Weekly Cycle

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Leaving Egypt: "To Give or Not to Give" and the Torah Portion of Terumah

This week's Torah portion begins with the description of how donations were supposed to be collected for the Temple. How much was each person supposed to give? As much as their heart would inspire them.

For the past few weeks, we have been discussing Tiferet (Balance/Beauty) in different aspects of life. In no area does this concept appear to be more pervasive than when it comes to giving Tzedakah. On the one hand, there appear to be certain limits regarding how much one should give. 10% is the minimum, but 20% is the maximum. Otherwise, the giver himself might end up being on the receiving end of someone else's Tzedakah. In Pirkei Avot, we are also told about being careful about keeping track of our tithes, apparently not to risk giving too little or too much. Another teaching in Pirkei Avot teaches, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" (Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li?) A person must have boundaries, otherwise they risk being taken advantage by others, completely giving up their own needs and wants.

On the other hand, the same verse in Pirkei Avot continues, "If I am for myself, what am I?" ("Im Ani L'Atzmi, Mah Ani?") Yet another lesson in Pirkei Avot states that the pious are those that believe that, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours." (As opposed to the wicked who state that "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine." Even the one who states, "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours," is compared to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are many other sources that seem to encourage giving in an unlimited fashion. It is well known that Tzadikim of previous generations would not go to sleep until they'd given out their every last cent. This was a sign of their trust in G-d. The Alter Rebbe also writes in the Tanya that the limits placed on giving do not apply when someone when it comes to giving Tzedakah in order to remedy past misdeeds. Just like there is no limit on spending money to save a life physically, the same holds true for saving a life spiritually through Tzedakah. There are also additional obligations when the person is physically before you, asking for Tzedakah, right here and now (which unfortunately happens quite often), Jewish law states that one is not allowed to leave the person empty-handed.

Nevertheless, it would seem that to give to a person who is known to be lying, faking poverty, using the money (self-)destructively, this would not even be considered Tzedakah at all. It would be considered enabling bad behavior, much along the lines of the Torah prohibition of placing a "stumbling block before the blind."

Finally, it is a well known principle that Hashem asks in a way of Middah-Keneged-Middah, which means that He acts towards you in the same manner that you act towards others (and yourself). Wouldn't it be better, then, to give without judging, in a way of unlimited Chesed, so that Hashem will do the same for us?

The answer, once again, does not appear to be simple. Furthermore, once again, the answer will indeed be different for different people and will change drastically depending on the circumstances.

Nevertheless, a closer look at the beginning of our Torah portion perhaps hints at the proper approach to answering this question. The name of this Torah portion, Terumah, means "offering" or "donation." It is mentioned twice in the portion's opening verse: 

"Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering."

The term Terumah is mentioned in yet a different context altogether later in the Torah. Rashi picks up on this and comments as follows:

you shall take My offering: Our Rabbis said: [The word תְּרוּמָה, mentioned three times, denotes that] three offerings are mentioned here: 

a) One is the offering of a beka [half-shekel] per head, from which they made the sockets... 

b) Another is the offering of a beka per head for the [community] coffers, from which to purchase the communal sacrifices, and 

c) another is the offering for the [construction of the] Mishkan [the Tabernacle], each one’s [Israelite’s] donation [to their heart's desire]. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:1; Meg. 29b). 

The Rebbe explains these three different kinds of Terumah in terms of the three pillars that sustain the world, Torah (the sockets, that holds everything else together), prayer (communal service), and acts of kindness/mitzvot (performed with physical materials, such as gold, silver, and copper). The Rebbe explained that the Tabernacle was to be G-d's dwelling place in this world, and that it is the third type of Terumah, acts of kindness/mitzvot that physically achieve this (even though the other two are necessary elements) and that is why it is the third kind that is fully described in this Torah portion. (See a summary of this idea here)

Perhaps, one can also explain these three the kinds of Terumah as three aspects within Tzedakah itself. The Maharal explains that prayer is primarily about how we relate to G-d (as opposed to the cardinal sin of idol worship); Torah represents primarily how we relate to and improve ourselves (as opposed to the cardinal sin of immoral sexual behavior); deeds of kindness are about how we relate to others (as opposed to the cardinal sin of murder).  

The first two donations have a set amount per person. When it comes to giving Tzedakah to fulfill our obligation to ourselves, that requires only a set amount. When it comes to giving Tzedakah to fulfill our obligations to G-d, that also requires only a set amount. G-d, after all, wants us to enjoy the wealth He gave us as well. However, when it comes to helping others and fixing the world, which is the most essential aspect of Tzedakah, there is no limit. We give as much as we can, yet without upsetting the two above-mentioned principles: our obligation to ourselves and our obligation to G-d.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Leaving Egypt: Trust versus Initiative and the Torah Portion of Mishpatim

As I was getting ready to write the blog post for this week's portion, I found another Dvar Torah, which pretty much hit exactly on what I wished to address. This is the third post about the need for beauty and balance (Tiferet) in life. This week, I wished to discuss the importance of trusting in G-d versus being able to fend for ourselves, based on the verse of this week regarding permission to seek a doctor. The following is from Rabbi Chanan Morrisson, based on the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. (http://ravkooktorah.org/MISHPA62.htm)

Mishpatim: Trust in God vs. Self-Reliance

The Talmud (Berachot 10b) tells a puzzling story about the righteous king Hezekiah. It is related that the king secreted away the medical books of his day. Why? King Hezekiah felt that the people relied too heavily on the prescriptions described in those texts, and did not pray to God to heal them.

Surprisingly, the Sages approved of King Hezekiah's action. Such an approach would appear to contradict another Talmudic ruling. The Torah says one who injures his neighbor must "provide for his complete healing" (Ex. 21:19). The Talmud (Baba Kama 85a) deducts from here that the Torah granted doctors permission to heal. Even with natural diseases, we do not say, 'Since God made him ill, it is up to God to heal him,' but do our best to heal him.

Which is the correct attitude? Should we rely on doctors and medical books, or place our trust only in God and prayer?

There is in fact a larger question at stake. When are we expected to do our utmost to remedy the situation ourselves, and when should we rely on God's help?

Two Forms of Bitachon
Rav Kook explained that there are two forms ofbitachon, reliance on God. There is the normative level of trust, that God will assist us in our efforts to help ourselves. And there is the simple trust in God that He will perform a miracle, when appropriate.
Regarding the community as a whole, we find apparent contradictions in the Torah's expectations. Sometimes we are expected to make every possible effort to succeed, as in the battle of HaAi (Joshua 8). On other occasions, human effort was considered a demonstration of lack of faith, as when God instructed Gideon not to send too many soldiers to fight, "Lest Israel should proudly say 'My own hand saved me'" (Judges 7:2). Why did God limit Gideon's military efforts, but not Joshua's in the capture of HaAi?

The answer is that the spiritual level of the people determines what level of bitachon is appropriate. When we are able to recognize God's hand in the natural course of events, when we are aware that God is the source of our strength and skill — "Remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you strength to succeed" (Deut. 8:18) — then God is more clearly revealed when He supplies our needs within the framework of the natural world. In this situation, we are expected to utilize all of our energy and knowledge and talents, and recognize divine assistance in our efforts. This reflects the spiritual level of the people in the time of Joshua.

On the other hand, there are times when the people are incapable of seeing God's help in natural events, and they attribute any success solely to their own efforts and skills. They are likely to claim, 'My own hand saved me.' In this case, only miraculous intervention will enable the people to recognize God's hand — especially when the Jewish nation was young, miracles were needed to bring them to this awareness.

Educating the People
Consider the methods by which parents provide for their children. When a child is young, the parent feeds the child directly. If the child is very small, the parent will even put the food right in his mouth. As the child grows older, he learns to become more independent and take care of his own needs. Parental care at this stage is more indirect, by supplying him with the wherewithal — the knowledge, skills, and training — to provide for himself. The grown child does not wish to be forever dependent on his parent. He wants to succeed by merit of his own talents and efforts, based on the training and tools that his parents provided him.

So too, when the Jewish people was in its infancy, miracles served to instill a fundamental recognition and trust in God. In the time of Gideon, the people's faith had lapsed, and needed strengthening. Similarly, in the time of King Hezekiah, the king realized that the corrupt reign of Ahaz had caused the people to forget God and His Torah. He calculated that the spiritual gain through prayer outweighed the scientific loss due to hiding the medical texts.

But when faith and trust in God are strong, it is preferable that we utilize our own energies and talents, and recognize God's hand within the natural universe. The enlightened viewpoint calls out, "Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?" (Isaiah 40:26). So it was when Joshua conquered the city of HaAi. After forty years of constant miracles in the desert, the people were already thoroughly imbued with trust in God. It was appropriate that they use their own resources of cunning and courage to ambush the fighters and destroy the city.

What about the future redemption of the Jewish people? It may occur with great miracles, like the redemption from Egypt; or it may begin with natural events, as implied by several statements of the Sages that the redemption will progress gradually. It all depends on the level of our faith in God. It is certainly integral to our national pride that we take an active role in rebuilding the House of Israel.

(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 136-138. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 57)

Here is a second Dvar Torah from Rav Kook on the subject, discovered years later:

Medical Fees

Amongst the various laws in the parashah of Mishpatim — nearly all of which are of a societal or interpersonal nature — the Torah sets down the laws of compensation for physical damages. When one person injures another, he must compensate the other party with five payments. He must pay for (1) any permanent loss of income due to the injury, (2) embarrassment, (3) pain incurred, (4) loss of income while the victim was recovering, and (5) medical expenses.

This last payment, that he “provide for his complete healing” (Exod. 21:19), i.e., that he cover any medical fees incurred, is of particular interest. The word “to heal” appears 67 times in the Torah, almost always referring to God as the Healer. Only here, as an aside to the topic of damages, does the Torah indicate that we are expected to take active measures to heal ourselves, and not just leave the healing process to nature.

This detail did not escape the keen eyes of the Sages. “From here we see that the Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal” (Berachot 60a).

Yet we need to understand: why should the Torah need to explicitly grant such permission to doctors? If anything, we should expect all medical activity to be highly commended, as doctors ease pain and save lives.

Our Limited Medical Knowledge

The human being is an organic entity. The myriad functions of body and soul are intertwined and interdependent. Which person can claim that he thoroughly understands all of these functions, how they interrelate, and how they interact with the outside world? There is a danger that when we treat a medical problem in one part of the body, we may cause harm to another part. Sometimes the side effects of a particular medical treatment are relatively mild and acceptable. And sometimes the results of treatment may be catastrophic, causing problems far worse than the initial issue.1

One could thus conclude that there may be all sorts of hidden side effects, unknown to the doctor, which are far worse than the ailment we are seeking to cure. Therefore, it would be best to let the body heal on its own, relying on its natural powers of recuperation.

Relying on Available Knowledge

The Torah, however, rejects this view. Such an approach could easily be expanded to include all aspects of life. Any effort on our part to improve our lives, to use science and technology to advance the world, could be rebuffed on the grounds that we lack knowledge of all consequences of the change.

The Sages taught: “The judge can only base his decision on what he is able to see” (Baba Batra 131a). If the judge or doctor or engineer is a competent professional, we rely on his expertise and grasp of all available knowledge to reach the best decision possible. We do not allow concern for unknown factors hinder our efforts to better our lives.

“The progress of human knowledge, and all of the results of human inventions — is all the work of God. These advances make their appearance in the world according to mankind’s needs, in their time and generation.”

(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 390)

Illustration image: ‘The Doctor’ (Luke Fildes, 1891)

1 The tragic example of birth defects as a result of treating morning sickness in pregnancy with thalidomide comes to mind.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Leaving Egypt: The Importance and the Danger of Foreign Influences and the Torah Portion of Yitro

This week's Torah portion begins by reintroducing the figure of Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law. Yitro gives keen advice to his son-in-law as to how to properly judge the people. He tells him that if he continues the way he's doing things, he will soon burn out. Instead, he should appoint other judges to handle minor cases. Yitro's words are readily accepted, and this entire Torah portion, which includes the Ten Commandments, is named after him. He is said to be the very first convert, having experimented with every type of idol worship before coming to the conclusion that only Hashem is the true G-d. 

An interesting question arises: How can it possibly be that Moshe, who spoke directly to G-d on a regular basis, could be open to, never mind accept, advice from someone who, until now, was a complete outsider? Furthermore, previously, Yitro's influence on Moshe's family had been less than ideal. The Midrash teaches that Moshe's own first-born son, Gershon, was brought up by his idolatrous grandfather. Even though Gershon himself did not serve idols, his son, Yehonatan, became a "high priest" for the idol worship known as Pesel Micha, the very first major deviation from serving G-d after the Jews entered the land of Israel. (See more about this here) Imagine, Moshe's own grandson succumbing to idol worship. If it happened to him it could happen to anyone, G-d forbid.

In general, the question of how much to interact with the outside world is one of the most complex ones for Jews to handle. Just as in the post for last week's portion, the secret lies not in one extreme or the other, but rather in a proper balance. Too much exposure to foreign wisdom and culture is very likely to lead one astray. On the other hand, no exposure to the outside leads to inefficiencies and corruption from within. 

The proper balance will be different for different people. Some may belong more in the "borders" of our culture, while others may require more insularity. As a people, the key is to have a leader that is humble and open-minded like Moshe. Someone that will know how to accept and utilize outside knowledge when necessary. Nevertheless, that person must also learn from the lesson of Moshe's own personal life, and value the importance of being free from too much outside intervention, especially regarding our children.

Again, just as in last week's portion, highlighting the importance of rules and order as well as the need for individuality and self-expression, the answers are not black and white. The challenges are ongoing. However, aren't these nuances exactly what make life interesting, colorful and beautiful? To overcome these challenges, there's only one true advice: prayer, and a lot of it. Hashem, out of his infinite mercy will show us the way of the Torah, the way of our ancestors, particularly that of our forefather Jacob: the way of Tiferet (beauty/balance). 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Leaving Egypt: Singing and Dancing, and the Torah Portion of Beshalach

This week's Torah portion relates what is likely the culmination of the (physical) Exodus from Egypt: the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. In this miraculous series of events, not only are the Children of Israel saved and the Egyptians drowned, but also the entire people now fully "believed in G-d and in Moshe His servant." (Exodus 14:31) What follows then, is, if you think about it, is really quite surprising: the entire people break out in song! The song is so prophetic and beautiful that it is recorded in its entirety in the Torah itself. Moshe leads the entire people in song, while Miriam later leads the women in dance and timbrels (musical instruments).

Song and dance becomes the ultimate expression of freedom, but it is not that each person sings and dances randomly. It is all very much coordinated, following the leader (himself a servant), without ego. Singing and dancing is itself a way of serving G-d. This does not mean that there is no individual self-expression. On the contrary, each person finds their full individual expression as a part of this communal song.

It is worth noting that traditional Jewish dances are done in circles. Each person dances to their heart's content, but the focus is not on the individual, but rather on the whole. (Yes, sometimes individuals enter the middle of the circle, but unless they are the bride and groom, or the bar/bat mitzvah girl or boy, or the parents, a people should check their own motivations to make sure they are dancing in the middle for the right reason, and not as part of an "ego trip").

A similar concept applies to the Passover Seder. Seder means order, and while every household follows the same exact pattern (the "sheet music," so to speak), each household as well as each of its members applies its own take on the "song," the Seder. Freedom without order is chaos. Freedom without self-expression is not freedom.

This lesson is reflected in all of the commandments, and a proper metaphor  are the very strings of the Tzit-Tzit, attached to every four-cornered garment. The Tzit-Tzit represent all the other mitzvot: part of the length of the strings are tied in knots, while the rest is let loose (the word Tzit-Tzit adds up to 600, and there are 8 strings and 5 knots, for a total of 613). Without the knots, the strings would either fall off, get all jumbled together, or worse. They would probably end up knotted anyway, just not in the way that the Torah requires. On the other hand, if the strings were completely knotted together, they probably would not even be considered strings at all, just knots.

The opening Mishna in the Tractate of Pesachim (about Passover) begins as follows: "Ohr L'Arbah Asar Bodkim Et HaChametz L'Or HaNer." This is usually translated as, "On the eve (lit. the light) of the fourteenth, we check for any leavened bread, by the light of the candle."

Fourteen stands for redemption, as it has the numerical value of the word Yad, hand, a reference to the Strong Hand of G-d that took us out of Egypt. Leavened bread, Chametz, represents a person's ego. Light is a reference to Torah, and the candle, the mitzvot (the commandments), as in the verse in Proverbs: Ner Mitzvah veTorah Ohr," a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.

Therefore, the Mishna can be understood on a deeper level as follows: When the light of redemption is approaching, we check ourselves for any misplaced ego, through the the light of Torah and the commandment(s). As we prepare ourselves for the final redemption and can already see the "light at the end of the tunnel," we must check ourselves for any egocentric thought, speech or deed we might have overlooked. We check ourselves by analyzing our own devotion to the Torah and to how we perform its commandments.

This devotion mentioned above does not imply, G-d forbid, abolishing our own individuality. On the contrary, it is through the Torah and its commandments that we find our ultimate self-expression. As we see in the teaching of the Ethics of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot, 6:2), "there is no free individual, except for one who is occupied with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies themselves with the study of Torah is elevated."

When Mashiach comes, it is said that the righteous will be in a circle and that Hashem Himself will be in the middle. They will all be pointing in, and saying, "This is my G-d," very much like the Song of the Sea, when we all said together: "This is My G-d and I will glorify Him." Each one will have a different perspective from which they will be pointing, but they will all be pointing in the same direction.

May it be very soon, and may we all be part of this circle, knowing what to say and what to sing, how to dance and where to point.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tests and Elevating Holy Sparks: Explaining Chassidic/Kabbalistic Concepts Based on the Writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

In the Chassidic discourse (Ma'amar) for the 12th of Tammuz, 5711, the Rebbe's first Ma'amar on the date of this Chabad holiday, the Rebbe elaborated on the verse, "You have given those who fear You trials with which to be tested, in order to beautify [Your behavior] forever." (Psalms 60:6)

The Rebbe begins by quoting his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, who wrote a discourse on this very same verse, explaining that this verse is referring to the service of self-sacrifice and the topic of tests specifically. 

When it comes to elevating the holy sparks found in this world, the Divine service requires involving oneself with a physical object and using it for a Divine purpose. However, when it comes to tests, it is not the object that is elevated, but rather the person him/herself, to bring out ones own inner strength, until there is no longer any obstacle or determent.  This involves greater strength as well as greater nullification to G-d. 

The Previous Rebbe also stated that our generation, which is in the "heels" of the Messianic era (Ikveta d'Meshicha), was given greater power to overcome tests than the generation in Egypt. At that time, the Jewish people did not listen to Moshe and Aharon due to hard labor. This is not the case today.

The Rebbe then explains that there are three elements related to every Divine service: 1) The object of the Divine service; 2) The Jewish person involved in the service; 3) The kind of service related to the person and the object involved. All three elements are different depending on whether the service involves the service called Avodat HaBeirurim (the service of elevating holy sparks) and Avodat HaNissionot (the service of tests).

The Rebbe explains that when it comes to tests, the test itself has no intrinsic reality. Also, the spark itself that must be elevated during this time of Ikveta d'Meshicha is much darker in nature, for which the name "light" hardly applies. The service of tests is one that is linked to the Yechidah, the highest aspect of the soul, which is connected to desire and pleasure, Ratzon and Taanug. On the level of Ratzon and Taanug, there is no test, because they are connected to levels of the soul that are above intellect. 

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