Gut Yontiff!

Every year, we receive the Torah anew as we celebrate the festival of Shovuos. The name ‘Shovuos’ means weeks, as the holiday marks five weeks since Pesach. It’s at the end of this period that we accept the Torah all over again and rejoice in it. It’s important to hear the Ten Commandments read in shul- this mitzvah applies to all, including men, women and children, so you should try to be at your nearest shul tomorrow to hear this. Additionally, it is customary to stay up all night tonight learning Torah, to make up for the fact that the Israelites overslept when they were supposed to receive it.

Like on Shabbes, all forms of work are forbidden until after nightfall on Thursday. This includes writing, driving, shopping, and using electricity. Cooking and carrying items needed for the yontiff are permissible under certain circumstances. Please consult Chabad.org for actual guidelines.

In London, holiday candles should be lit at 8:48 PM today, and after 10:18 PM tomorrow (from a pre-existing flame). The yontiff ends after 10:19 PM on Thursday. While lighting candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna and Tova bas Taloob for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Yontiff!

Parshas Behar-Behuchoktai: The Letter of the Law

As the title suggests, this week’s Parsha is all about laws. Many of them are easy to dismiss as outdated. We begin by reading about the Sabbatical year- on which the land must not be worked- and the jubilee year, which sees the freeing of slaves and the return of property to its original owner. Afterwards, the Sedra goes on to tell us that G-d has promised to reward us, if only we would keep his mitzvos, while warning us of the punishment for transgressing them.

Amidst all of this, we find the laws of fraud and usury; ”You shall not defraud one another”. A simple statement, undeniably, but one which takes on a life of its own when we read the interpretation of Rabbi Bunim or Pshischa. He writes; ”legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s fellow. But a chassid must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude himself, either.”

A Chassid must go beyond the letter of the law.

This quote has been applied to many things. Not just fraud, not just to how we treat ourselves- although those things are undeniably of the utmost importance. But to how we conduct ourselves in our everyday lives. Often, we find that going beyond the letter of the law, to the spirit of the law, prevents us from accidentally transgressing halachos which we’re unsure of. But beyond that, it is a very important signifier of our relationship with G-d.

When we go beyond the letter of the law, we’re not just protecting ourselves from accidental transgressions. We’re saying to G-d, ‘I love You and want to do everything I can to make You happy’. When we care deeply for someone, we don’t just do the bare minimum to keep them satisfied. We express our affection by going above and beyond. Why shouldn’t we do that with G-d?

True Chassidim love G-d. They love Him and want to live in the way that He tells us to live. This means not only davening the prayers we’re commanded to daven, but pouring our hearts out to him, also. This means giving more Tzedekah than we’re legally required to. And above all, this means showing love for others. Maybe we’re not commanded to hold that door open. Maybe we don’t have to donate to that gemach. Maybe we don’t need to stop and talk with that person who’s having a hard time. But since when did we need to stick to the letter of the law?

Parshas Emor: The Callings of Holiness

This week’s Parsha is named Emor, meaning ‘speak’. It contains various laws and instructions; those of the kohanim; those of crime and punishment; and those of the festivals. We find a concise explanation of the different festivals in Chabad.org’s ‘Parsha in a Nutshell’ series, which tells us;

”The second part of Emor lists the annual Callings of Holiness—the festivals of the Jewish calendar: the weekly Shabbat; the bringing of the Passover offering on 14 Nissan; the seven-day Passover festival beginning on 15 Nissan; the bringing of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover, and the commencement, on that day, of the 49-day Counting of the Omer, culminating in the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day; a “remembrance of shofar blowing” on 1 Tishrei; a solemn fast day on 10 Tishrei; the Sukkot festival—during which we are to dwell in huts for seven days and take the “Four Kinds”—beginning on 15 Tishrei; and the immediately following holiday of the “eighth day” of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret).”

What’s interesting about this paragraph is the term used to refer to the festivals. Rather than simply calling them holidays, they are named ‘Callings of Holiness’. Initially, this seems to refer to the act of being ‘called’ to the Temple, to present festival offerings, but in a modern day sense, the term ‘Callings of Holiness’ has a different meaning.

In last week’s Sedra, we read that G-d enjoined us to keep the mitzvos, to make ourselves Holy; Kedoshim states, ”You shall be holy, for I, the L‑rd your G‑d, am holy”, before telling us of the mitzvos we must keep. It’s through the observance of the laws that we become Holy- we do this by following G-d’s word and thus ‘connecting’ with him. When we follow His word and laws- even when we don’t totally understand why- we are unified with Him and strengthen our emunah and bitachon.

And so, with this in mind, we can properly understand the term ‘Callings of Holiness’. The festivals can be difficult to prepare for; between cleaning and cooking and hosting guests, they provide us with a fair amount of work. With Shovuos coming up, many of us are probably worrying about recipes and guests and even all night Torah study. But at the end of the day, none of these things matter. Because no matter how our minds feel about the festivals, our neshomos- our souls- are rejoicing.

It’s through our souls that we make ourselves Holy, and through our souls that we continue the legacy of Moshe Rabbenu. And as our souls rejoice on the upcoming holidays, we find ourselves surrounded by Holiness- we just need to know where to look for it.

Doing Good for the Right Reasons

Today, I was thinking about the concept of doing mitzvos when there’s no one to see the good we’re doing; a silent act of kindness such as proffering a coin to a charity collector we don’t know, something which will go unknown to all but the person we helped. I came across the following quote from Shir HaShirim, saying ”Behold! He stands behind our wall, looking from the windows, peering through the crevices”. Of course, this refers to G-d. Initially, I interpreted it as saying we should never transgress just because we are alone, away from the prying eyes of community members, because G-d sees what we’re doing. But then I realised it worked the other way round, too.

There is a danger in speaking publicly of the good deeds we’ve done. Although, on the one hand, it can encourage others to do good, praise is addictive and can lead us to rely on public approval to do mitzvos. If other’s admiration encourages us, that’s all well and good. But when we rely on it to perform mitzvos, there is a very significant problem.

We need to decide for ourselves what it is sensible to share, and what we should keep to ourselves. But most importantly of all, we need to remember that no good deed goes unaccounted for, because Hashem is always watching. If we truly want to please Him, we will do mitzvos for the sake of mitzvos, because extending kindness to our neighbours is the best possible display of Ahavos Yisroel, and, thus, honour for our Creator.

Freilichen Peysekh!

Tonight, we begin the festival of Peysekh, in which we commemorate the exodus from Mitzrayim and our subsequent freedom by holding two Seyderim- special meals at which we read the Haggadah- and by ridding our homes of chometz (leaven). From tonight until Wednesday night we celebrate two days yontiff (in which the laws of Shabbes apply with some small exceptions regarding cooking- consult Chabad.org for full details!), and next Monday night through Wednesday night is also a yontiff. I won’t be updating the website on these days, but it is likely that I will be writing on chol hamoed- the intermediary days.

In London, Yontiff candles should be lit tonight at 7:31 PM, and tomorrow (from a pre-existent flame!) at 8:43 PM. The yontiff ends at 8:45 PM on Wednesday. Remember to recite Shehecheyanu, and if you can, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor Ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, aand Chashachana bas Bryna for a refuah shleimah!

I would like to wish all my readers, friends and family a freilichen and Kosher Peysekh. I hope that you find the festival both enjoyable and liberating. Gut Yontiff!

Bittersweet

The contents of the Seder plate are rich with symbolism and tradition, and reading about the laws and background of the various foods found at the Seder never fails to interest me. Today, I had the good fortune of being sent this extraordinary chiddush by Gershon Hepner, who kindly allowed me to dislay it on my website. I hope that you find it as fascinating as I did.

The prooftext provided by bPesahim 20b for the use of lettuce as maror, even though it is sweet, is that it echoes the experience of the Israelites in Egypt, which started out sweet and end up bitter. The prooftext for the fact that their lives started out sweet is Gen. 47:6:

ו אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפָנֶיךָ הִואבְּמֵיטַב הָאָרֶץ, הוֹשֵׁב אֶתאָבִיךָ וְאֶתאַחֶיךָ:- the land of Egypt is before thee; in the best of the land make thy father and thy brethren to dwell.

Lettuce is therefore a herb to which the opposite of הטוב והמטיב applies, and we should remember, when eating it, that we must bless God even when He seems to be allowing the exact opposite to occur, as He did when He allowed the Israelites to endure slavery after the they had lived בְּמֵיטַב הָאָרֶץ, in the best of the land.”

Gershon Hepner is the author of a book named Legal Friction, which is available on Amazon.com, and is also a prolific poet.

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Shabbes Observance and the Mishkan

This week’s Sedra, Vayakhel-Pekudei, continues with the theme of the Mishkan. It tells us more about the beautiful design of the Tabernacle, and the details of its construction. It also talks about the generosity of the Israelites. We read that alongside their skilled work on building the Mishkan, they donated a number of items to construct it with. These included, but were not limited to, gold, silver and copper, along with dyed wool and precious stones. They gave so much, in fact, that Moshe Rabbenu had to tell them to stop bringing materials.

This episode occurs near the beginning of the (extremely long) Parsha, and is followed by a number of other incidents, spaced out by descriptions of the Mishkan.We read about how it was built, and how the priestly garments were made, and then, near the end of the Parsha, we read of it’s completion, when it is brought to Moshe Rabbenu, who erects it and anoints it, before initiating Aharon and his sons into the priesthood. We then learn that a cloud appeared over the Mishkan, which signifies that the Divine presence dwelled within it.

But before all of this, there’s a section in the Parsha which seems entirely out of place. It seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the Mishkan, and yet it is followed directly by Moshe’s repetition of G-d’s commands regarding its construction. Moshe gathers the people of Israel and reiterates the commandment to keep shabbes, telling them that for six days they may work, but on the seventh, they are required to rest and not perform any of the activities involved in the building of the Tabernacle. Perhaps Moshe Rabbenu is simply reminding them not to work on the Mishkan on shabbes- perhaps the explanation is that simple. But is there a deeper meaning to this seemingly out of place repetition of G-d’s command?

The Mishkan may have been a physical creation, made of gold and silver and goat hair, but it has an inherently spiritual importance. The external beauty is supposed to reflect the Israelites’ love and devotion to G-d, which elevates the mundane materials into something rather more special. Just as shabbes is a day of fine food and fine clothing- things we don’t partake in just for ourselves, but rather to show our love for the Holy day which G-d told us to set aside. The resemblance is now apparent.

What of the Divine presence? We learn that it resided in the Mishkan, symbolised by the cloud hovering above it- in exactly the same way as it clothes itself in the garments of the ‘Shabbes malkah’, the Shabbes queen. The Holiness of the day is the same Holiness which rested within the Tabernacle. And just as the Tabernacle travelled with the Israelites wherever they went, so does the day of rest. No matter what we are doing or where we are going, G-d’s gift remains with us, as an eternal covenant for the children of Israel.

Maybe, then, it’s no coincidence that these two topics shared a space in this week’s Parsha. Maybe there’s a message in there for us. Even though the Mishkan does not travel with us today, it’s non-physical counterpart does; Shabbes. And just as we dedicated ourselves to the construction and the upkeep of the Mishkan, so, too, should we glorify Shabbes with fineries and rejoice in its Holiness.