Parshas Tazria-Metzora: Loshon Hora and Its Effects

This week’s Sedra, Tazria-Metzora, tells us about the tzaraas, a kind of supernatural plague which affects those who engage in the sin of loshon hora (evil speech), along with their homes and belongings. This unsightly growth is linked to loshon hora for a reason. It represents the effect of our speech on others; when we speak negatively about someone, we hurt them, and our words turn into a kind of plague, just like the tzaraas.

When we hear about our real or imagined faults, in a way that does not foster Ahavos Yisroel, and when we hear rumours about ourselves, they plague us and become real. Our words are a self fulfilling prophecy; insulting someone’s intelligence causes them to lose confidence in how clever they are, and thus act unintelligently, fuelling more insults. It’s a cruel cycle, and just like the tzaraas which effected those who spoke negatively, it is painful and humiliating.

A plague isn’t just a physical sickness or blemish, like we read about in this week’s Parsha. It can also be an emotional onslaught. Quite often, it’s our feelings which incapacitate us and make us loathe ourselves. These sorts of feelings are only fuelled by negative speech, which could instead be turned around into empowering speech. Rather than criticising, we should advise. Rather than focussing on shortcomings, we should praise strengths. It’s important not to become haughty or encourage pride, but that doesn’t mean that negative words are constructive or necessary.

The cure for tzaraas is a complex one. The afflicted person must be purified by the Kohen, in a ceremony involving two birds, spring water, cedarwood, scarlet thread, and hyssop. Today, these ingredients aren’t relevant, but loshon hora is. Luckily, there is a much simpler way in which we can repent for our evil speech. In place of a purifying ceremony, we can use purifying words. We can clean up our speech, and we can rectify our wrongs, by changing our behaviour and apologising. Many of us have said things we regret over the past days or weeks; and the tzaraas like effects of our speech may stil be felt by the other party. If we make amends, we can cleanse ourselves and those we have hurt, undoing damage and fostering good relationships.

When we read about the tzaraas this week, we may recoil at it’s description, but we should remember that it is merely a visualisation of loshon hora’s effects. If we decide to purify our speech, we purify not only ourselves, but those around us. And this is the true power of words; when they can either cure or kill, we should always choose to cure with them. In doing so, we honour ourselves, we honour our peers, and we honour Hashem.

Parshas Shemini: Kosher and Kedushah

Over Peysekh, we traditionally study special Torah readings, but in order to reach my goal of writing a chiddush on each Parsha, I have instead chosen to write about Parshas Shemini, which I feel is one of the most complex and beautiful Parshos.

Parshas Shemini features a stark contrast. After reading about the sacrifices in great detail, seemingly for weeks upon weeks, we’re presented with the laws of Kashrus. It’s initially hard to find a connection. On one level, both topics discuss food in one form or another- the offering of an animal, or the laws of animal consumption. But nonetheless, this is a somewhat tenuous link, and we know from experience that when the Torah places two subjects close together like this, it is to teach us an important lesson. So what’s the connection?

Last week, I discussed how we can make sacrifices to G-d in lieu of the offerings, and drew upon Rabbi Wolf’s solution to this problem, which presented tefillah as an alternative. But Parshas Shemini offers yet another answer. The laws of kashrus are parallel to the sacrifices- and this is why they are placed together in the Sedra.

When we offered sacrifices, we were taking everyday things- grain, and animals, and salt- and elevating their status by offering them to G-d. When we presented them to Him, they were turned from mere flesh and bones into something Holy- a representation of our love for Hashem, and our fear of Him. It may feel as if we can’t do this anymore, as there are no longer sacrifices- but in fact we can, and that is where Kosher comes in.

Kashrus actually follows the same principles as the sacrifices. We’re taking the most mundane thing of all, namely food- something basic which we need to survive- and we’re turning it into something Holy. Something beautiful. Something which, just like the offerings, represents love and fear and also dedication to G-d and to following his word.

Particularly around Peysekh, when Kashrus is especially hard,  it’s easy to dismiss it as a mundane mitzvah. But it’s not. Rather, it’s our very own, 21st-century equivalent of the offerings and sacrifices.

 

Parshas Tzav: Love And Fear

This Shabbes is Shabbes Hogodol. It’s the Shabbes directly before Peysekh, traditionally marked by a special sermon by the community rabbi. Last year, I heard an especially awe inspiring sermon about this special Shabbes, in which I was told that Shabbes Hogodol represents our love for G-d, and Shabbes Shuvah- the Shabbes between Rosh Hoshonah and Yom Kippur- represents our fear for Him. It was an amazing sermon which summarised our relationship with G-d through these two days, and I was reminded of it today, when I read something written by Rabbi Shaul Wolf, on the Chabad.org comments board for the summary of Parshas Tzav.

Parshas Tzav, which is, of course, this week’s Parsha, is all about the sacrifices in the Temple, and one commenter asked how this is relevant today. Rabbi Wolf replied, “The Talmud asks precisely that question, and answers that these days we have prayer as a substitute for offerings. In the temple there were three offerings a day; the morning offering, the afternoon offering, and the leftovers that were burnt in the evening. The Rabbis therefore instituted three prayers, morning, afternoon and evening prayers, corresponding to those daily sacrifices.

On a deeper level, just as an offering was consumed by the fire of the altar, causing the animal to become burnt, so too it is with prayer. This is the time when a person works on arousing his burning love for Hashem, and as a result “offers” all his animal traits and characteristics, allowing them to become consumed by his fiery love.”

Rabbi Wolf’s words on fiery love brought to mind the sermon about Shabbes Hogodol. That’s what this week’s Parsha is about; and that’s what this Shabbes is about, too. A coincidence? I think not. Instead, I think that love is everywhere in Judaism. It’s central to it. How can we best show love to G-d? Through loving our fellow. And so, this week, when love is at the forefront of our minds, both when we hear the weekly Torah portion, and the Shabbes Hogodol sermon, we should be thinking of  ways we can show Ahavos Yisroel; love towards our fellow Jew. For it’s there that we can best show our love for G-d.

On the occasion of Peysekh 5777, I would like to extend my love not only to my family and friends but to all of Klal Yisroel. As we celebrate freedom at the Seyder this year, may we also merit to celebrate freedom from Golus and the arrival of Moshiach, may he come speedily and in our days!

With thanks to Rabbi Moshe Freedman and Rabbi Shaul Wolf for inspiring this dvar Torah. 

Dedicated to the refuah shleimah of Chaim Elozor ben Baila and Chashachana bas Bryna.

Parshas Vayikra: The Salt Offering

In this week’s Parsha, Vayikra, we read all about offerings. Following on from the extremely detailed Parashos describing the construction of the Mishkan and the materials used to build it, we are greeted with a complex and in depth discussion of the different kinds of sacrifices and offerings to be presented there before G-d. I have heard many people rather unfortunately criticise this week’s Sedra, claiming that after reading all about the Mishkan, they wanted something relevant and dynamic; something they could transfer to everyday life. Luckily for them, this Parsha is all of those things. You just need to dig a little deeper.

We’re instructed to live in the moment. As Jews, this doesn’t necessarily mean embracing the latest trends and technological advances- although those, too, can be helpful. Instead, it refers to living ‘in’ the Parsha and constantly drawing inspiration from the weekly Torah portion. At first sight, many people argue that it is hard to do this with Vayikra, in a time where these sacrifices are no longer offered. But in fact, it’s very possible, and Vayikra proves to be an extremely topical and up-to-date Sedra.

In this day and age, we hear a lot about discrimination- and rightly so. Equality is important and we need to understand that people from all races, cultures, and walks of life make necessary contributions to society and should not be dismissed as inferior, or excluded from our activities. This very message is echoed in Parshas Vayikra. It may seem surprising, but in fact, the Parsha so quickly dismissed as antiquated and irrelevant (cv”s) is in fact a Parsha about equality and discrimination!

How come? To find this hidden meaning, we need to take a look at the commentaries. But first, we should know that it stems from a seemingly bizarre commandment; ”Never shall you suspend the salt covenant of your G‑d . . . with all your offerings you shall offer salt (2:13)”. What’s this got to do with anything- let alone equality? Rashi explains, ”When G‑d separated the supernal waters from the lower waters, He made a covenant with the lower waters that their salt will be offered on the altar.”

An interesting explanation, and one which makes the salt commandment- or, rather, covenant- easy to understand, but it still leaves some ambiguity. It is here that we turn to the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, often known as the ‘Ari’, who sheds some light on the different types of offerings; ”The korban, which was the vehicle of the elevation of the world to G‑d, had to include “representatives” of all four sectors of creation: the inanimate world, the vegetable world, the animal world and the human world. Thus the korban was offered by a human being, and consisted of an animal, grain and salt.”

As we read above, all four types of creation had to somehow be included in the sacrifices. And just as G-d included humans, animals, grains and salt, we, too, need to work on including all of G-d’s creations in our lives. When G-d decided that He was going to include everything in His service, He was instructing us to do the same. The message of the salt offering is clear: we can all serve Hashem, and in fact, we all have an equal duty to do so.

Salt is something small and easily dismissed, but it is necessary for our survival. Humans can’t live without it, but it’s not something we give much thought to. There are members of society in this position, too- people whom we rely on, yet often forget. When we ignore or mistreat these people, it is a massive chillul Hashem; a disgrace to our community. As we begin reading the book of Vayikra, let’s resolve to turn over a new leaf, and work on including everybody.

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.

Parshas Ki Sisa: Man and G-d

This week’s parsha contains a famous episode: that of the golden calf. After Moshe Rabbenu ascends mount Sinai and does not return, the people form a statue of a calf out of their golden jewellery and despite Aharon’s attempts to distract them, they worship it, incurring G-d’s wrath. He decides to destroy the Israelites, but Moshe begs for mercy, and He relents. When Moshe descends the mountain he smashes the stone tablets with the testimony inscribed on them, and destroys the calf, alongside killing some of the idol worshipppers. G-d forgives, but warns that he will visit their iniquities upon their children and their children’s children. Moshe once again climbs Mount Sinai, whre he is taught the 13 Divine attributes, and where G-d inscribes the covenant upon a second set of tablets.

The story of the Golden Calf is famous for a reason. It is rich with meaning, and teaches us about G-d’s mercy and human nature. It’s also an astounding and physically overwhelming scene, which makes it very memorable. But before all of this ‘excitement’ takes place, there’s another passage in the Torah which is perhaps less shocking, but certainly relevant to our lives; the Israelites are commanded to contribute exactly half a shekel of silver to the Sanctuary. Both the rich man and the poor man must give exactly the same amount; one half shekel. While this initially seems like a confusing and unnecesssary rule, it in fact teaches us a lot about the nature of G-d.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, ”People differ in their intellect, character and talents, in the quantity of their material resources and the timbre of their spiritual sensitivities. But all are equal in the very basis of their bond with G‑d: the intrinsic commitment to Him that resides at the core of their souls. So while every man contributed to the making of the various components of the Sanctuary in accordance with their individual capacity, all gave equally of the silver of which its foundation was made. As regards the foundation of the relationship between man and G‑d, the “rich man” cannot give more, and the “pauper” cannot give less.”

What does this tell us about our nature as a people? It tells us that we’re one. That we’re all equal before G-d. And most importantly, that our external, superficial natures mean nothing; it’s what’s on the inside, what’s in our hearts- and, most importantly- our souls, which really counts for something. In the 21st century, we hear a lot about labels. Labels are for clothes, not for people, one slogan famously declares- and it seems that this very ‘2017’ viewpoint was in fact derived from the Torah, and echoed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, many years before.

So what can we take away from this? How can we apply it to modern life, when there isn’t a Sanctuary to contribute to? Above all, we should know that as a people, we are all equal and we all have the spark of Moshe Rabbenu in our souls. In fact, we’re like a massive extended family, and our father is G-d. So don’t think that because you don’t dress as a ‘chassid’, or because you’re not as religious as your neighbours, you aren’t  one of his children. You are. Everything else is external. Even your level of observance is- because once you start working on your relationship with G-d, you’ll want to take on more mitzvos. A Jew forever remains a Jew- and, thus, one of G-d’s children- no matter what life decisions they make.

Parshas Tetzaveh: The Hidden Presence

This week’s Parsha, Tetzaveh, tells us all about the Kohanim. It describes their garments, which they must wear whenever they are in the Sanctuary, and the offerings which they are to burn on the altar. Just like last week’s Sedra, Terumah, it goes into great detail when it describes the priestly garments- both those worn by the ‘regular’ Kohanim and also those worn only by the Kohen Gadol, or high priest. Additionally, it tells us about the seven day initiation into the priesthood of Aharon and his four sons, once again at length. But admist all this detail about the ephod and the choshen, and the breeches and the tunic, something- or rather someone- is conspicuously absent…

There is no mention of Moshe Rabbenu in this week’s Parsha. None at all. His brother, Aharon, features prominently, and so do the clothes worn in the Sanctuary. Every fine detail seems to be in the Sedra- so why isn’t Moshe Rabbenu there? The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, explained the reason for Moshe’s ‘absence’ in that it is not an absence at all; ”While Moses’ name does not appear in the Parshah of Tetzaveh, Moses himself is very much present: the entire Parshah consists of G‑d’s words to Moses! Indeed, the Parshah’s first word is ve’atah, “and you”—the “you” being the person of Moses. Indeed, the word “you” connotes its subject’s very self, while a person’s name is a more superficial “handle” on his personality. This means that Moses is more present in our Parshah—that is, present in a deeper, more essential way—than any mention of his name could possibly express.”

Just because Moshe is not present on the surface, this doesn’t mean that he is absent. What is revealed to the naked eye in this week’s Parsha is merely the tip of the iceberg. As always, there’s much more to it than can be immediately seen. The Rebbe continues, ”Because Moses was prepared to forgo mention of his name in the Torah for the sake of his people, he merited that his quintessential self—the level of self that cannot be captured by any name or designation—be eternalized by the Torah”. The message here is an obvious one. Selflessness, modesty, and the rejection of fame are heavily rewarded. Humility- a trait which is very much associated with Moshe Rabbenu- isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s not free of personal benefit, and as well as helping us grow, G-d rewards us for it in due time.

As the Rebbe concludes ”It is this level of Moses’ self that is expressed by his “nameless” presence in the Parshah of Tetzaveh”, we are suddenly reminded of a very different, but also very important text, which we read around this time of year; Megillas Esther. This year, Shabbes Parshas Tetzaveh comes directly before Purim, so naturally the comparison springs to mind. But no matter when the festival falls, the link is there. Why? Because Megillas Esther doesn’t mention G-d’s Name- not even once. The miracles which we read about in the Megillah are all portayed as ‘natural’ occurences, or acts of bravery- and, as the commentators teach us, these are the most amazing kinds of miracles. The fact G-d’s Name isn’t mention provides us with another valuable lesson; we need to dig deeper to find kedushah, Holiness, in places where there doesn’t seem to be any. Because no matter where you are, G-d is there. You just need to know how to look.

Whether you’re reading Parshas Tetzaveh or Megillas Esther, the message remains the same. Don’t stick to the surface. Delve deeper- both when you are studying the Torah, and spreading kedushah through the performance of mitzvos- and never forget that just because something isn’t in plain sight, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Wishing all my readers a gut Shabbes and a freilichen Purim!