The Eyes of the Community

“Rabbis and scholars are called the “eyes of the community” and “heads of the thousands of Israel”; and when the head is healthy, the body is then also healthy.

–Hayom Yom, 23 Adar I”

This quotation from the Hayom Yom, which I came across on Chabad.org today, helps us to understand the true role of rabbonim, dayanim and the leaders of yeshivos. Unlike many, I have never followed the route of blind faith in community leaders: too many times, they have failed their communities by refusing to protect women and children who are being abused, shunning those with questions and concerns, and sweeping very real problems under the rug.

Instead, I like to think that the metaphor of rabbonim as the head, and the community as the body, tells us that we have a right to question what they say, and reminds us that what’s in our soul is more important than what’s in any book or community notice. Although we know from the Shulchan Aruch that we need to respect and honour rabbis, this respect is only awarded to those who deserve it. Like thoughts in our head, we should not give a platform to those who spread hatred or division.

The Hayom Yom tells us that the spirit and welfare of the community is dependant upon good leadership- and similarly, poor leadership tears people apart rather than brining them together. Although rabbonim may be the at the “head” of the community, we all need to follow our hearts and souls as well, and never give in to extremism or hateful leaders.

Parshas Vay’eiro: Dealing With Darkness

A recurrent theme in Judaism is the idea of spreading light. The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, famously teaches that just a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness; indeed, just as a small candle can illuminate a whole room, one small kind deed or mitzvah can outshine all the darkness in the world. This principle governs the theory that just one more mitzvah could lead to the arrival of Moshiach, and forms the basis of the Jewish way of spreading positivity rather than battling with negativity.

In this week’s Parsha, we read about the plagues which blighted Mitzryaim after Pharaoh refused to listen to Aharon and Moshe Rabbenu, and let the Israelites, who were living under bitter slavery, leave Mitzrayim. Some of these plagues- which we continue reading about in next week’s Parsha- are rather graphic and horrific; the Nile turns to blood, and frogs swarm the land, in a series of tragedies which worsen, until they culminate with pitch black darkness and the death of each family’s firstborn.

And yet, in the midst of slavery, horror, and destruction, the Rebbe teaches us that we need to find- and spread- light. He uses this metaphor to explain the first miracle, in which Aharon turns his staff into a serpent. It’s only after the serpent has turned back into a staff, that it swallows the other serpents of the Egyptians. This seemingly puzzling action contains an explanation linking Parshas Vayera to the very nature of the Jewish people.

The Rebbe says, “Our task is to create light, not to battle darkness. Nevertheless, there are times when we are forced to resort to battle, when we must vanquish those who seek to vanquish us. Thus Moshe, the gentle shepherd of Israel, and Aharon, the ultimate man of peace, find themselves in the role of “judge and chastiser of Pharaoh,” crushing the might of Egypt and obliterating its icons and myths.

Therein lies the lesson to be derived from the fact that Aaron’s rod swallowed the “serpents of the Egyptians” after it had reverted back to its original form, rather than as a serpent itself. For even when he wages war, the Jew is not a warrior. Even when he consumes the serpents of the enemy, he is not a serpent himself, spewing poison and hate. His instrument of vengeance is as devoid of vengeful feeling as a petrified rod, as cold to the rage of war as a lifeless stick.”

We all find ourselves in situations which challenge our neshomos and our role in life as Torah observant Jews. Sometimes, as much as we detest conflict, we realise that we have no choice but to fight back against an external force which threatens to vanquish us, or to face horrific consequences. This might apply to the conflict between keeping the Torah laws in a world where Orthodoxy is considered “the other” or outdated, dealing with toxic people in our lives who threaten our wellbeing, or it might even refer to the internal battle with our own yetzer horo. Whether it’s a literal or metaphorical battle, we must remember the lesson of Aharon’s staff, and avoid feelings of vengeance and violence, for we, as Jews, are not warriors.

Parshas Vayechi: Difficult Decisions

We begin this week’s Parsha, Vayechi, by reading about Yaakov’s time in Mitzrayim. The text tells us that Yaakov Avinu lived there for seventeen years, and the Midrash teaches us that these seventeen years were the best years of his life, filled with prosperity and material comfort, in contrast to the toil and labour which marked the rest of his life.

Initially, this passage seems confusing, but the Hayom Yom tells us that despite the depravity of Mitzrayim, Yaakov took the morals and laws of the Torah with him, transforming his surroundings and enriching them with kedushah, holiness.

And yet, this was not enough. It’s not enough to live in Mitzrayim- in golus – and study Torah. Even if we are surrounded by words of Holiness, we need to seek to escape exile at any cost. Even if this means leaving behind the material comforts which Yaakov enjoyed in Mitzrayi Mitzrayim: he could have argued that, as he was studying Torah, he had no need to leave these behind and escape Mitzrayim, and yet, despite the various “pull factors” of golus, he told his son Yossef with a great deal of urgency: “Carry me out of Mitzrayim!”.

As a baalas Teshuva, this story speaks to me. In retrospect, my life in golus – before I became frum- was easier. I enjoyed material comforts which I have since given up: if I wanted to, I could have gone out on Friday nights, eaten non kosher food, worn tight clothes and celebrated non Jewish festivals. I won’t deny it- even as an observant woman, these things still hold a degree of appeal to me. But I recognised I was living in Mitzrayim, and like Yaakov Avinu, I was willing to abandon these things, and subject myself to spiritual and physical toil, in order to come closer to G-d.

Like everyone else, I don’t always feel happy in my faith. I get scared and doubtful- I think about leaving sometimes, or choosing another derech. But when I feel that way, I remember this week’s Parsha, and Yaakov’s words, and I find the strength to go on.

Parshas Vayigash: Spiritual Exile

In this week’s Parsha, Vayigash, Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers, 22 years after the incident which separated him from them, when they sold him into slavery and told their father, Yaakov, that he had died. After the emotional moment in which he is re-united with them, he wishes to see his father again, but is faced with two problems. Firstly, his father refused to believe that he was alive, likely because of the lies his brothers told in the past, and secondly, even if his father eventually came to believe that his beloved son was alive, Yosef doesn’t want to give him a shock which, in his old age, could prove to be fatal.

So Yosef devises a cunning plan, sending wagons as a sign to his father. This cryptic message hints at the last laws they had studied together, before Yosef was sold by his brothers. Rashi teaches us that the wagons refer to the laws of eglah arufah, and the Rebbe writes about how this is no coincidence. He says that eglah arufah teaches us “that a person is responsible also for what occurs outside of his domain—outside of the areas where he is fully in control. When a murdered traveler is found “out in the field,” the elders of the nearest city must go out there and bring the eglah arufah to atone for the crime, although it occurred outside of their jurisdiction; for it was nevertheless their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection.”

He goes on to explain that this is the significance of the message Yosef sent. “Father, he was saying, I have not forgotten the law of eglah arufah. I have been exiled from the sacred environment of your home, but I have not allowed my soul to travel to the spiritual no-man’s-land of Egypt without provision… After 22 years of slavery, imprisonment and political power in the most depraved society on the face of the earth, I am the same Joseph who left your home on the day that we studied the laws of eglah arufah.”

Just as Yosef faced exile from his home and his family, many of us deal with spiritual exile of some sort. We may come from non observant families, and find ourselves slandered, attacked or isolated when we become observant (or, indeed, convert to Judaism). Perhaps we might stand out in our group of friends for being observant, or struggle to find a partner with a similar level of observance. Or maybe, we simply struggle to be Torah observant Jews in a fast paced world where covering up, not eating certain foods, and taking 25 hours off from the hustle and bustle of work are considered “alien” concepts. At one point or another, we have all been to “Mitzrayim”.

What’s unique about Yosef’s experience with Mitzrayim is that, on a corporeal level, it was not wholly negative. Although it began with slavery and later turned to imprisonment, it also featured political and social power, and material wealth and importance. There were ups and downs, not just back breaking labour, and yet, despite it all, Yosef remained faithful to his morals. This is the message we should take away from his life: no matter how good or bad our circumstances are, no matter how tempting or how horrifying “Mitzrayim” seems, we must always remember our Jewish heritage, and the spark of Moshe Rabbenu that lies within each of us, and stick to the laws and morals of the Torah.

Parshas Vayeishev: Good People and Bad Actions

This week’s Parsha, Vayeishev, tells us the famous story of Yosef and his brothers. We learn that Yaakov Avinu loved Yosef more than any of his other sons, and treated him preferentially, giving him a fine coat of many colours. In response, Yosef began to feel superior to his brothers, who hated and envied him for his attitude towards them. We learn from both the texts and the commentaries that Yosef’s brothers had many faults. They hated their fellow Jew- their brother, no less!- in their hearts, plotted against him, and sold him into slavery. They grieved their father, by telling him that his favourite son was dead, and the eldest tried to save Yosef only because he was worried that he would bear the brunt of the punishment. All in all, their behaviour was far from ideal, but when we read the commentaries, we learn that Yosef’s behaviour spoke volumes, too.

It wasn’t just his arrogant behaviour towards his brothers which made Yosef unpopular. He also brought “evil tales” about them to his father. We learn in Pireki d’Rabbeinu haKadosh that “[The Sages said:] Two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of malevolent reports— Yaakov and Yosef. Because Yosef spoke badly of his brothers, he was incarcerated in prison for 12 years; and because Jacob listened to these reports, the divine spirit departed from him for 22 years. This teaches us that one who speaks negatively of another is punished once, while someone who listens to negative talk about another is twice punished.”

Despite the harshness of the decree against Yosef and Yaakov, I actually find that this story is incredibly uplifting. Why? Because although Yosef and Yaakov both acted “badly” in this instance, they were still good people. They were still tzadikkim. And, yes, they did wrong and were punished but it didn’t mean that they were “evildoers” or bad people. And for someone who struggles a lot with Frumkeit and Yiddishkeit, to see that two of the greatest men in the Torah erred and made mistakes and still came out the other side as highly respected individuals is extremely inspiring.

Of course, this is no excuse for us to speak loshon horo or behave badly, just because Yaakov and Yosef did so, and were eventually forgiven after they had been punished. But it also means that there’s no excuse to give up on oneself just because one has made a huge mistake and treated another wrongly. There’s always time to turn our lives around, right our wrongs, apologise to those we’ve hurt, and lead lives as righteous people- just as Yaakov and Yosef did.

Parshas Vayishloch: The Woman Who Had No Voice

Every year, when I read Parsha Vayishloch, I am left at a loss for words. I’m not referring to the reconciliation between Yaakov and Esov, nor am I talking about Rochel’s death. I’m talking about Dinah. Dinah, who was raped, and ultimately failed- not by her brothers who slaughtered an entire village for her, but by the rabbonim who spent the centuries which followed blaming Dinah for what happened.

It starts with Rashi. Rashi, the trustworthy, respected rabbi, and writer of perhaps the most widely used Torah commentary, who casually drops the following statement; “[Dinah was known as the daughter of Leah, and not the daughter of Yaakov], because of her going out… since she (Leah) too was in the habit of going out, as it is said: ‘and Leah came forth toward him'”. We learn from this, apparently, that Leah’s habit of going out was “immodest” and unbecoming for a Jewish woman. She should have stayed in the tent, like Sarah Imeinu, and it’s heavily implied that had Dinah not gone out so often- and, indeed, had Leah not set this immodest example- she wouldn’t have been raped.

The blame falls on Dinah, and on her mother. Shechem, her rapist, gets his just desserts, when he and his village are killed by Dinah’s brothers, but they defend their decision by saying, “We could not let our sister be like a harlot”, a comparison which to me, in the 21st century, seems completely repulsive. The dismissal of rape victims as promiscuous women is a troubling trend which continues to this very day, and no matter what excuses I hear about it being the attitude of the time, it nonetheless leaves me speechless. The Torah is eternal. It is supposed to be unchangeable. So how can we excuse these statements by simply saying “that’s how things were at the time”?

And then, looking at modern articles and chiddushim on Parshas Vayishloch, the horrifying attitude towards Dinah’s rape continues. One Facebook page dedicated to modesty declares sincerely that Dinah’s rape was due to the fact that she showed her forearm, sending the message that it was her fault for tempting Shechem. If this is the message being sent to our young women, how can we expect them to feel at home in Orhodox Judaism? How can we expect them to feel empowered by their religion and ancestry when messages such as these are commonplace?

And so, after years of being at a loss for words, I’m speaking out.

I can’t change the Torah. None of us can. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that the Torah is emes. It is the truth, and, for better or worse, we humans can’t take parts out, or add things in, or whitewash over the bits which trouble us. What we can do, however, is tackle these things head on; examine them in great detail, from every angle, until we understand them. Additionally, we need to take a look at the messages being sent out by contemporary rabbonim. Quite often, these messages are far from the truth. The “chiddush” about Dinah being raped because she wore short sleeves finds its basis in the words of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, the first to suggest it, but could- and should- have been dismissed long since then. Instead, we find it used as an example of why tznius is important.

I am a huge advocate for tznius, but not in the context of preventing rape. This year, when we read Parshas Vayishloch, we need to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, unaffected by the centuries of misogynistic victim-blaming which surrounds it. We need to put aside what Dinah wore, and how often she went out, and look at what we can do for the millions of Dinahs- rape victims- who have found themselves blamed and criminalised for what happened to them. The women without voices. The women who read these things in Jewish schools or on social media and blame themselves for what happens to them. The women who we, as a community, have failed.

The World Could Not Exist Without You

Yesterday, I wrote about how this week’s Parsha teaches us an important lesson through the matriarchs Rochel and Leah, and as I looked deeper into the text, I realised that much of Vayeitzei centres around individuality, and, specifically, individual importance. Not only does it tell us about how Leah- the older, less “popular” sister- was destined for greatness, but it also introduces the 12 Tribes of Israel through the birth of Yaakov’s sons. And the twelve tribes, whom we read about later in the Torah, are another example of how each and every one of us play an important role and are equally valued by G-d.

There’s a saying from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov which goes, “The day you were born is the day that G-d decided the world could not exist without you”. I always loved that quote. Reading it made me feel special. Important. Wanted, even. And as I read this week’s Sedra I realised that that’s because I am. I often struggle with feeling unwanted, in a fast-moving world where popularity and looks determine how “interesting” you are, and Vayeitzei provides me- and everyone else who feels the same way- with a wake up call. We are important. We are valued. And even if, like Leah, we feel hated, it doesn’t mean that Hashem has ‘given up’ on us (G-d forbid!).

So in the middle of a difficult week, I’m going to look to the Parsha and carry on. I know that I’m on this journey for a reason, and that Hashem is going to make it all worthwhile.

Dealing With Jealousy

Today, a fellow blogger- Devorah from the fabulous Kool Kosher Kitchen blog reminded me of a beautiful insight relating to Ephraim and Menashe, the subject of my dvar Torah yesterday. She wrote, “When Yaakov crossed his hands and named Ephraim first and Menashe second, there was no jealousy or envy on the older brother’s part!”.

If only we could all be similarly selfless.

I never considered myself a jealous person. I remember a beautiful sermon I heard about a year ago, which told me that the true spirit of ahavos Yisroel is not only helping your fellow Jew when he is suffering, but being happy when he is rejoicing, and to me, this seemed simple. Straightforward. This, I thought, was a mitzvah that I could do. After all, I loved simchos, and I never felt jealous when I heard good news. Or did I…?

Fast forward to the present day and I realise that actually, maybe I do have a bit of a problem with this whole jealousy and ahavos Yisroel thing. Recently, a new woman joined my community and when many of my friends were more interested in talking to her than me, I felt something I couldn’t quite describe. I felt left out, perhaps. Betrayed, even. Simply put, I was miserable, and I took my anger out on this woman. Luckily, I never said anything to her, but I quietly unleashed by anger in my own mind, which, it turns out, is just as jealous and just as bad for you.

Then I came to this week’s Parsha and I did a bit of soul searching. Why should I be angry at this woman, just because she’s richer and more popular? What has she done wrong? And why should members of the community be obligated to like me? Essentially, this Parsha couldn’t have come at a better time. I looked to Esov and Yaakov, and Ephraim and Menashe, and I realised that the cure for jealousy was love.

I could channel the troubled sibling relationship in this week’s Parsha, and enter into a rivalry with this woman, trying to outdo her and replace her- a relationship which might ultimately end with one or the other of us leaving the community just as Yaakov fled, or with us fighting bitterly. Or I could look to Ephraim and Menashe and accept that she, too, is a woman trying to find her way in a troubled world. Perhaps, under that smooth facade, there lurks unhappiness and uncertainty. Perhaps, if I love her and treat her kindly, I will realise why everyone else loves her so much.

As always, I am trying to live in the moment.

Opposition

The Tzemach Tzedek was arrested twenty-two times during the Rabbinical conference in Petersburg, in 5603 (1843), for opposing the demands of the government regarding changes in education, etc. The minister in charge confronted him: “Is this not rebellion against the government?!”

The Tzemach Tzedek answered: “A rebel against the government is liable to be punished by death of the body; a rebel against the Kingdom of Heaven is punishable by death of the soul. Now which is worse?”

~ The Hayom Yom

Frumkeit isn’t always easy. Usually I hasten to add, “especially for baalei teshuva”- a sentiment which, in this day and age, I think is completely true- but then today’s Hayom Yom reminded me that throughout the ages, our people have faced persecution for their faith, and that it was not only despite this, but perhaps even because of it, that the Tzemach Tzedek continued his efforts to strengthen Yiddishkeit.

I’ll be honest. I felt guilty when I read this passage today.

Recently, I’ve faced a lot of opposition to my observance. I realised that I was losing friends and popularity due to my decisions, and I felt that maybe if I experimented with other paths I would be happy, at last. As I wrote in my article about the blessing for being made in G-d’s image, I learnt that changing myself wasn’t the key to happiness, but I was still left feeling that I’d strayed from my faith.

Then today, I was reminded all over again that opposition isn’t a reason to leave the faith. It’s a reason to cling to it. If it provokes jealously and baseless hatred, maybe the fault lies in the people criticising me, and not in myself or my religion. Here’s to hoping that I’ll never forget this again.

Gut Shabbes! (Vayeira)

“Every one of Israel has a spiritual mission in life – which is to occupy himself with the work of construction, to make a “dwelling-place” for G‑d. Every one, regardless of his station or location, must, through an exhaustive search, seek out a spiritual livelihood with all the intensity of his strength, just as he seeks a material livelihood.”

Today’s Hayom Yom is very special to me. I think of it every time someone tells me to move to Israel (which actually happens quite a lot), and it reminds me of my duty to build Israel- a holy space- here. Even if I sometimes get annoyed by the constant “reminders” to make aaliyah, I know that those telling me to do so mean well, and by doing so they remind me of this Hayom Yom and my duty here on earth. May we all merit to build dwelling places for G-d in our daily lives, and welcome the Moshiach speedily and in our days!

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:12 PM and Shabbes ends at 5:30 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna, Dina bas Sarah and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!