Weekly Cycle

Sunday, April 10, 2011

In Service: After Mourning and the Torah Portion of Acharei Mot


In this week's Torah portion, we switch from speaking about Tzara'at and return briefly to the subject of the death of Aharon's two eldest sons. The Torah portion then describes the service of Aharon, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, and later discusses other laws purity.

As mentioned previously, Tzara'at and death have a lot in common. Both represent transitions, and the Metzorah himself is considered like someone who is "dead." We also spoke about how a mother who has just given birth is also in the midst of a great transition, and perhaps that is why her condition is discussed along with Tzara'at and she becomes impure for an extended amount of time. Another person in the midst of a transition is a mourner.

1And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died.א. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל משֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה וַיָּמֻתוּ:
And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons:What does this teach us [when it specifies “after the death of Aaron’s two sons”]? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah illustrated [the answer] with a parable of a patient, whom a physician came to visit. [The physician] said to him, “Do not eat cold foods, and do not lie down in a cold, damp place.” Then, another [physician] visited him, and advised him, “Do not eat cold foods or lie down in a cold, damp place, so that you will not die the way so-and-so died.” This one warned that patient more effectively than the former. Therefore, Scripture says, “after the death of Aaron’s two sons” [i.e., God effectively said to Aaron, “Do not enter the Holy in a prohibited manner, so that you will not die as your sons died”]- [Torath Kohanim 16:3]וידבר ה' אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרן וגו': מה תלמוד לומר, היה רבי אלעזר בן עזריה מושלו משל לחולה שנכנס אצלו רופא. אמר לו אל תאכל צונן ואל תשכב בטחב. בא אחר ואמר לו אל תאכל צונן ואל תשכב בטחב שלא תמות כדרך שמת פלוני. זה זרזו יותר מן הראשון, לכך נאמר אחרי מות שני בני אהרן:

At first glance, Rashi's comment seems primarily about the effective of Hashem's choice of words. However, comparing Aharon to a patient perhaps also has a much deeper meaning. Aharon was like a patient, someone still carrying fresh wounds of the trauma of losing his two sons. He could not even grieve properly because he was serving in the Temple and could not display acts of mourning. He was a recovering patient, and did not need a reminder of his sons' passing in order to follow G-d's commandments. What Aharon needed, first and foremost, was encouragement, moral support to fight depression and death. He needed meaning and purpose, and was therefore further told of his obligations as high priest.

Mourners are always at a risk of clinging too much to the dead and forgetting to keep living. After the set time for mourning, they must get up and get back to work. They must be told "not to eat cold foods" (continue to have thoughts of death and mourning) or "lie down in a cold damp place" (a cemetery). They must stand now, and need warmth and light. Once they are out of the transition period of mourning, they must consider themselves "purified,"  and realize that their Divine service, in the face of tragedy, is important and holy like that of the high priest himself.

Note: The statement quoted by Rashi is by Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah, one of the protagonists of the Passover Haggadah. He is the foremost example of how being assigned an important task can propel a person to new heights, to the point that they are physically transformed. In the Haggadah, Rabbi Eliezer states, "I am like someone aged 70." Even though he was in fact a teenager at the time, when he was appointed as Nassi he grew white hair and a white beard!

Monday, April 4, 2011

In Service: Life's Challenges and the Torah Portion of Metzorah


This week's Torah portion continues to focus on the ritual impurity known as Tzara'at, and how someone who becomes purified from it is brought back into the community. It also discusses other impurities, as well as how not only a person, but also one's clothes and one's house can become contaminated.

A question arises as to whether the impurity of Tzara'at is a curse or a blessing. Our sages teach us that only someone that is at an elevated spiritual level is even worthy of contracting this condition. This is the reason why today Tzara'at is not found. (As a side note, I think it is worth mentioning the Rebbe's question on this ponit. How could it be that Tzara'at only impacts people that are extremely elevated, if it is well known that the primary cause of Tzara'at is Lashon Harah, usually translated as slander? The answer is that the Lashon Harah mentioned here is not abusive speech such as slander, but rather an abuse of the faculty of speech, meaningless talk (See Rambam as to the two kinds of Lashon Harah)).

Back to the above question, is Tzara'at a curse or a blessing? In the middle of the Torah portion, there is a verse with a comment from Rashi that is particularly revealing, and which perhaps contains our answer:

34When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara'ath upon a house in the land of your possession,לד. כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם:
and I place a lesion of tzara’ath: Heb. וְנָתַתִּי, lit. and I will give. This is [good] news for them that lesions of tzara’ath will come upon them, (Torath Kohanim 14:75), because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he will demolish the house (see verses 43-45) and find them. — [Vayikra Rabbah 17:6]

How can placing Tzara'at on a house be called "giving?" In fact, this begs a much bigger question. If we know that G-d runs the world, and that everything he does is the ultimate good, why is there pain and suffering? The answer is G-d wants us to grow. When challenges come our way, G-d wants us to dig deep within us, demolish our walls and self-imposed restrictions, and find the treasures that are inside.

Again, this is one of the fundamental teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, expressed so beautifully in the book, Garden of Emuna, by Rabbi Shalom Arush. We have so many deep hidden treasures within us, and there are always so many more ways to grow and become better people. Sometimes we just need a little pushing. We can fill ourselves with more and more meaning, until we get to the point where there is no place for meaningless speech in our vocabulary - where every second counts - because it does. There are even levels above that, where words that may be considered meaningful today, could even be deemed "meaningless." Every day we learn more about G-d and can serve Him on a higher level. In fact, we need to do Teshuvah for not serving Him on such a level in the first place.

The above is also captured in the story called "The King's Son Made of Precious Stones," also from  Rebbe Nachman, who as mentioned last week, was born on the Torah portion of Tazria and had his Brit-Milah on the Metzorah. (The story can be found here, pp. 83-88). Here are a few quotes from it, which serve as a kind of summary:

"[The Tzaddik] told [the King and the Queen] they would have a son who would be made completely of precious stones, and he would possess all of the qualities of all of the precious stones." 

"The tzaddik then went home. The queen gave birth to a son, and the king rejoiced very greatly. The son that was born was not made of precious stones..." 

"The prince became very leprous [Metzorah] He had leprosy [Tzara'at] on his nose, on his face and all over his body. The king engaged in doctors and sorcerers, but to no avail." 

"The tzadik then came and said that the prince would be healed. And he was healed, and the leprosy dried up, and all of his skin pealed off, and he was made completely of precious stones and possessed all the qualities of all the precious stones (as the tzaddik had said)."

It is said that in this story Rebbe Nachman is making a reference to himself. It also appears to be a reference to Mashiach himself, who, as also mentioned last week, is called a Metzorah. May the Tzara'at of all of this world be peeled off, so that the true treasures within each one of us can finally be revealed. May it be soon, may it be now.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Service: Life and Death and the Torah Portion of Tazria

In honor of Anat bat Miriam on the birth of her baby boy. In memory of Miriam bat Messod, Sarah Channah Bat Mordechai, and Chanah Leah M., who passed away this week.

This week's Torah portion begins with a discussion of the ritual impurity a mother incurs when giving birth, and then turns to the spiritual impurity known as tzara'at. This impurity could affect a person's house, one's clothes, and even one's body. When the body was affected, it required a period of personal exile, until the person was deemed pure by the Kohen. The Kohen was also the one to determine whether the person was impure to begin with.

An obvious question arises as to the connection between the two topics mentioned: the birth of a baby and Tzara'at. While both topics relate to impurity, there appears to be a much deeper connection as well.

The Torah portion begins as follows:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2. Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.

א. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: ב. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּו‍ֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא:

Rashi: If a woman conceives: Rabbi Simlai said: “Just as in the Creation, man was created after all domestic animals, wild beasts, and birds, so too, the law [concerning the cleanness] of man is stated after the law [concerning the cleanness] of domestic animals, wild beasts, and birds.”- [Vayikra Rabbah 14:1]

Rashi states that in Creation there were different levels of created beings, rising from level to level and culminating with the creation of man (woman, actually, since Eve was created even after Adam). The same applies to the laws of impurity: the different levels of creation are discussed separately in the Torah.

The whole idea of the Metzorah (someone who contracted Tzara'at) is about rising from level to level. As we will see in next week's portion, the ritual regarding the purification of the Metzorah is remarkably similar to that of the induction/inauguration of the Kohanim. Just like the priests were "upgraded" spiritually, so too, the Metzorah.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Mashiach is called a Metzorah. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98B) He is constantly climbing from level to level. The Talmud states that one can idenfy him among the other Metzorayim because he wraps one wound at a time, healing himself, improving his predicament one step at a time...

The mother who just gave birth is impure for similar reasons. She is now going through a major transition. In the case of a first child, she goes from being responsible for herself only, to now being primarily responsible for a whole other life, another soul. With every new child, come new responsibilities, a new level of Divine service. This is true even before giving birth, but now it is only at birth this is internalized by the mother on a more conscious level; it is also when the Neshamah, the soul of the baby descends into the body.

Redemption itself and the coming of Mashiach is compared to the process of giving birth. The difficulties we now face are called the "birth-pangs" of Mashiach. The whole world is going through a transition, bringing upon us a temporary state of impurity.

Chassidic thought is famous for the idea of ascent in order to achieve a greater ascent (Yeridah LeTzorech Aliyah). One of the Chassidic masters that most emphasized this idea was Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. Not coincidentally, Rebbe Nachman was born on the week of the Torah portion of Tazria and his Brit-Milah was on the following Torah portion, Metzorah. Rebbe Nachman would say:

When the time comes for a person to rise from one level to the next, he must first experience a fall. The whole purpose of the fall is to prepare for the ascent. Try to understand this and you will realize how determined you must be in order to serve God. No matter how far you fall, never allow yourself to be discouraged. Remain firm and resolute and pay no attention to the fall at all, because in the end it will be transformed into a great ascent. This is its whole purpose.

This applies to all the different ways one can fall. Each person always thinks that his own situation is so bad that this does not apply to him. People imagine it applies only to those on very exalted levels who are continually advancing from level to level. But you should realize that it holds true even for those on the lowest of levels, because God is good to all.

Likutey Moharan I, 22 ("Daily Dose of Rebbe Nachman")

When you're in the middle of the roller-coaster ride of life, it's tough. But when you look back, and see how far you've come, it will be all worth it.

Interestingly, the Talmud also notes that the Metzorah is one of the four kinds of people that are considered "dead." Death itself is a transition. It is the ultimate ascent from level to level, which continues for the soul after life as well.

Even for the body, its descent is only for the purpose of a greater ascent: the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps that is the deeper meaning behind the verse we touched upon at the end of last week:

19With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return."יט. בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב:
El, used in the above verse as a preposition, is also one of G-d's names. The last part of the verse could possibly be read as follows:  "until you return to El (G-d) of the earth, for you were taken from Her, for you are dust (body) and El (soul); you, the dust (body), will return." 

May we all continue to rise, in the ongoing spiral that is life, history, and the Jewish calendar. May we all rise again, in the end of days, and finally be able to reconnect with all those that have already ascended to the higher realms, and who are so sorely missed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

In Service: Knowing When to Be Quiet, and the Torah Portion of Shmini

This week's Torah portion, Shmini, describes the inauguration of the Temple on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which is around the corner. The inauguration is marked by a major event: the death of two of the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu. Aharon reacts to this occurrence with silence.

3. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent.

Rashi - And Aaron was silent: [and did not complain. Consequently,] he was rewarded for his silence. And what reward did he receive? That God addressed him exclusively in the [ensuing] passage regarding those who drink wine [as verse 8 says, “And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying…”]. — [Vayikra Rabbah 12:2]

Wine represents the opposite of silence. The Talmud states that "when wine enters, secret emerges." It is well known that drunk people often speak more than they are supposed to. They lose their inhibitions and a secret side of them comes out. Sometimes this side can be quite ugly. People's feelings get hurt, others get slandered (Lashon Harah), etc. The worse part of it all is that what is said cannot be retracted. The words leave an indelible mark for all times. It is interesting that this year we read about this account almost immediately after Purim, when perhaps many of us would have been better off keeping a few of our drunken words to ourselves. Also, in the face of so many controversial issues facing our society, particularly in Israel today, we must be very careful with our words and avoid conflict as much as possible.

Aharon's silence represents his quintessential quality of "loving peace and pursuing peace," as mentioned in Pirkei Avot. It also represents the quintessential aspect of the Sefirah of Hod, associated with Aharon. Hod (glory, acknowledgement), shares the same root as the word Hoda'ah, thankfulness, as well as acquiescence. Reflecting on the words (above) told to him by Moshe, Aharon understood that ultimately Hashem had a plan, even if Aharon himself could not fully grasp it. 

While Rashi's comment in and of itself is enough to show just the greatness of Aharon's silence, it is worth taking a closer look at the words of the ensuing passage directed solely to Aharon. It includes more than just an admonition against drinking wine in the Temple:

8. And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, 9. Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your generations, 10. to distinguish between holy and profane and between unclean and clean, 11. and to instruct the children of Israel regarding all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.

The passage emphasizes the very special role of the Kohanim: to distinguish the holy from the profane, the pure from the impure, and to instruct the Jewish people for generations to come. In order to be successful in all of the above, there must be silence in the face of apparent tragedy. In order for there to be Hod, there must be Hoda'ah.

May we all internalize this quality of Aharon, so that we may be more at peace with one another, and make life a little easier for Mashiach when he comes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

In Service: Elements of a Spiritual Work Out and the Torah Portion of Tzav

The Torah portion of this week continue to speak about the different kinds of sacrifices to be brought in the Tabernacle (Mishkan), as well as the induction of Aharon and his children into the priestly service. Here too, we find a combination of the Sefirot of Netzach and Hod, represented by Moshe and Aharon.

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the sin offering bull, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread,

ב. קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ וְאֵת הַבְּגָדִים וְאֵת שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וְאֵת | פַּר הַחַטָּאת וְאֵת שְׁנֵי הָאֵילִים וְאֵת סַל הַמַּצּוֹת:

Rashi - Take Aaron: Take him over with [persuasive] words and attract him. — [Torath Kohanim 8:165]

Again, we see how Moshe's use of words, his ability to inspire, was a key aspect of his leadership.

We also see from the above verse that one of the main aspects of the induction/inauguration is the anointing oil. This oil had several special ingredients (as described in Parashah Ki Tissah), and to understand the role of each ingredient would be a key lesson in and of itself. The way in which Moshe poured the oil on Aharon is also quite fascinating:

12. And he poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron's head, and he anointed him to sanctify him.

יב. וַיִּצֹק מִשֶּׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה עַל רֹאשׁ אַהֲרֹן וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ לְקַדְּשׁוֹ:

Rashi -  And he poured…and anointed [him]: At first, he [Moses] poured [the oil] on his [Aaron’s] head, and afterwards, he placed it between his eyelids, and drew it with his finger, from one [eyelid] to the other. — [Ker. 5b]

ויצק, וימשח: בתחלה יוצק על ראשו, ואחר כך נותן בין ריסי עיניו ומושך באצבעו מזה לזה:

Why is the focus on Aharon's head and his eyelids?

Oil is very much connected to the Kohanim, as we see from the story of Chanukah. It well known that oil represents both wisdom as well as purity. Wisdom is symbolized by Aharon's head, while the eyelids represent purity. This is not very much emphasized in today's society, but one of the main ways (if not the main way) to attain to purity is to guard one's eyes.

Psalm 133 also describes the anointing of Aharon. There also it speaks of the oil being poured on Aharon's head, but then the focus changes from eyelids to Aharon's beard and the "mouth of his clothing" (lit. Middot).

1. A song of ascents of David. Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers also to dwell together! 2. As the good oil on the head runs down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, which runs down on the mouth of his garments.

ב. כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב | עַל הָרֹאשׁ יֹרֵד עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו:

Rashi - As the good oil: with which Aaron the priest was anointed.

Zakan, beard, is spelled the same as Zaken (elder), which stands for Zeh She Kanah Chochmah, "one who has acquired wisdom." The beard also represents the Thirteen Attributes (Middot) of Mercy. Perhaps one can say that these attributes are expressed primarily through the mouth, both in our prayers to G-d as well as in how we address others - our use of words, as mentioned above regarding Moshe.

There also appears to be another aspect of oil, besides from wisdom, purity, and mercy, which is related to how oil is described in the Torah portion of Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh, which shares the same root as Tzav, is usually read exactly at this time of the year (when it is not a leap year), immediately before Purim. Additionally, in Rashi's commentary on Tzav, he makes various references back to his comments regarding Tetzaveh.

Tetzaveh's opening verse relates to the olive oil to be used for the Menorah:

20. And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

כ. וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה | אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:

The oil is a product of the olives' being "crushed for lighting." This is related to the idea of working hard with great self-sacrifice (Mesirat Nefesh), as explained by the Rebbe in the very last discourse he distributed. 

Perhaps the idea of pouring oil on one's head is referring to what happens when we work so hard that we are physically (and mentally) crushed, exhausted: we sweat.

19. With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread...

יט. בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם:

Rashi - With the sweat of your face: After you toil with it very much. — [Mid. Tadshei, Otzar Midrashim]

This is a reference not just to material bread, but to spiritual bread as well.

I was once told the following guiding principle in life: "The Baal Shem Tov tells us what we need to know. The Letter of the Law tells us what we need to do. [All that is left is to] get wet in the head."

The Rebbe explains that there is a higher level of working hard and "feeling crushed," which is not as a result of an oppressor's decree, but rather when we have abundance, both physical and spiritual. We feel crushed simply because of the fact that we our still in exile; because of our thirst for G-dly revelation, which will come into fruition only with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. May it be soon, and may each of us do our part, in the same way as Moshe and Aharon, with much wisdom and purity, mercy and self-sacrifice.

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