• Dvar for Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

    Both Parshat Tazria and Metzora discuss skin ailments on one’s flesh, who to see about it (the Priest), how to treat it (isolate it), what to do if it spreads (isolate yourself), and so on. While we get caught up in the details of the treatments, we might fail to realize how strange all of this is. This is the first time the Torah discusses personal physical hygiene. Why would the Torah spend almost  two entire Parshiot (multiple Parshas) on personal hygiene?

    Rabbi Munk in The Call of The Torah explains that by giving these afflictions so much attention, the Torah points to them as examples of the spiritual causes at the root of many illnesses (in our case, Tzaraas – the affliction discussed in the Parsha – is caused by one of seven sins: Slander, murder, perjury, debauchery, pride, theft and jealousy (Talmud Arachim 16a)). As the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts, the best medication is based on ethical values, helping to re-establish harmonies between spiritual and physical forces (Guide to the Perplexed 3:27). That way, even if our physical ailments aren’t ultimately cured, at least we’re in harmony within ourselves. This discussion is meant to remind us that illness is sometimes spiritual, and that it’s connected to our physical well-being. As such, we should feed our bodies, so long as we nurture our souls.

  • Dvar for Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    As the Parsha relates the joyous time when the Jews finally started the long-awaited service in the Mishkan, Parshat Shemini abruptly interrupts that with the disturbing death of Aaron’s 2 oldest sons (Nadav and Avihu). Their sin was that they wanted to show their love for G-d so much that they took it upon themselves to take incense and burn it on their own. The Torah then relates that a fire “came out from before Hashem and consumed them.” It seems strange that the same fire that 2 Pessukim (verses) ago came down to burn the offerings was the same fire that came down to kill Aaron’s 2 sons. Why did they specifically die with fire, which is the very method they tried to use to serve G-d?

    The Rashbam helps us understand the sons’ mistake by explaining that they weren’t authorized to bring the offering, and that their bringing it minimized the miracle of the fire coming down from the sky. However, although they died, the verse says they died “before G-d,” which commentaries explain to mean that they at least tried to do a good thing, and were worthy of dying before G-d. Trying to preempt G-d’s commandments by burning things themselves minimized the very essence of those commandments. We too have to follow the guidelines of the Torah, not because they make sense to us and we’d do them anyway, but because G-d wants us to do things a certain way. The point of the fire was to show us that G-d would use fire for us, unless we make Him use that very fire against us by altering the “recipe.” The critical take-away from all of this is to observe the commandments correctly, so that we may strengthen the fire within us.

  • Dvar for Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

    Our Parsha, Tzav, informs us that the priests’ first task of the day was to remove the ashes from the offering sacrificed the previous day (Leviticus 6:3). Is there any significance to this being the priests’ first order of business with which to start the day?

    Rabbi Avi Weiss explains that the priest begins the day by removing the ashes to illustrate the importance of his remaining involved with the mundane. Too often, those who rise to important positions separate themselves from the people and abandon the everyday menial tasks. By starting the day with ash-cleaning, the Torah insists it shouldn’t be this way.

    A few years ago a couple appeared before Rabbi Gifter, asking him to rule on a family dispute. The husband, a member of Rabbi Gifter’s kollel (an all day Torah learning program) felt that, as one who studied Torah, it was beneath his dignity to take out the garbage. His wife felt otherwise. Rabbi Gifter concluded that while the husband should in fact help his wife he had no legal religious obligation to remove the trash. The next morning, before the early services, Rabbi Gifter knocked at the door of the young couple. Startled, the young man asked Rabbi Gifter in. No, responded Rabbi Gifter, I’ve not come to socialize but to take out your garbage. You may believe it’s beneath your dignity, but it’s not beneath mine. This message comes to us courtesy of the sacrificial ashes.

  • Dvar for Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

    The very first Passuk (verse) in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) describes G-d calling Moshe to tell him about all the different offerings that needed to be brought, and how they should be performed. The last letter in the word “Vayikra” (which means “called”) was written smaller then the rest (the Alef). Why is this letter shrunk? Furthermore, why is the whole book called Vayikra, “And He called”?

    Most commentaries explain that Moshe didn’t want to make a big deal of the fact that G-d called him and no one else, and therefore wanted to use the same word without the last letter, which would still have the same meaning, but wouldn’t be as affectionate a greeting (it would mean “and G-d happened upon…”). This shows us the great sensitivity and humility that Moshe had. Rabeinu Yonah offers us an insight into humility and human nature by explaining that some people who feel that they are lacking in a quality or in knowledge sometimes compensate for it by lowering others, thereby making themselves seem like they’re better by comparison. Moshe was the greatest prophet, but he was also the humblest because he was confident in himself and in his abilities, and didn’t need to lower others, even indirectly.

    But there’s an even more powerful message Moshe could be teaching us: The one letter he chose to shrink was the Alef, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet…The very first lesson is that even though Moshe was a great person, he sought to downplay it by shrinking that letter. But there’s yet another hidden hint for us in this word: The letter that’s shrunk, Alef, actually has a meaning as a word: It means “to teach”. The message being taught to us is clear… The first and most important discipline in life is to recognize our egos, and work on not letting it control us (whenever we get angry, it’s because our ego is telling us that we deserve something.) The second lesson is that instead of lowering others to make us look better, we should raise our own standards, and become better. And finally, the last lesson is to take these lessons and teach and share them with someone else.

  • Dvar for Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

    Parshat Bechukotai begins by Hashem (G-d) proclaiming, “if you will walk in My decrees and observe My commandments…,” (26:3) then 1) the rains will come in their season, 2) trees will bear fruit, 3) you will have bread, 4) there will be peace in the land, and 5) a sword will not pass through the land. Rashi (noted commentary) explains that “walking with My decrees” means that we should toil in understanding the rules of the Torah. Although Rashi addresses the seemingly incorrect syntax of “walking” in laws, Rashi doesn’t explain how walking/toiling in the Torah is accomplished, nor does it explain how the rewards correlate to the toiling or performance of the commandment (a common rule throughout the Torah).

    A possible explanation could be a metaphoric reference to walking, telling us that it’s not enough to sit back, read the Torah like a book, rather that we should pace and ponder every bit of the Torah, and never be satisfied with not knowing what, how, or why something is done. So why does the Torah list these specific rewards for making an effort to understand the Torah? Well, don’t just sit back and read this, ponder the question…

  • Dvar for Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

    Parshat Emor contains the commandment to count 49 days from the bringing of the omer barley offering on the day after Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. Although the Torah does not spell out the rationale for this mitzvah, the later Rabbinic literature identifies this 49 day period as a time for personal development; just as the Jews needed 49 days to rise from the level of impurity they reached in Egypt to the level of holiness required to receive the Torah on the first Shavuot, so too every individual should utilize the 49 days to ready themselves to commemorate the giving of the Torah on each Shavuot.

    There is a famous legal dispute as to whether counting the omer is one mitzvah (commandment) with 49 parts or 49 separate mitzvot. Practically, both opinions are respected: If one forgot to count on a given day, they continue to count on the next day, in accord with the second view, but they no longer recite a blessing because according to the first view they have spoiled their fulfillment of the commandment.

    Perhaps each of these positions is relevant not just to the counting itself, but to the spiritual development for which we strive during this period of time.  On the one hand, spiritual accomplishments must be approached one step at a time. Each of the 49 days stands on its own and each step we take has great value.  On the other hand, individual steps that are intermittent are not enough to reach the goal.  For true success, continuity is needed as well, maintaining the effort for 49 days without fail.  May we merit to use the remaining days of this year’s counting of the omer (and beyond) to reach new heights.

  • Dvar for Acharei Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

    Did you know that the airline safety announcements were (possibly) taken from one of this week’s Parshiot, Acharei Mot? When the Torah says that the Kohen Gadol (high priest) worked for forgiveness of himself, his family and of the nation as a whole (16:17), one should wonder why he couldn’t just work on forgiveness for everyone, which would clearly also include himself and his family.

    The answer is that before we can think about fixing the world, we need to fix ourselves and our immediate surroundings. As the airlines say, “secure your mask before assisting others.” What’s  even more interesting in the wording is that the word “forgiveness” is only mentioned once, and yet it affects himself, his family and the entire nation. It seems that a single positive action can have the affect of improving ourselves, our families AND the nation. It’s clear from this that finding ways to improve ourselves has a cumulative affect far greater than the improvements themselves, an important concept which should motivate us to find us a mask to secure.

  • Dvar for Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

    The primary subject of Parshat Tazria is tzara’at, a supernatural skin disease that, according to the Sages, was a punishment for speaking ill about other people.  A person who habitually spoke ill about others would be struck with tzara’at and would then be quarantined outside the city as a divine warning to improve their behavior and make themselves more worthy of dwelling within the community.  Although the symptoms of tzara’at were fairly straightforward, the official diagnosis could only be made by a kohen, who would declare whether a given patch of skin contained tzara’at or not.  The Torah describes one type of skin lesion called a “bohak” that is not tzara’at, but is required to be shown to a kohen as well.  R’ Moshe Feinstein asks about the purpose of this – if it is not tzara’at, why does the Torah trouble people to show it to the kohen?

    R’ Moshe Feinstein explains based on the insight mentioned earlier.  The purpose of tzara’at is to cause a person to evaluate their behavior and to make improvements.  The trauma of being quarantined outside the city for a week or more is clearly a strong catalyst for such self-examination, similar to the way serious illness or loss of a job triggers self-examination in our day.  But we must not wait for such dramatic events to examine our actions.  The law of the bohak teaches us that even smaller events in our lives should be seen as catalysts for introspection and self-improvement.  We can never know for certain what messages G-d is trying to send us, but we should always be listening, whether the message is loud or not.

  • Dvar for Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    The Gemara (Tractate) in Pesachim (3a) quotes: “A person should not speak in a negative way, as we see the Torah itself” went out of its way to speak nicely regarding the animals entering the Ark, describing the non-kosher animals as specifically that – non-kosher. It doesn’t call them Tamei (Impure). The Torah “wastes” words in order to teach us the importance of speaking nicely. From this week’s Parsha, Shemini, we have a problem with this Gemara.  The Torah continually refers to non-kosher animals as Tamei (11:4 and others). What happened to speaking nicely?

    R’ Mordechai Kamenetzky answers that the difference is that the story of the Ark is a narrative, which is when people should be careful to tell it over in a nice way, refraining from Lashon Hara (slander) or negativity of any sort. In our Parsha, however, the Torah describes the nitty-gritty laws of what one may eat. In our case, it’s important to give a resounding “TAMEI!” when discussing these matters, as the consequences are much graver. It should be the same when dealing with children and others around us who may not know better. We speak softly in order to get them to understand history, reasons and customs of Judaism. However, as the metaphor of food may hint at, if they are in imminent danger of internalizing negative influences, it’s time to fearlessly admonish them. When dealing with clear right and wrong, the Torah tells us that sometimes it’s necessary to boldly speak where no one has spoken before.

  • Dvar for Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

    Parshat Tzav includes a Passuk (verse) scarcely commented on, describing how the Kohen (Priest) needs to remove the clothes he wore when he gathered the ashes of the Olah offering, put on “other clothing” (6:4) and remove the ashes. Why would a change of clothing be required for simply walking ashes?

    Rashi explains that it’s not proper to mix a cup of wine for one’s superior in the same clothing in which one cooked a pot. Rav Moshe Feinstein points out how the Torah considers the rules of proper decency and etiquette so important that it included laws to that effect in the Torah. Being decent and acting properly isn’t just a good idea, it’s the (Jewish) law.

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