Thursday, May 22, 2008

B'chukosai: remaining positive

Parshas B'Chukosai

At the end of the portion of the Tochacha, it says that we will be chased out of Eretz Yisrael and dispersed among the nations, the foreign lands will consume us, etc.Then it says, in 26:44, that despite that, even while we are in the lands of the enemy, I will not break my promise and I will not destroy you.

Why mention this while delineating all the punishments and curses? It seems counterproductive? Harsh warnings, but don't worry so much. Doesn't make sense!

Maybe the Torah is offering a light at the end of the tunnel. Any period in which these curses are actually brought upon us, would be a very dark period. That can lead to despair and depression. People will give up hope and think there is no way to come out of it, personally or nationally.

The Torah says, despite all that, despite all the curses, I will never break My promise. I will never destroy you. You have a future. Keep trying to improve. There is still hope. Remain positive.

B'chukosai: a person's worth and value

Parshat B'Chukosai

Someone asked me last night why the section on Erchin (donating one's value to the Temple) comes immediately after the section of the Tochacha and curses? What si the connection between the two?

While other answers were offered, I suggested two possible answers:

1. The Torah is saying that after you have gone through all the curses and admonishment, a person can go into a depression. The Torah then immediately presents the portion on the values to say that despite the curses, despite the admonishment, don't get into a depression. Every person has inherent value. Don't think life is not worth living, you are nobody because you do not do enough mitzvos, etc.
You have value. We all have value.

2. Extending the first thought... somebody poor should not think he is a nobody and somebody rich should not think he is so great and better than other people. At the end of the day we are all worth the same (assuming the same gender and age group). The rich person should say "that poor guy is worth as much as me" and the poor guy should say "I am worth as much as the rich guy".

That will temper any form of depression because you think you are worth less than others, and any form of haughtiness in thinking you are worth more than others.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

B'Har: keeping yourself in line

Parshat B'Har

It says a number of times in the Parsha
(25:17, 25:36, 25:43), regarding various instructions of behavior, "And you should fear your God" - ויראת מאלקיך.

Every time it says that, it is referring to a situation in which it is difficult, or even impossible, to know whether the persons actions were done with good intentions or with self-serving motives. In these situations, the Torah reminds us that Hashem knows all and knows what is in our hearts, so even if other people don't know, Hashem still does, so we should do it for the right reasons.

It is easy to be frumm when everyone is looking at you and watching what you are doing. As a matter of fact, it is a common phenomenon that some people who are very frum, when they go away on vacation are much more lax and do things they would never even consider doing back in their own community. This is because they are comfortable with the idea that nobody is watching them and seeing them in this "less frum environment".

That is really when you need the fear of God - the Yiras Hashem. When you are away from your normal setting, around people who don't know you or care what you do. If you have yiras hashem, you will stick to your ideals even then.

Yiras hashem is what keeps you on the line, even when nobody else knows what you are doing.

Emor: earning your keep

Parshat Emor

The Torah talks about the obligations of the farmer to leave in his field various forms of charity for the poor - the fallen stalks, the corner of the field, etc.

Why are we obligated to leave the grains in this fashion?
what is wrong with the normal method of giving tzedaka where we give the charity to the poor fellow? Why here is the landowner not allowed to pick it up and distribute, rather he has to leave it for the poor to take?

Nowadays, most of us are not farmers and do not have fields within which we can leave the corner for the poor, so what lesson can we learn from this mitzvah?

Many give an answer to the above question by saying that this is a form of anonymous giving. The poor man can come in the night and take it, when nobody can see. It saves him the embarrassment.

That answer does not seem complete, because even with giving money there are ways it can be done anonymously, even with giving grains the owner could pick it up and do it anonymously. Also, it is not really anonymous. All the poor come together and try to be the first to take the grains. We even see by Boaz that this was the case, as the Megillas Ruth says that Boaz was impressed by how he noticed Ruth wait until the others had finished scavenging and she only took what was left at the end. So these forms of tzedaka are often not really anonymous.

I have an answer I would like to suggest. I think the method is used here to allow the poor man some dignity. We give tzedaka in other ways, with money or chesed. But those forms of tzedaka are, while necessary in order to support the poor, also prone to shame, even if done in the best of ways and with the best of intentions. Nobody likes to take charity, and the poor only do it because they have to.

By setting up this method, we offer the poor charity in a way that is dignified. In this situation, they are working for their food. Not just taking a handout. Here the poor man can go home proud of what he accomplished. He can say he put in a hard days work and earned his bread on that day.

For whatever reason, bad mazal, this fellow is poor. Maybe he lost his job, maybe he has bad health, whatever. he wants to earn his own keep. Everybody does. This gives him an opportunity to feel as though, at least on that day, he has not just taken a handout, but actually earned his keep.

And this can be a lesson to us today as well. Yes, we have to give tzedaka, both of our time and of our money. We are obligated to. But maybe, in addition to that, we can also find ways to help the poor while allowing themselves to feel like they accomplished. Help them find jobs, offer them to work, when appropriate, even on small odd-jobs, and the like. Let him feel proud that he has earned his bread one day.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

K'doshim: being ehrlich

Parshas K'doshim

In 19:14 it says "Do not place a stumbling block before a blind man... and fear God..". Rashi explains that the reason it says here "Fear God" is because people cannot really know what your real intentions are - whether to help him or to help yourself. Only if you "fear God" will you definitely be honest and give this person the appropriate advice for him, as Hashem knows what your true intentions are.

The Torah recognizes that people have personal interests and they sway a persons actions. People are not perfect. People will falter in their decision making, because they will often put their own interests first.

A person has to be ehrlich. When the situation arises in which a person has this conflict where he can manipulate it to attain his own goals, he has to be extra careful and ensure he made hsi decision for the right reasons and with the right motivations.

B'Shalach: from the splitting of the sea to Mara

Parshas B'Shalach

After reading the portion of Az Yashir, we continue to read one more piece - the arrival of the Jews in a place called Mara after they complained they had had no water for a few days, before the aliya is broken down.

The whole piece is about the splitting of the sea, so why do we not just stop the reading at the conclusion of that portion? Why do we continue and read about the events at Mara and not put them in the next aliya?

The splitting of the sea was the height of inspiration. I can try to picture the water rising up into a wall. I can try to picture the water crashing down on the Egyptians behind the fleeing Jews. I can try to imagine the awesomeness of it. I think of Niagra Falls and find that amazing. Think of a sunset or any natural phenomenon that you find inspiring, and the splitting of the sea was that a million times multiplied. It even says a maid servant was more inspired at the splitting of the sea and had a higher level of prophecy that did the greatest of the later prophets, Yehezkal ben Buzi.

But inspiration is not enough. They were so greatly inspired, but right away they started kvetching again as soon as things got uncomfortable.

What happened to the great emunah they had attained and displayed by the splitting of the sea that the passuk even describes ויאמינו בה' ובמשה עבדו? What happened to the great inspiration? They were without water and suddenly forgot the power Hashem has to provide? They forgot all they saw at the splitting of the sea and in the desert leading up to it and in Egypt?

They wasted the experience of the Kriyas Yam Suf. They were inspired, but they let it slip away. Inspiration is nice, but it must be actualized into some sort of concrete improvement. They let the inspiration slip away, so Hashem brought them to Mara. He showed them that they had immediately sunk back to their previous level and that He does have the power to provide, as He performed the miracle with the water and the tree. And he gave them a series of mitzvos. he made it concrete this time.

no more "inspiration". Now you get inspired and you take something with you. You find a way to actually improve yourself and act on it.

That, maybe, is why we read more than the splitting of the sea and add the parsha of Mara. because it completes the splitting.