Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Plants Connect Heaven and Earth

Herbal Remedies from the Judean Hills
The Months of Tishrei/Cheshvan
Printable Version

Green Portals of Divine Healing Energy
Lush green growth greets us as we emerge from the holiday-incubator back into the greater world. “Bar Sira said, G-d made remedies arise from the earth through which the healer heals the wounded and the pharmacist makes his herb-mixture” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 10:6). Hashem has blessed us with His Presence through the portals of gentle greens that carries His healing light into our inwards. Each and every herb has a desire and benefit for healing (Maharzav, ibid). Even just taking a brisk stroll in the company of these healing herbs and breathing in their scent refreshes and revitalizes our body and soul. “Hashem prepares the healing before the wound” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 13b), and the native plants that grows in our particular neighborhood are blessed with the healing that we specifically need, during the time when they mature. The vegetation of the Land of Israel that is imbued with the holiness of the Land is bursting with both physical and spiritual nutrients most suited for the Jewish people. Therefore, we will explore these plants in the sequence of their ripening, in order to glean their healing properties while tuning into to their timely spiritual messages. 

The Heavenly Hosts Influence the Herbs of the Earth
For every vegetable, tree, flower and herb, Hashem appointed its own spiritual force that channels Divine energy to make it grow. When we inhale the scent of the plants, gaze at their healing color, listen to the gentle song of the herbs, touch and taste them, we are infused with Divine spiritual energy. Rabbi Simon said, there is no single herb, which does not have a constellation in heaven that strikes it and says “grow!” As it states: “Do you know the ordinances of heaven? Can you establish its dominion (משטרו/mistaro) on earth?” Iyov 38:33); (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 10:6).משטרו /mistaro is the language of ‘enforce­­ment.’ Just as the enforcement officer (police) is appointed to enforce society to keep the law of the judge, likewise the heavenly hosts are appointed to enforce and compel the herbs to grow (Maharzav, ibid). The influence that each constellation has on earth determines the level of coldness, heat, moisture and dryness that affects each herb accordingly (Yafat Toar, ibid).

Allowing the Root to Illuminate the Branch
“I will cause you to increase like the plant of the field” (Yechezkiel 16:7). Why are we humans compared to the plants of the field? Every plant receives its power and root above. Each star is in charge of a plant, and when the star reveals its light to the plant corresponding to it on the earth, this plant immediately becomes excited and filled with desire to cleave to its root. This is the power that motivates it to rise above and grow from the earth. The growth of people is similar. Every human being has a source and root above in the Creator of all the worlds. Therefore, we must look above and contemplate in our heart, to allow our root to illuminate its branch. It will then follow that when our soul sees the light of its root; surely we will grow and become elevated… Just as the plant of the field grows by means of the light of its root, also, we, human being will grow until we cleave to our root (Ohev Yisrael, Parshat for Pesach).

Striking the Upper Light into Each Plant
Why is it necessary to strike the plant in order to make it grow? Wouldn’t each plant naturally want to grow and express its individual properties? The striking of the herbs is intended for striking the upper light into this particular herb, by means of the angel who is like a channel to the hidden light, in the secret of the World of Formation – the world of the angels. This way the angel can illuminate the herb by means of its designated constellation. For the constellations operate in the World of Action. They are the servants of the powers of Formation. Therefore, they sometimes attribute the growth of the herbs to an angel and sometimes to a star; it is all is part of the same intention (Rabbi Avraham Azulai, Chesed L’Avraham 4:30)

Physical Enforcement for Spiritual Roots
Contrary to humans who are endowed with free choice, plants must follow exact directives from Above. This is illustrated by the heavenly constellations beating the respective plant under their dominion to ensure that it performs the task it must do, which is to grow. Perhaps it is also an indication of the resistance of the spiritual flow to be limited into the boundaries of growing only within the physical world. It is as if the spiritual essence of each plant needs to be stricken in order to lower itself to the confines of physical growth. Moreover, the striking of the plant reminds us of the striking of the baby at birth when it forgets all its in-vitro Torah learning. Perhaps the plants, likewise, must let go of the spiritual knowledge they possessed from their essence above in order to channel their energy into physical growth below. Inversely, when we received Torah on Sinai, we needed to channel our earthly tendencies to operate within the spiritual dimension. Perhaps this is why Hashem put the mountain as a casket over our head to force us to receive the Torah, although we had already accepted it through free will. The same process of enforcement is necessary for the redirection of both the plants – in order to grow on earth, and Israel – in order to receive the Torah of heaven. Yet the enforcement has opposite directions. The plants – whose root are in heaven – need to be forced to turn to the earth below, whereas the root of our physical body – which is in the earth – needs to turn to heaven above. Yet, the root of the Jewish soul is a part of the Divine from above. It never needs any enforcement as the soul of Israel has already accepted the Torah with the declaration, “We will do and we will hear!” (Shemot 24:7).

Unobstructed Pure Channels
Plants do not have the capacity to choose between good and evil, because they do not have the יֵצֶר הָרָע /yetzer hara – ‘negative inclination.’ They therefore become direct channels for Divine energy, without the physical, emotional and spiritual blocks that humans have due to our yetzer hara. Untainted by energy blocks, plants become the channels through which unobstructed Divine energy flows freely through the agents of Hashem’s messengers – the angels and stars – all the way down to the receptive earth. In this way the growing plants are the connecting links between heaven and earth. Not only do plants serve as conduits for the Divine flow emanating down to earth, they also elevate the physical towards the Divine. Rabbi Avraham Azulai explains that the soul of the herbs elevate the four elements to approach the more refined material above their level, causing the higher material to shine through them. When we sow different kinds of seeds we gather and mix the four elements and facilitate their transformation into the higher life form of plants. This way we elevate the elements to approach the upper light. What was previously under the angels appointed over the elements, emerged from their dominion and rose to draw from the influence of the higher light by means of the angel in charge of this particular herb (Chesed L’Avraham 4:30). Since the plants bring heaven down to earth while raising the earth towards heaven we can understand why being in Nature in the company of plants is revitalizing and conducive to become spiritually in tune with the Divine. Rambam explains that the path to love and awe of G-d is by recognizing Hashem’s great wisdom through nature (Mishna Torah, Foundations of Torah 2:2).

Healing Reflections
It is impossible to gaze directly at the brilliant sun. Only the reflection of its rays can be tolerated and enjoyed by us. In the same way it is impossible to grasp the abstract concept of G-d and connect directly with His essence which has no physical manifestation. “G-d is consuming fire” (Devarim 4:24). However, like the rays to the sun, the plants each reflect a particular heavenly aspect. They only reflect as much Divinity as the limits of their confines can possible contain. Perhaps this is an additional reason why they are stricken, because they cause the contraction of the Divine essence, which flows through them. Each one’s ability to heal is in accordance to the particular attribute of Divinity, which is expressed through it. When we view the herbs as vehicles for the flow of Divine energy, they can become mediums through which we can relate to G-d. Let us not forget that they are not Divine themselves but only channels for Divine energy. Ultimately all healing takes place through nothing but G-d.

Connecting Directly with the Light of Hashem
How can we receive the same healing from prayer and Torah as from herbs?
Rebbe Nachman teaches us that when we are able to release prayer from its exile there is no more need for medicine (Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, Wings of the Sun p. 89).This is because all medicines are derived from plants, and every single plant receives its powers from its own particular planet or star as we have just learned. Every planet and star receives its power from the stars above it. The angels in turn receive from the root of all things – from the Word of G-d, as it is written, “Through the word of G-d the heavens were made and all their hosts by the breath of His mouth” (Tehillim 33:6). When we attain true prayer, we penetrate all the blocks and husks of our earthly tendencies and connect directly with the highest heaven. When our words rise and enter the heavenly gate, there is no need for medicine. The emissary facilitation of the herbs and plants become unnecessary, as long as we have the ability to connect directly with their Root, the Light of Hashem – the root of all beings. However, today it is not easy to attain the level of true prayer and receive the healing of Hashem’s life-giving light directly. Therefore, herbs are great transmitters of divine energy for us. Without the energy blocks and klipot (husks) that block Hashem’s life-giving energy from freely flowing within the organs, emotions and psyche of human beings, plants are much closer to the source of Hashem’s healing life force. They can also help us attain the level of true prayer as Rabbi Nachman teaches, “Each and every herb has its own song…The melody of the shepherd is made from the song of the herbs (Likutei Moharan, Mahadura Batra 63).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sukkot: The Ingathering Festival

Printable Version
All our holidays are connected to the agricultural cycle. Pesach is called “the holiday of spring”, Shavuot “the day of the first fruits” and Sukkot is called “the ingathering festival.” “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of Hashem for seven days…” (Vayikra 23:39).

All the fruits have been harvested, containers of dried figs, prunes and apricots line our pantry, our refrigerators are loaded with fruit-jams, compotes and conserves and apples and pomegranates fill our fruit baskets. When we gather the fruits of our harvest into our homes and ensure their undamaged preservation, it is natural to be happy and celebrate. However, the Jewish Holidays are so much more than just agricultural celebrations. 

You shall keep for yourself the holiday of Sukkot after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from thy winepress… You will rejoice in your festival, you, and your son, and your daughter… Seven days you must keep a festival unto Hashem your G-d… (Devarim 16:13-14).

Malbim notes that in these verses the ingathering celebration is repeated. The first celebration mentioned is not a command but rather a factual statement; “after gathering in the produce of your threshing floor and your wine press, you will rejoice in your festival.”  The commandment to be happy is articulated in the following verse; “Seven days you must celebrate a festival unto Hashem your G-d.”  Hashem desired that rather than celebrating the fulfillment of our personal needs, we should celebrate for the sake of Heaven alone. Therefore, Hashem commanded us to elevate our own celebra­tion “You shall keep for yourself the holiday of Sukkot” in order to become a total spiritual delight for the sake of Heaven, “… you shall keep a festival unto Hashem your G-d.”  Our spiritual elation in Hashem transcends even the great delight in the harvest. 

Maharal explains that during Sukkot everything is gathered to its prime cause. We ourselves are actually being ingathered by G-d to be re-sown after Sukkot. This ingathering makes us realize, acknowledge and experience Hashem’s protection and our total dependence on Him. We shake the lulav with its bunch to allude to the highest level of unification between all different kinds of Jews and our ingathering to the Land of Israel. The Sukkah embraces us and calls us to take refuge under Hashem’s wing and ingathers Israel within the cloud of His glory. This essential ingathering and unity is the ultimate expression of all Joy. Our mitzvot themselves become elevated and ingathered to Hashem and part of our eternal unity with His Divine presence, as we become His everlasting people during the wedding ceremony when Israel extends the finger  (the lulav) and G-d places the ring (the Sukkah).

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What is the difference between the Urim & Tumim and the Ouija board?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha V’Zot Ha’Bracha

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I’m wondering if you could shed light on the breastplate of the High Priest. I heard that it had different precious stones with letters on it that would light up in response to questions the High Priest would ask, either on behalf of others or himself. In this way, obscure questions would magically be answered. This sounds to me very similar to the Ouija board, which I didn’t think was allowed in Judaism. I also believe that the Torah forbids the practice of magic. So how could the Torah allow asking questions to a breastplate with illuminating crystals? 
Sonja Scheiner (name changed)

Dear Sonja,
You are right. The Torah requires us to have a pure relationship with G-d, untainted by any occult practices such as witchcraft and practical magic. Forbidden practices include divination through trance; divining auspicious times through astrology; divining by omens; sorcery, magic; incantation; consulting mediums and oracles; and communicating with the dead (See Shemot 22:17, Vayikra 20:27 and Devarim 18:9-13). Whereas, there is much good to be gained from the spirituality of the New Age movement, which moves the world towards believing in G-d, prayer and good deeds, some of what the movement offers involves forbidden occult practices such as Tarot cards, angel cards, and mediums who help people communicate with the dead. Since the Ouija board – also known as a spirit board or talking board – is used to communicate with the dead – the Torah prohibits using it as it states, “There shall not be found among you …a necromancer” (Devarim 18:10-11). How exactly  are the Urim & Tumim different from the mechanism of the Ouija board and how come the Torah permits them?

What is the Ouija Board all About?
The Ouija board is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, along with various symbols and graphics. It uses a small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette.  Participants start by moving the planchette around the board and speaking to the entities they wish to summon. Then, they begin asking questions. Eventually the planchette comes to rest on one letter after another, spelling out a message. Participants believe that it is a communicating spirit who controls the motions of their hands, to spell out messages. They see the board as a tool or medium through which they can communicate with the spirit realm. Others use the Ouija board to communicate with their own unconscious. The participants are subconsciously making small, involuntary, physical movements, demonstrating a well-known phenomenon, called the Ideomotor effect. This second way of using the Ouija board, without invoking any kinds of spirits, is similar to using a pendulum. I heard from a reliable source that Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, z”l, permitted the use of a pendulum. I’m not sure if he also would include using the Ouija board to reveal answers buried inside one’s own unconscious, since the Ouija board is also used for forbidden practices. In any case, I do not recommend it, as it is possible to reveal our own unconscious through prayer and meditation alone, without any external means. 

Differences between Urim & Tumim and Ouija Board
The breastplate of the Kohen Gadol was inlaid with 12 precious stones engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel (Shemot 28:15-30; Vayikra 8:8), with the name of Hashem folded inside. These were the אוּרִים וְתֻמִּים /Urim & Tumim – ‘Lights and Completions.’ ‘Lights’ – because they illuminate their words, ‘Completions’ – because they complete their words, by endowing the Kohen with the ability to interpret the illuminations of the Urim. By means of the Urim, the Kohen Gadol inquired of Hashem on behalf of the king of Israel (Bamidbar 27:21). Urim, dreams, and prophets were the three legitimate means of obtaining answers from Above. Whereas, there certainly are similarities between the Ouija board and the Urim & Tumim, there are many more differences. They are similar by both conveying messages in a seemingly occult manner through particular letters on respectively a board and a plate. However, the origin of the Urim & Tumim is from the Torah, according to Hashem’s command, whereas the Ouija board may stem from ancient pagan beliefs. This is also the main difference between the Keruvim (Golden angel figures) on the cover of the Ark and the Golden Calf. Moreover, not just anyone could invoke the Urim & Turim – only a Divinely inspired Kohen Gadol and “only for the king, the high court, or someone serving a need of the community” (Mishnah Yoma 7:5). Most importantly, the answers received through the Urim & Tumim emanated from no other than the Shechinah – the Divine Indwelling Presence rather than from some extraneous impure force. Receiving answers through these stones is considered one of the four levels of prophecy that include: 1. Bat Kol – literally daughter of a voice – a heavenly or divine voice which proclaims G-d’s will or judgment. 2. Urim & Tumim 3. Ruach Hakodesh – a lower level of prophecy 4. Prophecy (Rabbeinu Bachaya).

The Holiness of the Urim & Tumim
In Parashat V’Zot Ha’Bracha, Moshe blesses the tribes of Israel before his demise. When blessing the tribe of Levi, Moshe praises them for piety that afforded them the merit to wear the Urim & Tumim:
ספר דברים פרק לג פסוק ח וּלְלֵוִי אָמַר תֻּמֶּיךָ וְאוּרֶיךָ לְאִישׁ חֲסִידֶךָ אֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתוֹ בְּמַסָּה תְּרִיבֵהוּ עַל מֵי מְרִיבָה:
“To Levi he said: ‘Your Tumim and Urim belong to Your pious man, whom You tested at Massah and whom You tried at the waters of Merivah’” (Devarim 33:8).

The reason the Kohen is chosen to wear the Urim, is because he has been tested and is clean and pure, therefore it states, “whom You tested at Massah” (Tzror HaMor). Sforno explains that the Tumim & Urim were given to Aharon because he was the head of the righteous tribe of Levi. He would be Divinely inspired, and the Shechina would dwell on him. However, if a certain Kohen is not Divinely inspired and the Shechina doesn’t dwell on him, then he is not qualified to invoke the Urim & Tumim (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 73b). The Urim & Tumim correspond to two kinds of holiness that Hashem granted to Israel: the Mishkan (Tabernacle) as described in Parashat Teruma and the Kohanim whose garments are described in Parashat Tetzaveh. Hashem sanctified the Mishkan via the Tablets that originated in Heaven, and He sanctified the Kohanim from Above through the Urim & Tumim – which are likewise from Heaven (The Vilna Gaon, Aderet Eliyahu).

The Difference between Holiness and Spirituality
In summary, the difference between the Urim & Tumim and the Ouija board is the difference between holiness and spirituality. There are countless mystical practices out there that attract us with their occult, magical allure. They may make us feel that we are endowed with otherworldly powers and that we are operating on a higher spiritual level. Yet, it is all an illusion! While the magic of incantation, consulting mediums, oracles, astrology, Tarot cards,etc. may exude a psychic surge, in reality, it turns us away from Hashem by giving us a feeling of spiritual fulfillment that dulls our innate desire to cleave to Hashem and His Holiness. This can be compared to how filling our stomach with junk food spoils our appetite for a good nutritious meal.

Do not Corrupt the Pure and Wholehearted Relationship with Hashem
Hashem commanded us:
  ספר דברים פרק יח פסוק יג תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
“You shall be pure with Hashem Your G-d” (Devarim 18:13).

For Hashem is the G-d of the gods, He is supreme above all. He has the ability to change the stars and the constellations, and overturn signs and witchcraft. We must believe that our destiny is determined only by how much we come close to serve Him. This is why, right after the warnings against consulting with magicians, mediums and oracles regarding the future and communicating with the dead, it states, “You shall be pure with Hashem Your G-d” in all these matters. Do not fear the words of a soothsayer. Rather, seek only the true prophet and listen only to him. Being תָּמִים/tamim is to be pure and complete without any blemish (Rambam, Devarim 18:13). The word תָּמִים/tamim – ‘pure/wholehearted’ is the same as the second word in the אוּרִים תֻמִּים/Urim & Tumim – the stones on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. This alludes to the difference between the holiness of the Urim & Tumim and the false spiritualties of the world, which are everything but pure. In the Torah verse from Parashat V’Zot Ha’Bracha quoted above, the order of the words אוּרִים תֻמִּים/Urim & Tumim is reversed, emphasizing their purity and that of the pious Kohen worthy of wearing them. This teaches us the important message that we are not to corrupt our pure wholehearted relationship with Hashem by indulging in other impure practices. There is no higher spirituality than keeping the mitzvot and thereby cleaving to the holiness of Hashem and His Torah!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How can you Justify Living in Occupied Palestinian Territory?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha Ha’azinu
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
Although I connect with your Torah and spiritual views from a woman’s perspective, I cannot condone that you live on Palestinian occupied territory on the West Bank.
What gives you and your fellow settlers the right to grab land that belongs to the Palestinian people who have deep roots in their treasured homeland? Just because the Jews were persecuted during the holocaust, why do innocent Palestinians have to be driven from their home in order to provide a Jewish homeland?
Anna Small (name changed)

Dear Anna,
Getting into a political discussion is always a touchy topic, with the risk of losing supporters. People seem to be set in their ways when it comes to politics, especially Middle Eastern politics. The world is greatly influenced by biased propaganda that has taken over the media, making it very difficult to view a different perspective.  Emotions often take over and make it hard to really hear the facts. Therefore, I generally stay out of public political discussions, but I will nevertheless make an exception and do my best to answer your questions. 

The ‘West Bank’ Invention
Let us start with discussing the expression, ‘West Bank’ where, according to your perspective, I live. This expression is a major linguistic error. The ‘West Bank’ refers to the Western bank of the Jordan River. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of a riverbank is “The ground at the edge of a river.” Therefore, where I live, in Bat Ayin, Gush Etzion is not a  riverbank, since the Jordan River is at least 60 Km away (over 32 miles). It would take more than 10 hours to walk from my home to the Jordan River. Gush Etzion is about in the middle of the Land of Israel with a similar distance to the Jordan River as to the Mediterranean Sea. So, we may as well be called the ‘East Bank’ of the Mediterranean Sea! Moreover, a riverbank is typographically on the lowland, whereas my region – the Judean hills – is about 950 meters above sea level. “Because the historical hills of Judea and Samaria never had any meaning to Arabs, they never had a name for them. The term ‘West Bank’ only came into significant use after the Six-Day War of 1967” (Sha’i ben Tekoa, Phantom Nation p. 8). It is sad that even Jews the world over, including Israelis, are influenced by the media to use the erroneous term: ‘West Bank’ rather than the proper Biblical names, Judea and Samaria, when referring to the areas of the Land of Israel that were liberated during the Six-Day War.

Provoked by a Non-People
I would also like to address the term ‘Palestinian’ which you use to describe certain Arabs that live in Israel or who fled Israel in the wake of the formation of the Jewish state. As Golda Meir states, “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist” (Sunday Times,15 June 1969). No Arabs claimed to be ‘Palestinian’ until the sixties. In 1947, the Arab Higher Committee wrote, “Politically, the Arabs of Palestine [were] not independent in the sense of forming a separate political identity.” This is only one example of the numerous examples Sha’i Ben Tekoa brings in his very informational book, Phantom Nation. Traditionally, the Arabs in Israel called themselves Arabs! Actually, it was the anti-religious Zionists who called themselves ‘Palestinians.’ For example, in Leon Uris’ The Exodus, the Sabra hero is routinely called a ‘Palestinian.’ The Arabs who lived in Israel, prior to 1948, were not a people with a separate identity from the rest of the Arab world, but rather a society of clans and tribes. Israel is constantly on the defense, targeted by a “non-people,” as Moshe prophesied in Parashat Ha’azinu:

 ספר דברים פרק לב (כא) הֵם קִנְאוּנִי בְלֹא אֵל כִּעֲסוּנִי בְּהַבְלֵיהֶם וַאֲנִי אַקְנִיאֵם בְּלֹא עָם בְּגוֹי נָבָל אַכְעִיסֵם:
“They provoked Me with a non-god, angered Me with their vanities. Thus, I will provoke them with a non-people, with a foolish nation shall I anger them” (Devarim 32:21).

The Palestinian Refugee Myth
The so called ‘Palestinian refugees’ is a phenomenon invented by the Arab world. The media paints a picture of the poor, indigenous Palestinians, who have tilled their beloved homeland from time immemorial, being ousted by aggressive Western Zionist imperialists. Such apparent oppression is compared to what the British did to the colonies and the USA to the American Indians. This is what I believed as a high-school student in Denmark! Since I have an affinity for all native peoples, who have an inherent connection with their land, and who live in harmony with it, I naturally sided with the “poor” Palestinians who were treated so brutally by my own people. It didn’t occur to me that the Arabs in Israel chose with their own free will to desert the land that they had only recently learned to call their own. In  1947-1948 thousands of wealthy Arabs left in anticipation of a war, thousands more responded to Arab leaders’ calls to get out of the way of the advancing armies, a handful were expelled, but most simply fled to avoid being caught in the cross fire of a battle. “The Arab civilians panicked and fled ignominiously. Villages were frequently abandoned before they were threatened by the progress of war” (General John Glubb, The British commander-in-chief of the Jordanian Army, London August 12, 1948). Had the Arabs accepted the 1947 UN resolution, not a single Palestinian would have become a refugee and an independent Arab state would now exist beside Israel. The leaders of the nascent Jewish state asked the Arabs in Palestine to stay and live as citizens in Israel. Instead, they chose to leave, either because they were unwilling to live with the Jews, or because they expected an Arab military victory, which would annihilate the Zionists. They thought they could leave temporarily and return at their leisure. Later, it was claimed that the Palestinians were ordered to leave, with radio broadcasts instructing them to quit their homes (Steven Glazer, 1980, The Palestinian Exodus in 1948, J. Palestine Studies 9(4), pp. 96–118). The Arabs themselves testify that their brethren deserted Palestine with the following admonishment: “Those who abandon their houses and businesses and go to live elsewhere… At the first sign of trouble they take to their heels to escape sharing the burden of struggle” (As –Shaab, Arab newspaper, January 30, 1948). The first to leave were roughly 30,000 wealthy Arabs who anticipated the upcoming war and fled to neighboring Arab countries where they had family. Less affluent Arabs from the mixed cities of Palestine moved to all-Arab towns to stay with relatives or friends. By the end of January 1948, the exodus was so alarming, the Palestine Arab Higher Committee asked neighboring Arab countries to refuse visas to these refugees and to seal the borders against them. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders urged the Arabs to remain in Palestine and become citizens of Israel. The Assembly of Palestine Jewry issued this appeal on October 2, 1947: “We will do everything in our power to maintain peace, and establish a cooperation gainful to both [Jews and Arabs]. It is now, here and now, from Jerusalem itself that a call must go out to the Arab nations to join forces with Jewry and the destined Jewish State and work shoulder to shoulder for our common good, for the peace and progress of sovereign equals.”

Twisted Truth
There are so many more omissions and distortions of facts regarding the struggle between the Jews and Arabs for the Land of Israel. Why does no one mention the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to flee from Arab states before and after the creation of Israel? What about the demonization of the Israeli army who risk their lives to do anything it can to avoid killing civilians, whereas the Arab terrorists hide behind human shields- often women and children?  Why does world opinion seem to be so ignorant of the historical facts of the Middle East conflict? “Rabbi Yehuda said: In the generation when the son of David comes… truth will be entirely lacking, as it is written, ‘Truth is lacking, and he who turns away from evil is considered mad’ (Yesha’yahu 59:15). What is meant by ‘truth is lacking ne’ederet ]’? – The Scholars of the School of Rav said: This teaches that it will split up into separate groups and depart” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a). The fact that the truth is twisted is part of the redemption process predicted by our Talmud. May we live to see Mashiach unravel the twisted media strips and set the world straight!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How can I Make Up for having Spoken Lashon Hara (Evil speech)?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha Nitzavim-Va’yelecheh

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I live out of town in a very small Jewish community, and they don’t offer many Torah classes for women. I always look forward receiving your weekly writing, which is my lifeline and connection to Torah and the Land of Israel. Thank you so much for making the effort to keep sharing your unique Torah of the Land. I hope you are well, and that Hashem gives you the strength and insight to keep inspiring many more women! I’ve been having some challenging relationships with a family member, and I feel really badly about having spoken negatively about her to others. I am wondering what to do if I spoke lashon hara and then feel badly about it later.
How do I deal with it?  Is there a specific way to repent? Thank you so much!
Devorah Silverman (name changed)

Dear Devorah,
It’s good that you are contemplating doing teshuva (repentance) at this time, just prior to Rosh Hashana. When we remember our imperfections and shortcomings, then G-d will overlook them on the Day of Judgement. Teshuva is the greatest gift, because “Teshuva preceded the world” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 54a). Therefore, nothing stands in the way of teshuva (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 5a). When we express regret, do teshuva and sincerely cry out, we draw down towards ourselves pardon and forgiveness from the upper world. Since teshuva preceded the world, it causes us to become a new person, with our slate totally wiped clean like before creation (Ohr L’Smamayim, Parashat Bo). Even more so today, when there is no altar of atonement, there remains nothing but teshuva to atone for sins. Even a person who was wicked his entire life but repented in his final moments, will not be punished for any aspect of his wickedness as, “the wickedness of the evil one will not cause him to stumble on the day he repents his wickedness” (Yechezkiel 33:12); (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1). Then, how do we repent in general and more specifically from speaking lashon hara?

The Teshuva Process Involves Our Heart, Speech and Action
The meaning of Teshuva is “return.”  It is about returning to our true selves – the Divine spark within us – beneath the layers of murky ‘soul-fog.’ When we do teshuva, we assess our ways, recognize our shadow sides, and return to our own original state of spiritual purity – our divine selves. We essentially return to our direct bond with Hashem.

The process of teshuva involves the following four steps:
1. Regret – Realizing the extent of damage and feeling sincere regret.
2. Cessation – Immediately discontinuing the harmful action.
3. Confession – Confessing the sin before Hashem and asking for forgiveness.
4. Resolution – Making a firm commitment to change for the future.

You need to apply your entire heart and soul in the teshuva process, as we learn from the first verse of the teshuva section in Parashat Nitzavim:

ספר דברים פרק ל פרק 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, according to everything I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul” (Devarim 30:2).

Feeling badly about doing what we shouldn’t have done is actually the first step of teshuva – regret. When you move through the process of teshuva, the bad feeling goes away and is replaced with a feeling of relief. Not only must our hearts be involved in doing teshuva, we also need to apply our faculty of speech and change our actions. We must confess to ensure that we will make a real effort to change. When we express with our lips the feelings of our hearts, we are more likely to live up to it and carry it into action.

Asking Forgiveness for Speaking Lashon Hara
Confession can be just moving your lips quietly to ourselves and Hashem, but if we wronged anyone, we also need to ask forgiveness from that person. If we have caused a person emotional, physical, or financial harm through our lashon hara, we must ask him or her for forgiveness. While it is relatively easy to apologize to the peoplewith whom we spoke loshon hara, it is not so, regarding the person we disparaged. It wouldn’t go off well, to approach him or her saying, “I’m sorry I spoke lashon hara against you, please forgive me!” We have a Danish expression that translates something like, “What you do not know can’t hurt you.” If the person was unaware of your lashon hara, your request for forgiveness will only cause unnecessary pain. However, we can only obtain Divine forgiveness after we have tried everything to received forgiveness from our victim. Therefore, the solution is to ask general forgiveness from the person without specifying for what.

Creating the Highest Light Imaginable by Refraining from Negative Speech
Doing teshuva for negative speech is to become aware of the effect of our words. Before speaking, we must ask ourselves, “Can it damage someone?” Not only derogatory words, but even words that are seemingly neutral could cause harm. Before speaking about someone, we can visualize that person overhearing our words. Would the person that I am speaking about be embarrassed if she was present? We can also train ourselves to ask before speaking whether our words may cause anyone to look down at the person about whom we are speaking? This way we can learn to elevate our speech. The words of holiness we speak in this world create upper worlds and holy angels, who become advocates for our soul. Even if we have already spoken lashon hara and we feel that everything is lost, it is never too late to stop. For every single extra word that we refrained from expressing, we create a light so great that even the highest angels are unable to imagine it (The Vilna Gaon).

Permission to Speak
Sometimes speaking negatively about others is not lashon hara, because it is for a beneficial purpose. It could, for example, be for the purpose of getting advice for how to deal with a delicate situation. There are other reasons, too where it is permitted to speak negatively. For example, to help prevent others from getting involved with a certain person which could be harmful for them. When a person is going through great hardships, due to a negative encounter with someone, it is permitted to vent to a good friend, in order to gain relief from the inner turmoil. However, we must carefully select the friend with whom we share our feelings. Venting to every person we meet is no longer for a beneficial purpose. I heard an old tape by Rabbi Kessing where he said, “Although it is allowed to vent, who said we can be an air conditioner?”

The Mirror of Noticing Your Fellow’s Flaws 

The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that the person, who is completely pure and holy, never notices anything negative in others. The reason we notice when someone does something wrong is because that person is a mirror to our own shortcomings. Even if we may not engage in the misbehavior to the same degree, we have a tinge of it ourselves. Hashem made us see or hear this imperfection in someone else, in order to make us aware of our own similar shortcoming, so that we can repent and repair the flaw in ourselves. Therefore, rather than speaking lashon hara, we need to look inwardly and mend our own ways. This way, we also rectify the imperfection in the other person. This concept is a deeper way of reading the well-known injunction against speaking lashon hara: “Guard your tongue from evil …turn away from evil and do good” (Tehillim 34:14). “Guard your tongue from evil” – do not despise and speak about the evil of others. Rather, “turn away from evil” – and rectify the evil in yourself. By means of this, you will “do good” – by causing the person whom you noticed to also become good and repent from his evil (Arvei Nachal, Parashat Lech Lecha). 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Which Kind of Fertility Treatment is Permitted in the Torah?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha Ki Tavo
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I am a convert and married late in life, when I was 47. I’m very happy with my husband who also was never married beforehand. Since none of us have any children, we both really want to do everything possible to be able to build our Jewish family, and we are aware that because of my age we need to move fast. According to the doctors, the only way we will be able to have a baby of our own is through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and egg donation. We want to make sure to do everything right according to Jewish law, and we are aware that there are delicate issues involved. Therefore, before moving ahead I’d like your Torah perspective on these various fertility treatments. We are also concerned how to be able to afford fertility treatments and wonder if you may have any advice for us. Please share with us anything else that you believe we need to know before proceeding with the fertility procedure.
Miriam Gutkind (name changed)

Dear Miriam,
First of all mazal tov! I’m happy for you that you are happily married. What a great blessing. I completely identify with your yearning to bear children and raise your own Jewish family. This is not only your personal desire, but also the very first mitzvah in the Torah, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Bereishit 2:22 and 28). We live in very exciting times, when so many new fertility treatments are available to help us fulfill this important mitzvah. I believe that the new research and technology related to infertility, pregnancy, birthing and pre- and postnatal care, is all part of repairing the curse on Chava involving not only difficulties in pregnancy, birth and childrearing, but also includes the pain of the period, as well as the pain of infertility.

Fertility Treatments Need Rabbinic Supervision
I commend you on your wish to undergo fertility treatment according to Halacha (Jewish law). Many intricacies are involved in fertility treatments that need Rabbinic supervision. Halachic supervision is required in all fertility treatments, in order to verify the halachic identity of both the sperm and eggs involved. If it is a third party donation, it is necessary to ensure that the correct donor’s eggs are used as well as the husband’s sperm. We are fortunate in Israel to have PUAH Institute, under the guidance of Rabbi Menachem Burstein, which certifies the genetic integrity of fertility treatments worldwide. It furthermore provides counseling, referrals and support, free-of-charge, to all those seeking professional help, by halachic counselors trained in modern reproductive medicine. I recommend that you and your husband get in touch with PUAH institute, and speak with some of their Rabbis who will explain why IVF is okay according to Jewish law, and the different halachic opinions regarding ovum donation. I personally believe, that the revelation of new discoveries and technology, which help us fulfill the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiply are G-d sent. I’m sure that there is great reward for those who make the extra effort and take on the extra expense for the sake of bringing children into this world.

How Can We Afford Fertility Treatments?
Regarding the finances, this is a tough question. Without the money to finance the costly fertility treatments, it is not easy to undertake the procedures. PUAH Institute advises that a couple considering fertility treatment should review their finances and identify all anticipated costs in advance. The cost of IVF is expensive, and egg donation includes the additional cost of the donor. The procedure furthermore, in many countries might not be covered by insurance. In Israel, socialized medicine (Kupat Cholim) covers the major expenses of IVF and egg-donation for couples who do not yet have any children or have only one child, up until age 54 for the woman. All Rights, a non-profit, collaborative project, has an extensive list of resources about rights and entitlements in Israel, including the financial coverage of fertility treatments. It is good to know that IVF treatments are included in the healthcare basket for first and second children. You will need to complete your Aliyah process and subscribe to a Kupat Cholim in order to qualify for the financial subsidies from the State of Israel.

Who is the Halachic Mother?
There are different opinions regarding the halachic permissibility of egg donation. An increasing numbers of rabbis permit this procedure, when other fertility treatments have been exhausted, and it is clear that the woman doesn’t produce her own eggs or that they are no longer viable. In this case, egg donation is the last resort to enable her to have her own baby. It is vital that you consult either with your personal Rabbi or a PUAH counselor to determine if ovum donation is permitted in your case. There are three different rabbinic opinions regarding who is the halachic mother of the child born through ovum donation: the birth-mother, the donor or both. According to the opinion that the birth-mother is the halachic mother, the child is Jewish even if the egg donor is not. According to the opining that the donor is the halachic mother, the child’s Jewishness depends on the donor. Since the halachic definition of the mother is questionable, most hold by the third opinion, that it is good to be strict in all cases. According to this view, the child is only considered Jewish if both the birth mother and the donor are Jewish. If only one of them is Jewish, the child must undergo conversion to eliminate any doubt regarding his or her Jewish identity. PUAH institute concludes: “In order to satisfy all opinions, the optimum donor is a single Jewish woman. However, such a donor is not always available. Each couple should consult their Rabbi or a PUAH counselor to determine the best option for their specific circumstances.”

The Fruit of our Womb Depends of Hashem’s Blessing
With all the advanced technology, let us not forget that everything is up to Hashem. It all depends on His blessing. By interacting with nature through modern technology, the complex miracle of creating an infant becomes even clearer, making us tremble in hope and pray for the success of each stage. We need to be aware that the fruits of our womb are a blessing from G-d alone. It is included in this week’s parasha among the blessings:

ספר דברים פרק כח פסוק ד בָּרוּךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ וּפְרִי בְהֶמְתֶּךָ שְׁגַר אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרוֹת צֹאנֶךָ:
“Blessed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your heard and the lambing of your flock” (Devarim 28:4). 

Prayer can make all the difference. While it is important to get your family and friends to pray for you, your own prayer is most important. You need to storm the gates of heaven with your heartfelt supplications, like Chana, the mother of our prayer, who poured out her soul to Hashem (I Shemuel 1:9-15). It is not surprising that it is a segula (spiritual remedy) to recite Pirkei Chana (I Shemuel 1-2:10) every Friday night, which is the Haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashana. Rabbi Nachman also has special prayers for bearing children (Likutei Tefilot part 1, prayer 21 and prayer 60). Furthermore, in the prayer book for women called תפילת חנה השלם/Tefilat Chana HaShalem – Chana’s Complete Prayer, you will find a beautiful prayer on pp.191-209.

Lastly, here is a prayer I composed when I went through fertility treatments 21 years ago:
“Oh G-d, please answer my prayers. Please grant me fruits of the womb.  I can no longer bear being a barren tree who yields no fruit, year after year after year. Until when? I only want to fulfill my purpose as a woman. If it is Your will that I be blessed after having voiced my prayer, please Hashem help my prayers reach Your inner sanctuary to pull down a new soul into the world!”

I bless you success in each of the stages of your fertility treatments. May Hashem accept your heartfelt prayer to enable you to fulfill His will by bringing children into the world!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I Need Deep Torah about the Mitzvah of Making a Fence!

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha Ki Tetze
Printable Version
Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I’m so excited!!! We have made Aliyah and have just completed building our true home in Ma’aleh Adumim. We are planning a huge Chanukat HaBayit (More than a house warming party), and I’m looking forward to making it very meaningful. We have waited, planned and prepared for this special milestone for years. Now it is finally happening! During the celebration with family and friends, I would like to share some deep Torah about the mitzvah of making a fence around our roof. Its simple understanding is quite obvious. We don't need Hashem to tell us to ensure that our roof is safe so no one falls down from it. There must be more to it. I can’t wait to hear your inner Torah about this important mitzvah!
Simcha Houseman (name changed)

Dear Simcha,
Mazal tov on your Aliyah and the completion of your permanent home in Eretz Yisrael! This is indeed a great achievement. We made Aliyah in 1980 but we didn’t build our permanent home until 18 years later. Actually, our Chanukat HaBayit was also during Parashat Ki Tetze, which happens to be my birthday parasha as well. Therefore, my husband let me say the special blessing, before hammering in the last nail of theמַעֲקֶה /ma’akeh – fence on our raised porch. This was a very meaningful moment for me. Needless to say, I was extremely moved when I recited the following beracha: Baruch ata Hashem Elokeinu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu la’asot ma’akeh. (Blessed are You, Hashem our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to construct a fence). What makes it so special is that this is a mitzvah you usually get to do only once in a lifetime (if ever). I was fortunate to find a fascinating article by Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, “The Electrifying Fence,” that explains multilayered, symbolic meanings of this mitzvah. I have woven some of his teachings into other commentaries on the topic.

The Parameters of the Mitzvah of Making a Fence
The mitzvah of constructing a fence around the roof follows the war and subsequent conquest of the Land of Israel, when the Israelites settle and deal with the mitzvot of building a house (Ibn Ezra).

ספר דברים פרק כב פסוק ח כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ:
“When you build a new house, then you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you do not bring blood on your house, if anyone should fall from it” (Devarim 22:8).

Any flat roof, even one that people only occasionally walk on, requires aמַעֲקֶה /ma’akeh – fence, which is a three-foot wall to keep people from falling off (Shut Rivevot Ephraim 1:35). A roof that is never used does not need a fence (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 190:1). The fence on the roof must strong enough to prevent someone from falling (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 427:5). This mitzvah is part of the general directive to do what we can to prevent hazards particularly in our own homes. The image of the fence around the roof epitomizes the value of life.

The Connection between Sending Away the Mother-Bird and Constructing a Fence
The mitzvah to send away the mother-bird begins a new Torah section, which includes 35 subsections, the first of which is the mitzvah of constructing a fence on the roof. All of these mitzvot concern תקונו של עולם/repairing the world (Eliyahu Kitov). If you have fulfilled the commandment of שלוח הקן/Shiluach HaKen – (letting the mother-bird go when taking the eggs or baby-birds), then you will be privileged to build a new house and fulfill the commandment to “make a fence.” One good deed brings another good deed in its train. Then you will attain a vineyard (v.9), fields (v.10) and fine garments (vv. 10-11). For this reason, these sections are juxtaposed (Rashi, Devarim 22:8). The mitzvah of respecting the mother by sending away the mother-bird leads you to believe in the creation of the world and that G-d builds and renews. Therefore, measure for measure, you will also merit to build a new house. This is the foundation of emunah, as it states, “The righteous one lives by his faith” (Chabakuk 2:4); (Kli Yakar, Devarim 22:7). What a special privilege to emulate the Creator by creating your own home in the Holy Land. By adding the fence on your roof, you participate in repairing the world, and merit additional opportunities for world repair by attaining a vineyard and fields.

Mashiach & the Eternal Bird of the Soul
The bird and roof images are furthermore tied together in King David’s psalms, “I have been diligent, and I have become like a lone bird on the roof” (Tehillim 102:8). According to Rav Yitzchak Ginsburg, they both allude to Mashiach, who is compared to a bird sitting in a nest in the Garden of Eden, waiting to redeem the world. Similarly, Mashiach stands on the roof of the holy Temple in Jerusalem and turns to the Jewish People saying, “Humble ones, the time of your redemption has come” (Yalkut Shimoni, Yesha’yahu 60:499). The mitzvah to construct a fence on a roof only relates to people, as birds do not need it. The reason for making the fence is “so that you do not bring blood on your house.” Rav Ginsburgh explains that the Hebrew word for blood דָּם/dam contains the last letters of אָדָם/Adam – man. Only the dalet and mem need a fence to protect from falling off the roof. The alef, is never affected. It is the inner, eternal “bird of the soul.”

A Spiritual Fence Surrounding our Higher Consciousness
The rooftop also symbolizes the highest wisdom – chachmah. When we are greatly involved in wisdom, we have to be careful not to allow our mind to stumble in faulty perception, as happened to Elisha ben Abuya, who fell to the other side. Therefore, we need to place a protecting fence, which is the fear of G-d that surrounds our wisdom, as it states, “the beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d” (Tehillim 111:10); (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Devarim 22:8). Similarly, Rav Ginsburgh expounds, “When we ascend in our consciousness to the highest point, the ‘roof’ of an idea or experience, we have reached its climax or epitome. It is precisely here that danger lies.” It is the role of the feminine to infuse the masculine wisdom with fear of G-d. This is reflected in the Oral Torah (the feminine binah) which creates a fence around the Written Torah (the masculine chachmah) to protect it from spiritual danger. Thus, the first teaching of the first mishnah of the Oral Torah is to make a סְיָג/seyag – fence around the Torah.   

The Fence of Humility
We are fortunate to live in the pre-Messianic era, when new consciousness and new dimensions of the Torah are flowing through us. Therefore, more than ever, we need a spiritual fence to insure that when we reach those high points, we won’t fall. Humility is the character trait needed to create such a spiritual fence around the higher chachmah consciousness. This humility leads us to consult rabbis and ensure that our new spiritual consciousness remains within the boundaries of halacha. The new home that our verse instructs us to build also alludes to the new, third Temple. May the mitzvah of constructing a fence around the rooftop of your home be a merit for building the ultimate home – the final Temple that will repair the world!

How Can the Torah Issue the Death Penalty?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha Shoftim
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I can’t believe the backward and barbaric punishments described in the Torah. I understand certain behaviors are prohibited, such as murder, theft, adultery and idol-worship. But, living in the modern civilized world, where corporal punishment is outlawed, I find capital punishment described in Parashat Shoftim abhorrent. How can it be humane to take the lives of other people? Doesn’t the Torah emphasize repentance? Why don’t these sinners get a chance to work on themselves and change? Why must they be publicly stoned in such a cruel and brutal way?
Malka Freeman (name changed)

Dear Malka,
I totally understand how you are feeling, I, too, have a hard time with some of the punishments described in the Torah. I agree that Free Will and Repentance are the main tenants of Judaism, and whenever possible, we should give the sinner a chance to mend his ways. So, how can we come to terms with capital punishment ordained by the Torah? How can we understand it in a way that is not cruel to the sinner and still leaves room for his repentance?

Capital Punishment in the Western World
You mention that capital punishment is outlawed in modern civilized countries. Actually, capital punishment is still a matter of active controversy in various countries and states. The United States is one of the Western nations in which it has not been completely outlawed. Only some states have bans on capital punishment, while others still use it today. Even for Western countries that have abolished the death sentence, this is still a recent phenomenon.. 
Abolition of the death penalty occurred in Canada in 1976 (except for some military offences, with complete abolition in 1998), in France in 1981, and in Australia in 1973 (although the state of Western Australia retained the penalty until 1984). The Nuremberg executions, which took place on October 16, 1946, are well known. Ten prominent members of the political and military leadership of Nazi Germany were executed by hanging. Most Western minded people do not feel that it was inhumane to execute these villains. This is because the moral depravity, wickedness and cruelty of the Nazi murderers is clear to all of us. Most of us do not doubt that murderers certainly forfeit their right to live. The remaining offences for which the death penalty is prescribed in the Torah may not be as clear to us today. However, if we believe that the Torah is Divine, then we must also believe that each requirement of the death penalty in the Torah applies only to people who have similarly forfeited their right to live. Since, we are influenced by  today’s tolerant Western society, it may be hard to connect with the seriousness of certain sins that warrant the death penalty and feel abhorence for Shabbat desecration and idolworship. The popular sentiment today is that as long as people aren’t hurting anyone else, it is no-one’s business to interfere with their prefered lifestyle and way of worship.

Differentiating between Divine and Human Law
Without the Torah directives, I would never agree to capital punishment. Who are we, simple humans, to issue a death sentence on a fellow human being? Who are we to decide which kind of sins are serious enough to deserve the death penalty? Who are we to ensure we didn’t make a mistake, which could have such irreversible consequenses?  It is only because I believe that the Torah is from G-d, that I can trust that whatever is written in it is Eternal, Divine truth, even though some parts are more difficult for me to accept, such as the death penalty described in Parashat Shoftim:

ספר דברים פרק יז (ב) כִּי יִמָּצֵא בְקִרְבְּךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַעֲבֹר בְּרִיתוֹ: (ג) וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיַּעֲבֹד אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לָהֶם וְלַשֶּׁמֶשׁ אוֹ לַיָּרֵחַ אוֹ לְכָל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִי: (ד) וְהֻגַּד לְךָ וְשָׁמָעְתָּ וְדָרַשְׁתָּ הֵיטֵב וְהִנֵּה אֱמֶת נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר נֶעֶשְׂתָה הַתּוֹעֵבָה הַזֹּאת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל: (ה) וְהוֹצֵאתָ אֶת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא אוֹ אֶת הָאִשָּׁה הַהִוא אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ אֶת הַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה אֶל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֶת הָאִישׁ אוֹ אֶת הָאִשָּׁה וּסְקַלְתָּם בָּאֲבָנִים וָמֵתוּ: (ו) עַל פִּי שְׁנַיִם עֵדִים אוֹ שְׁלשָׁה עֵדִים יוּמַת הַמֵּת לֹא יוּמַת עַל פִּי עֵד אֶחָד:
“If there will be found among you, in one of your cities that Hashem, your G-d is giving you, a man or woman who does evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to transgress His covenant –
Going to worship other gods and bowing down to them, or to the sun, the moon, or any of the host of the heavens, which I have not commanded. If you have been informed or have heard of it, then you shall make a thorough inquiry, if it is true, the fact is established; this abomination was perpetrated in Israel. Then you shall take that man or that woman who has committed this evil thing, out to your cities, and you shall stone them man or the woman, to death. A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness” (Devarim 17:2-6).

Talmudic Restrictions on Capital Punishment
The Talmud expands upon this Torah section restricting the death penalty greatly and makes it nearly impossible for any crime to meet the standards needed to impose the death penalty. It rules that  two witnesses are required to testify not only that they witnessed the act for which the criminal has been charged but that they also warned him beforehand that if he carried out the act, he would be executed. Then, he had to accept the warning, stating his willingness to commit the act despite his awareness of its consequences. The criminal’s own confession is not accepted as evidence. Circumstantial evidence is also not admitted. Moreover, the death penalty could only be inflicted, after a trial, by a Sanhedrin composed of twenty-three judges (Mishnah, Sanhedrin e punishment. In fact, “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death... (Mishnah, Makkot 1:10). In any event, it is illegal for a secular Jewish court to impose the death penalty, even for murder, until the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. Even when this happens (May it be soon!), can you imagine anyone who would commit a murder in the presence of two witnesses, after these had solemnly warned him that if he persists they will testify against him to have him executed for his crime?

Certain Sins for Which Only Death Atones
The Torah indicates that some crimes are worthy of death in order to emphasize their importance. Yet, “G-d loves even sinners, so much that He sees to it that this harsh judgment doesn’t get carried out” (Rabbi Benjamin Blech). Every Torah law, given by a good and loving G-d, is ultimately for the benefit of everyone involved; not only for the society, which needs protection, but even for the perpetrators themselves. In the extremely rare cases where capital punishment was carried out, it would be only with the best interest of the executed person in mind. The Torah always gives a chance for repentance whenever possible. However, there are certain sins for which only death atones. This includes desecration of G-d’s name, idol-worship, murder and adultery. Thus, the death penalty wasn’t intended to exact vengeance. Its function as a deterrent was also not its ultimate purpose. Rather, the person’s death brought atonement for the sin he committed, and – in conjunction with teshuvah (repentance) – guaranteed the soul’s rehabilitation.

Prisoners Request to Exchange Life sentence with Death Sentence
Long term imprisonment can be more cruel and devastating to criminals than the death penalty. It was reported in BBC news, 31 May 2007, that hundreds of prisoners serving life sentences in Italy requested to bring back the death penalty. Italy has almost 1,300 prisoners serving life terms, of whom 200 have served more than 20 years. Some of the country’s longest serving prisoners want the death penalty re-introduced. The letter they sent to President Giorgio Napolitano came from a convicted mobster, Carmelo Musumeci, a 52-year-old who has been in prison for 17 years. It was co-signed by 310 of his fellow lifers. Musumeci said he was tired of dying a little bit every day. We want to die just once, he said, and “we are asking for our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence.” It was a candid letter written by a man who, from within his cell, has tried hard to change his life. He has passed his high school exams and now has a degree in law. But his sentence, he says, has transformed the light into shadows. He told the president his future was the same as his past, killing the present and removing every hope.

This explains why the Torah never imposed imprisonment as a punitive means. It seems that most inmates would prefer corporal and even capital punishment to a life time sentence. Considering the importance of Free Will in the Torah, one must ask, is depriving a person of his fundamental right to the most basic human need and aspiration – freedom – less cruel than capital punishment?