torah mentions the word תְהִלָּה/tehilah – praise in connection with Israel or the land of Israel it is referring to the wisdom of Israel in the eyes of the nations (Ibid.). The Vilna Gaon also emphasized cultivating the land of Israel and making it fruitful as a way of becoming a light to the nations. As it states, “For as the earth brings forth her growth, and as the garden makes her seeds spring forth; so will Hashem, G-d, cause to sprout forth righteousness and תְהִלָּה/tehilah – praise before all the nations.” The nations will recognize the wisdom of Israel when we dwell on our land and work it so that it produces great blessings” (Kol HaTor, ibid.). This prophesy was actually fulfilled when the neighboring Arabs applauded Gush Katif’s first cherry tomatoes sprouting forth in the dessert.

Torah Ethics and Litter-Free Environment
What can we do to become “a light to the nations” in the case that we are unable to engage in productive agriculture or secular scholarship? The Torah teaches us moral integrity. The development of kindness, generosity, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude are main tenants of the Torah. Immersing ourselves vigilantly in the keeping of the minutiae of the laws regarding kosher foods, Shabbat observance etc. must go hand in hand with strictness in keeping the ethics of the Torah in interpersonal relationships. There is no such thing as, “religious Jews cheat in business!” If someone is dishonest in business then he is transgressing the precepts of the Torah, and certainly doesn’t deserve the title: ‘religious Jew.’ Our power of speech is what defines us as humans. The woman of valor only “opens her mouth in wisdom and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Mishlei 31:26). So let us think carefully before we let those slippery words of complaint, judgement, anger or resentment slither out of our lips. We also show consideration for others by keeping our noise level down. There is nothing more annoying than when people yell, scream or honk unnecessarily in the street. The Torah teaches that our voices should not be heard outside of our homes (Tehillim 144:14). So if you have a fight with your husband, at least make sure to close your windows! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of personal cleanliness and keeping our environment litter free. It is essential to educate our children and grandchildren from an early age never to throw garbage on the ground, and especially not on the holy earth of Israel. If the Danes can show self-restraint and hold on to their ice-cream wrapper until they pass a garbage can, certainly no less is expected of every Torah Jew!