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.

The Chabad Movement

“G-d said to Moses: the waters which protected you when you were cast into the River, and the soil which protected you when you buried the Egyptian — it is not fitting that they should be afflicted by your hand.”

I read this Mishna on Chabad.org today, and to me, it summarised the entire ethos of the Chabad movement.

Elevate the corporeal and make it Holy.

Turn darkness into light.

Appreciate everything around you.

Use every resource you have.

I couldn’t pick just one of these messages, so I chose all of them. When we personify these things, we become one of the Rebbe’s Chassidim.

Gut Shabbes! (Vayikra)

This week, we begin the book of Vayikra with the Torah reading of the same name. Whenever we start a new book of the Torah, I feel strengthened, in the same way as I do when we finish the previous book and say aloud, ‘Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek!’. It feels as if I’m turning over a new leaf. It’s also the first Shabbes of the new month- Nisson- so change is definitely in the air. As we come closer and closer to Peysekh, let’s think about our own, personal ‘Mitzrayim’, and resolve to free ourselves from it…

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 7:14 PM in London, and Shabbes goes out tomorrow at 8:25 PM. When lighting your Shabbes candles, please remember Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Chashachana bas Bryna, Gila Rus bas Soroh and Shai bas Odeya for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

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.

Gut Shabbes! (Vayakhel-Pekudei)

This Shabbes has lots of different names. It’s not just Shabbes Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei, it’s also Shabbes Mevorchim, Shabbes Chazak and Shabbes HaChodesh. This last name comes from the additional Torah reading which we read this Shabbes, the last of four. In this additional reading we learn about the commandment to establish a calendar system, based on both the sun and the moon, the latter of which the Jewish people are often compared to. This is because, just as the moon waxes and wanes, we go through periods of both persecution and prosperity, highs and lows. One day, this will all come to and end, with the arrival of Moshiach, may he come speedily and in our days!

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 6:02 PM, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 7:12 PM. While lighting your candles, please remember Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Chashachana bas Bryna and Shai bas Odeya for a refuah shleimah. Thank you and gut shabbes!