Parsha Re’eh: Emotional Charity

In this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, we read about the mitzvah of tzedekah- charity- and the obligation to help one who is needy. We are told to loan or give money to those who need it, and to forgive all loans every Sabbatical year. To Jews living around the world today, tzedekah is still very important, and it is the norm for observant families to donate money to a number of charitable organisations.

But if we are to live by the words of the Torah and the Chassidus, we find that ahavos Yisroel- love for our fellow Jew- is more important than anything else. And although giving him money may very well be a big part of that, there is another kind of underprivileged person among us who we must remember to help: someone who is in distress.

We don’t give money to literally every person we see, and similarly, we don’t need to singlehandedly support people who drain us. But we do have an obligation to give “emotional” charity; to have compassion on those worse off than us, to support them during a hard time, and, if nothing else, to not add to their sorrow.

Part of being a Jew is being part of a community. And being part of a community means supporting one another. This comes in the form of gemachs; of hosting others for free Shabbes meals; of paying for orphans’ weddings; or donating money to help those who cannot afford the necessities. But it also means emotionally supporting each other: visiting the sick, comforting the widow, being there for people who have no one else.

In the past few weeks- and perhaps even the past few years- there has been plenty of hatred and darkness in the world. Political turmoil, discrimination and bigotry, and attacks from all sides of the political spectrum. And it’s in times like these that we are especially obligated to dispel the darkness with an extra measure of light, as the Alter Rebbe taught us. Supporting and giving back to others is a huge part of spreading light, and as we read about the mitzvah of charity this week, we should remember the “other” kind of giving which makes life so purposeful.

Parshas Eikev: The Meaning of Judaism

This week’s Parsha is named Eikev. The word “Eikev” means “because”, but this is a very unusual synonym, and as such, many of the great Sages and rabbis have paid special attention to this term. The majority of them believe that it denotes a connection to the word “Akeiv”, which is spelled the same way, and means “heel”. But why “heel”? How is this relevant to the verse, “Because you hearken to these laws”?

Rashi believes that this word is used to bring to mind certain mitzvos- “those which a person tramples with his heels”. At first glance, this suggests that Rashi’s message is one of respecting and abiding by even the “smallest” and seemingly least significant mitzvos, but perhaps it echoes the message of Parshas Shloch and refers to the physical nature of some mitzvos. This would suggest that one cannot disregard the mitzvos which deal with “mundane” matters, and that these are just as important as lofty matters such as Torah study.

Indeed, this matter of the fine balancing act between lofty and mundane mitzvos appears in the Rebbe’s interpretation of the verse. Our commitment to Yiddishkeit and to the Torah, he comments, should be all consuming, to the point where it extends beyond the Holy days, and what happens in prayer and Torah study. The “lowliest” part of our life is actually the foundation- the heel- of our relationship with G-d. Simple things like food and clothing are elevated to be Holy and important.

Combining these two interpretations, we come to what is perhaps the centre of an observant Jewish lifestyle. Torah observance, and a love for Torah and the mitzvos, must be at the core of every area of our life. It’s not enough to only be a Torah observant Jew when we are in shul; we must also govern our behaviour, actions and speech in accordance with Torah law.

The word “Eikev”, the name of this week’s Sedra, is more than just a mere word. Every word of the Torah is special and rich with meaning- and Eikev teaches us what it means to be a Jew.

Transforming Learning

In today’s Hayom Yom we read about the importance of truly connecting to Hashem when we study Torah; “Uknei l’cha chaver (lit. “acquire a friend for yourself”) was changed to read v’kaneh l’cha chaver- “the quill shall be your friend”. This was, in turn, interpreted to refer to the “quill of the heart”, meaning that “whatever one learns one must experience emotionally”.

When I read about this today, I began to think about my own relationship with learning. When I read Sefer HaMitzvos, for example, I sometimes feel disconnected. Reading about the laws of keeping slaves and returning property is all well and good in the context of Biblical times, but the promise of “When Moshiach comes these laws will be relevant again” isn’t always enough to make me really connect with my learning.

B’ezras Hashem, in this day and age, there are a number of resources available to make learning accessible and relevant. There are videos and websites, shiurim and Q&As. There is no shortage of material, but unfortunately, I rarely find myself using it. Reading the Hayom Yom this morning strengthened my resolve to do so, and made me want to suggest that we all have an obligation to enhance our learning until we truly feel our souls connecting to Hashem every time we read words of the Chumash, Tanya, or any other text.

Torah study links the Earth and the Heavens, and we have a duty to do everything in our power to strengthen that bond.

Parshas Va’eschanan: The Missing Echo

In this week’s Parsha, Va’eschanan, Moshe Rabbenu continues his repetition of the Torah. He emphasises the unique importance of the events recorded in the Torah, and describes them as unprecedented, before going on to list the Asares HaDibros- the Ten Commandments- and the verses of the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith. Amidst all these complex details and narratives, there is one short line found in the Parsha which has been commented on countless times and which, perhaps, holds the key to understanding life as a Jew in the 21st century: “With a great voice which was not again”.

This sentence refers to the Divine voice which recited the Ten Commandments to us, and many have attempted to interpret what exactly it means. Some suggest that it refers to a physical aspect of the voice: its power or the fact it spoke uninterrupted. Others believe that it relates to the unique and special nature of the event, an event which will never again be repeated. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe provides a truly dynamic and relevant explanation for these words.

He teaches us about the symbolism of an echo, and what the lack of echo represents: “An echo is created when a sound meets with a substance which resists it: instead of absorbing its waves, the substance repels them, bouncing them back to the void. But the voice of the Ten Commandments permeated every object in the universe. So any “resistance” we may possibly meet in implementing the Torah is superficial and temporary. Ultimately, the essence of every created being is consistent with, and wholly receptive of, the goodness and perfection that its Creator desires of it.”

The Divine nature of the Torah means that no matter how far away society seems from following Halacha, our very existence is in fact in line with the Ten Commandments and the teachings of G-d. Our minds may temporarily become distracted and we may stray from the precepts of the Torah but our souls still cleave to G-d and are permeated by His essence.

The Torah will always “fit in”. Sometimes, society seems as if it doesn’t, and sometimes societal trends tempt us to stray. But in these times- the footsteps of Moshiach- we need to remember what the Rebbe told us about the echo in this week’s Parsha, or rather the lack of an echo. Nothing can repel the Torah, and nothing can resist the Word of G-d. When we all realise this and implement the Torah’s teachings, we will merit to greet Moshiach (speedily and in our days, iyH!).

Parshas Devarim: How to Rebuke

This week’s Pasha, Devarim (“Words”), is the first from the book of Devarim. It is very fitting that this Parsha teaches us so much about the power of words, and reminds us of some important lessons regarding speech. It features Moshe Rabbenu’s repetition of the Torah, in which he recounts the Israelites’ journey and their actions. As a part of this repetition, he rebukes them. However, his rebuke is carefully worded and carefully delivered- teaching us about the proper manner in which to rebuke someone.

To begin with, Moshe is very careful not to humiliate the People of Israel when he rebukes them. It’s a Torah commandment to rebuke your fellow, but the Talmud teaches us that it is better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than to humiliate someone in public. Needless to say, the balance between rebuke and humiliation is a difficult one to strike, but Moshe manages it perfectly. We learn this from the commentary on the following verse, from Sifri and Rashi:

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-Zahav:

According to the Sifri, the numerous place names listed here are not landmarks indicating where Moses spoke these words—indeed, some of these places do not even exist as geographical locations. Rather, these are words of rebuke by Moses to the people of Israel. Instead of mentioning their sins outright, he alluded to them with these place names.”

By following this indirect approach, Moshe ensured that the Iaraelites knew they had behaved wrongly, without being humiliated. The wording he used was perfect, but when rebuking someone, that isn’t enough. One’s intentions must also be pure. You should be rebuking someone in an attempt to help them better themself: you should be rebuking out of love. No matter how sensitive your words are, if they conceal feelings of hatred or anger then your rebuke does not fulfil the Torah commandment.

Yalkut Shimoni explains to us that Moshe was rebuking them out of love: “It would have been fitting that the rebukes be pronounced by Balaam, and that the blessings be said by Moses. . . . But G‑d said: Let Moses, who loves them, rebuke them; and let Balaam, who hates them, bless them”. This shows us that Moshe loved the people he was rebuking, and that his words didn’t stem from impure intentions.

Finally, Moshe ensured that his actions didn’t harm the reputation of the Jewish people. He was discreet, and discretion is the key to rebuking someone in line with Halacha. A Chassidic saying teaches us, “It was only to the people of Israel that Moses spoke of their iniquities and failings. To G‑d, Moses spoke only of the virtues of Israel, and justified them no matter what they did”. This shows there were no hard feelings between Moshe and the Israelites. No matter how often he had to rebuke them, he would always stick up for them.

Devarim is a very aptly named Parsha. It helps us understand that our words are powerful, and that we must speak them carefully. Through following the example of Moshe Rabbenu, we can all merit to speak kindly and constructively.

Parshas Matos-Massei: Inequality and Women’s Vows

When I write my weekly divrei Torah, I look for the inspiring messages found in each Parsha. Every single Parsha has them. Even what appears to be just a list of names carries an immense significance and by looking to the commentaries and words of the Sages and Rebbes we can find ideas and morals to enhance our lives. Sometimes, though, I come across things in the Torah which trouble me. If I were to name all these things, I would probably lose quite a few followers, so I will simply say that the Torah view on what is and isn’t an “abomination” is sometimes quite difficult to reconcile with my own.

But I am a Chareidi Jew. Specifically, I follow the teachings of the Chabad Rebbe and the Chassidus. I cannot simply dismiss a part of the Torah because it causes me to feel uncomfortable, or because it is not in line with 21st Century teachings, as I believe it is the literal Word of G-d. Largely, I’m quite socially conservative, and this means that there is usually no conflict between the Torah’s teachings and my own views. I aim to get my social and political views from the Torah, rather than adapting the Torah so that it fits my views. But occasionally, I just cannot seem to do it. Occasionally, a verse is just too troublesome for me to simply accept it without further research. Where does that leave me?

There are not all too many women in Chareidi Judaism who take part in in-depth Torah study (and, tangentially, I am fine with this- I see no wrong in women choosing to dedicate themselves to their families instead). But as a baalas Teshuva- someone who grew up with little religious influence and in a socially liberal climate- I need Torah study to understand the mitzvos I have taken on and the world I have chosen to live in. So to answer the question contained in the last paragraph- when I encounter a teaching which seems difficult to understand or accept, I turn to Torah study to try and shine light on it.

Which brings me to this week’s Parsha, Matos-Massei.

Matos-Massei is a double Parsha, which means that the daily study portions are much longer. But despite having read from it every single day this week, the very first portion has stayed in my mind and I have thought about it every day. It is here that we read about the topic of women making neyderim- vows.

“If a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or imposes a prohibition [upon herself] while in her father’s house, in her youth,

If her father heard her vow or her prohibition which she has prohibited upon herself, yet her father remains silent, all her vows shall stand, and any prohibition that she has imposed upon herself shall stand.

But if her father hinders her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand. The Lord will forgive her because her father hindered her…

…But if she vowed in her husband’s house, or imposed a prohibition upon herself with an oath…

Any vow or any binding oath of self affliction, her husband can either uphold it or revoke it.”

The message here is quite clear. While men are free to make oaths as and when they wish, and are required to uphold them, women are not granted the same freedom, instead requiring the permission- or compliance- of their husband or father. Some commentators have declared the ability to make oaths a burden, as opposed to a freedom, stating that the Parsha is treating women kindly by allowing their oaths to be revoked by their husbands and fathers. And while this fits into the notion that women are not obligated to do mitzvos in the same way men are, it fails to address the fact that women are presumed to be under the control of a male relative until they become widows in old age (when their vows can no longer be revoked)- something which I, and many others in this day and age, find difficult to deal with.

So I turned to Torah study in an attempt to find a solution to this problem, this conflict between my own views and sensibilities and the reality of the Torah. I looked at explanations and commentaries, until I came across a solution which, at first, made sense. It suggested that the root of this halacha was shalom bayis- suggesting that it provided a chance for women to discuss neyderim with their husbands before taking them on. This implied a kind of commitment to the relationship which sat well with me, until the obvious question arose- if this were the case, why didn’t husbands need to ask their wives’ permission to make vows?

This brought me to yet another difficult interpretation. If it were about shalom bayis, then the different rules for husbands and wives suggested that shalom bayis included the superiority of the husband. At the time when G-d gave Moshe Rabbenu the Torah, this was probably the norm. But in the 21st century, I object to it. Does my objection make the Torah wrong? No. But as someone who has spoken to and advised countless women in difficult and painful marital situations, I wanted to believe there was more to it than this. I was still troubled by the contents of the Parsha and wanted to find a suitable solution.

So I turned to a later part of the parsha, where it states that widows are exempt from the rules which other women face, and are not subject to the will of their brothers or sons. Normally, for example in inheritance cases, the Torah makes it clear that these male relatives have certain rights- for example, daughters only inherit if there are no sons. But there is no mention of other men in this part of the parsha.

This lends itself to a viewpoint which I found myself much happier with. To me, it suggests that women are not weak and in need of a man’s control after all- instead, it suggests that women have a great responsibility over the men in their lives and thus it is up to them to maintain peace and harmony. This may mean forsaking their vows, but unlike men, they are not obligated to serve G-d in the same way, partially due to the greater amount of Binah- wisdom- which they possess.

This explanation is still not entirely satisfactory, as it suggests that women need to make sacrifices to keep men happy. But it does hint to the fact that women are naturally more in tune with G-d and needn’t disrupt the harmony of the home to serve Him. It gives them a sense of responsibility- a responsibility which doesn’t always seem fair, but nonetheless a great responsibility to act wisely in every contribution made in a relationship.

At the end of the day, though this part of the Parsha is still difficult for me to understand and appreciate, I have learned something. Perhaps I find little inspiration in the laws of vows themselves, but I have learned something about my relationship with Judaism. I have learned to never stop asking questions, to never stop studying and looking for answers. I have learned that I won’t always agree with the Torah, but I still need to live by it. And to me, this is an important part of my Jewish identity. Many Chareidim do not question the Torah in any way. I admire this unwavering faith, but I also admire my own ability to question.

Just as Tzelefchod’s daughters, who also appear in this week’s Parsha, believed that sexism was man made and that G-d loved men and women equally, I, too, believe this. I believe that everything, including evil, comes from G-d, but I also believe that He is, by nature, just, and that to live as He intended me to, I need to understand His Torah. To me, this means I can’t just read it, and accept the parts which seem wrong to me. Instead, I must constantly strive to understand and love it.

Parshas Pinchos: The Value of Women

This week’s Parsha, Pinchos, is named after a righteous man who killed a prince named Zimri and brought an end to the plague which had consumed the Israelites. Although some questioned Pinchos’ motives, G-d knew that they were pure, and rewarded him with the priesthood and the covenant of peace. But Parshas Pinchos also contains the story of five righteous women: the daughters of Tzefalchod.

Tzefalchod’s five daughters petitioned Moshe Rabbenu, and insisted that they should be granted their father’s portion of the land, for he died without sons. They did not back down, even when Moshe argued with them, for they believed that although mankind may believe that men are greater than women, G-d believes in equality and is kind to all. Indeed, G-d did agree with them and they were granted their inheritance.

The Midrasha Rabbah teaches us an important lesson based on Tzefalchod’s daughters. We read;

“In that generation, the women repaired what the men broke down.

You find that Aaron told them: “Break off the golden rings which are in the ears of your wives” (to make the golden calf—Exodus 32:2), but the women refused and held back their husbands, as is proved by the fact that it says (ibid. v. 3) “All the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears,” the women not participating with them in making the calf.

It was the same in the case of the spies, who uttered an evil report: “The men… when they returned, made all the congregation to murmur against Him” (Numbers 14:36), and against this congregation the decree [not to enter the Land] was issued, because they had said: “We are not able to go up” (ibid. v. 31). The women, however, were not with them in their counsel…

The men had been unwilling to enter the Land; the women petitioned to receive an inheritance in the Land.”

In every generation, not just that one, women hold an immense amount of power. Just as those women turned away from idolatry and who wanted to enter the Promised Land while their husbands were too afraid to, the women of this generation will bring Moshiach. Many argue that Chareidi women are treated as inferior; and, indeed, many Chareidi leaders call for women to be hidden behind mechitzas and confined to the kitchen. This is not the role of a Jewish woman.

We are not simply childbearers and cleaners, and the disturbing trend of “hiding” women- behind screens and in homes, photoshopped out of papers and told not to speak in public- is one which fights against the example set by the five daughters in this week’s Parsha, and, indeed, the matriarchs. Together, we will bring Moshiach; but not if we are sidelined and hidden away.

We are trailblazers. We are educators. We are businesswomen. We are carers. And, yes, we prop up the Jewish home and help Yiddishkeit to flourish under its roof. But that’s not all we can do. It took enormous courage and intelligence for Tzefalchod’s daughters to do what they did, but believe it or not, we can do the same in every generation. We have voices; let’s use them.