Graceful Fluidity / Graceful Masculinity: Behar

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה.

My Sabbaths shall you observe and My Sanctuary shall you revere – I am Hashem. (Leviticus 26:2)

Shabbat is in invitation for a time of deep and personal intimacy with G-d. It is also a time of great expansiveness to support the multifaceted spectrums of connectivity. We are told that on the shabbat we are given an additional soul to accommodate the soul’s dominance over the body, particularly in an arc of gender sensitivities.1

Although there is a dispute about which day of the month the Torah was given, “According to everyone it was given on the shabbos.” Shavuot is seen as the wedding between the Jewish People and G-d, that we prepared for by counting seven weeks from the blood of Passover (Zohar).  The two tablets were given to affect the kiddushin under the chuppah of Mount Sinai (Haflah).  Tradition also teaches that this is re-experienced every week with the shabbat (Igeres Hatyul). The Ari Z”l says it is reflected in the unique blessing in the Friday night prayer “Atah Kedashta” – which can either mean “you sanctified,” or “you betrothed.”

G-d’s identity in this relationship, like the People of Israel’s, is gender fluid. We find the Jewish people as a bride אֲרוּסָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּבָּ”ה יִשְׂרָאֵל – G-d’s bride is Israel (Rashi Exodus 34:1), and the tablets are the Shtar – marriage document (Baal Haturim Exodus 19:4) to the bride. Even the standard structure of the wedding blessing today, “Who sanctified your people Israel though chuppah and kiddushin,” is referring to the wedding between us and G-d at Sinai (Sheta Mekubetzes).

We also find that the Jewish People are referred to as the groom, marrying the Torah (Pesachim 49b), where G-d is the father of the bride (Shemot Rabbah 33:1), and the Mikdash – sanctuaries that we are commanded to build – are quarters for G-d, as G-d is our in-law who just wants to be close to us, wherever we are.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short lived. Just forty days later, we sinned against G-d in an adulterous act with the golden calf (Rashi Exodus 32:20 and Avodah Zarah 44a). G-d’s identity as the Creator necessitates our exclusivity in faithful monotheism. It also translates into the validation of this identity through the celebration of the Sabbath. The Rabbis go so far as to equate observing the Sabbath as a fulfillment of the entire Torah (Ohr Hachaim 26:2).

Maimonides, in concluding his laws of forbidden relationships, writes that “the greatest antidote to acting inappropriately is to turn oneself and one’s thoughts to words of Torah and immerse their mind in wisdom, because inappropriate thoughts do not rule in one’s mind except in the mind of one whose heart is turned away from wisdom. Regarding wisdom it is said, ‘It is a beloved hind, arousing grace. . . You shall be obsessed with her love (Proverbs 5:19).”

The Talmud (Eruvin 52b) explains the comparison teaching that “matters of Torah are cherished by those who study them each and every hour like the first hour.” Each part of this verse, according to the Vilna Gaon, refers to one of the four layers of the Torah’s פרדס – Pardes, and their corresponding levels of physical, and intellectual, intimacy.

One of the consequences of the breaking of the first set of tablets, at the sin of the Golden Calf, is the necessity for the oral law (Shar Yissaschar). The Torah is referred to as both  male and female, even in the same verse (Exodus 12:49). It is also understood that the written skews masculine while the oral towards the feminine (Kiddushin 2b Ben Yehoyada). Reb Tzadok (Dover Tzedek) teaches that, although the entire Torah is from G-d, the written represents G-d’s wisdom while the oral is from Israel’s. The Zohar’s (3:73a) famous teaching that G-d, Torah, and Israel are one, can be understood as the process of G-d and the Jewish people sanctifying their union at Sinai through the written Torah, and then, coming together with the Oral Law (R’ Eliyahu Baruch). 

There is no grace like the fulfillment of the Torah – אין חן כקיום התורה (Shevet Mussar). However unlike the Shabbat, that comes every 7 days with or without us, we are responsible for showing up to do our part in furthering the acceptance, understanding, and production of Torah. The more we revisit it, the newer, deeper, and more personal it becomes. As we prepare for Shavuot, let us feel empowered and embodied to expand our connectivity to it beyond just our lived experience, by experiencing it as part of the collective whole. 

 

1. [See Shabbos as an All Gender Experience]

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Progress / Graceful Masculinity: Emor

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.

You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest of the day, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving, seven weeks, they shall be complete. (Leviticus 23:15)

 

We find the “Exodus of Egypt” mentioned fifty times in the Torah (Gra), just as the world was created with fifty gates of wisdom (Rosh Hashanah 21b). We also find that when the Israelites left Egypt they were on the 49th level of spiritual impurity (Zohar P’ Yisro) and on the brink of reaching spiritual annihilation.  Remarkably, only 7 weeks later when they stood at Mount Sinai, they had reached the 49th level of holiness. (Rokeach

Every year we re-experience the transition, from going out of Egypt to receiving the Torah, by counting the 49 days of the Omer. It is intended to be a deeply personal and individualized process of really working on one’s own evolution and development. The Talmud (Menachus 65b) understand the word “לכם” you, as “each and every one” shall count for yourselves. 

These seven weeks are described in the verse as temimot, perfect and whole. Rashi explains temimot as meaning complete, in that we must begin counting on the second night of Passover, so that the first day of counting isn’t deficient. The midrash though understands temimot not as a technically complete count, but as complete in a spiritual sense. The midrash explains:

אֵימָתַי הֵן תְּמִימוֹת? בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם 

“When are these [seven weeks] complete? When Israel is doing the will of the G-d”. 

Clearly something about the verse is bothering the midrash that it was moved to reframe it. What does doing the Divine will have to do with counting to 49? Additionally, the task of this period of time is specifically to shift the negative into the positive. Rav Vachtfolgel Z”tl observes that this is why the word “שבתות” Shabbats are used as opposed to shavuot, meaning weeks – because it is about sanctifying oneself like the shabbos. How then are we meant to see the past as perfect if we are invested in changing it for the future?

The Ksav V’kabala explains temimut as an indicator of quality, not quantity. When a person is focused on doing their best, whatever that might be, it is called complete. It is so specific to the moment that even the same person should be seen differently, depending on where they are holding. 

Our rabbis also see an allusion, in the verse, to Abraham who is told lech-lecha, go for yourself. The midrash points out that G-d said those words to Abraham earlier in his spiritual journey, when he first left his father’s home, and again many years later, when he is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. The midrash continues by saying “and we don’t know which was a greater test.” An explanation is given, by the Slonimer Rebbe, that both of these tests were equally challenging because they reflected where Abraham was at the time. Comparing the two doesn’t help in evaluating the degree of difficulty of the moment.

We find a similar framing of the tam, the “simple son” in the Haggadah. The Vilina Gaon sees him as the counterpoint to the wicked son in that they are each equally focused on either coming closer or further away from G-d. Jacob too is described (Genesis 25:27) as a “simple man who sat in tents.” Jacob was simple in that there was no complexity of competing interests besides just doing the right thing.

Perhaps this is what the midrash is coming to answer: How can you claim that the seven weeks are tam – pure, perfect, and pristine – when it is clearly a work in progress? The important lesson being taught here is that the ideal is in flux. As we do our best to grow and change, every point along the way is tamim, or perfect. As we grow, so does the goodness, but those advancements don’t minimize or cancel the past.

It is for this reason that we find in Psalms (84:12) “Grace and glory does Hashem bestow; G-d withholds no goodness from those who walk in perfect innocence (בְּתָמִֽים).” Two people can do or say the same thing, but it can land very differently (Pele Yoetz). Chein, grace, is the difference in the way the action is perceived and it is determined by the intention and effort of the person in the moment.

If we can’t appreciate the changes that we are making for the good, because the comparison to the past highlights our shortcomings, we inhibit and deter future development. In repenting for unintentional transgressions we acknowledge that “had I known then what I know now, I would have acted differently.” When we are trying as hard as we can to develop into the best version of ourselves each moment, we immediately come to learn that the ceiling quickly becomes the floor. In reflecting back on earlier times “when we just didn’t know any better,” we need to be critical of society and the factors that contributed to that environment, but knowing better, and acting differently because of that wisdom today, is a holy accomplishment.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

 

 

Graceful Love / Graceful Masculinity: Kedoshim

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
You shall not take revenge nor shall you bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as you love yourself – I am Hashem. (Lev. 19:18)

Reb Aron of Karlin taught that if one wants to know how one is doing as a lover of G-d, one should do an accounting of one’s love for G-d’s children. Then one will know one’s true level of love for G-d. The only other place in the Torah where the word “ואהבת“ – and you shall love – is found is with the commandment to love G-d. It has been observed that “Love Hashem, your G-d” (Deuteronomy 6:5) has the same numerical value in Hebrew as “Love your neighbor like yourself, I am Hashem.”

It is perhaps for this reason that we are given this mitzvah here in Kedoshim. The Imrie Noam notes that the word “Kedoshim” is plural and alludes to these two opportunities to generate holiness through love. Two times קדש (holy) also equals “ ואהבת לרעך כמו” / Love your neighbor like yourself. Rashi explains (19:1) that this Parsha was said at a gathering of the entire assembly of Israel, because the majority of the essentials of the Torah depend upon it [to be holy].

This principle of loving another as a way of connecting to “I am Hashem” is articulated by the Ari Z”l (Shar HaKavanas) as follows: “A person must accept upon themselves the commandment to love another as themselves before they pray, for whatever one does for G-d, they must also do for all of G-d’s children.” The Book of Leviticus opens with this teaching as well: “When a person (singular) among you offers…you shall bring your offering (plural).”

In the Midrash’s exploration for why everyone needed to gather to hear this Parsha, Rabbi Levi answers, “because the Ten Commandments are incorporated into it.” The Midrash cites a corresponding verse for each of the ten commandments, and the one that is quoted as representing the commandment of “Don’t covet” is “Loving your neighbor.” Nachmanides explains that when we increase our love for one another and we are happy when good things happen to others, we lose the ability to be jealous or vengeful.

When G-d asks us to be holy, at the beginning of the Parsha, the point of departure is our similarity; “because I am holy.” Loving one another as one loves oneself asks one to overcome the perception that we are too different, distinct, or dissimilar to ever see our identities as bound up with each other as one. However, often when we see someone as too similar to us, we can feel threatened, insecure, and in competition for our unique offerings.

The Arvei Nachal quotes a dispute between Plato and Aristotle on the source of love — coming either from the ways in which we are comparable to, or the opposite of, each other. He argues that Platonic love, like the wealthy person pursuing the poor to offer charity (Shabbos 104a), isn’t true love. Rather it’s a self focused love acquired through kindness to another. This works in both directions, as the Medresh teaches “More than the person who is wealthy does for the person who is poor, the poor person does for the wealthy.”

When two people need each other, like a buyer and a seller, each supports the other and benefits from the relationship. In a dynamic where there isn’t a perceived differential of power, the Torah encourages us to put in the effort to love another, particularly, when they are “like ourselves.”

The Aristotelian model, which is less commonly achieved, asks us not to seek out what’s in it for us, but to cleave to and elevate the lovablity of the other. This is primarily accomplished when we are first able to see ourselves as lovable, and then because we see each other as equals, we can engage in truly loving each other.

We find this distinction when Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt “ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ …וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת – He called to his son, Joseph, if I have found grace in your eyes…please do for me this kindness and truth.” Rashi explains that the “kindness that people do for the dead is the kindness of truth, because one doesn’t look forward to reciprocation.” The Malbim comments that the inclusion of both “son” and “Joseph” alludes to Jacob making his request on two different fronts. As a son, Joseph had certain obligations and needs to honor his father’s wishes. But as a person, he made a different kind of ask, predicated on the recognition of grace.

Rebbe Akiva said about loving another as ourselves “This is a great principle of the Torah.” The Sadigura Rebbe understood “ourselves” as meaning the way that we, ourselves, treat each other. G-d then reciprocates, and treats us in that same way. Our actions towards each other define our levels of holiness and indicate our true love for G-d.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Rebuke / Graceful Masculinity: Tazria

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים.

If a person will have on their skin of their flesh, a seis, or a sapachas, or a baheres, and it will become a tzaras affliction on the skin of their flesh, they should be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim. (Leviticus 13:2)

It is too easy to judge others, even though we know how hard it is to ever really understand what another person is feeling or going through. Indeed it is often far simpler to recognize an imperfection in someone else than to notice that same flaw in ourselves. If we are so good at observing the failures of others, why is it so difficult for us to see them in ourselves?

Tradition teaches a concept of being nogea b’daver, being too close to a matter to maintain objectivity. As an example, one can not act as a judge for a family member. The phrase nogea b’daver shares the linguistic root of the word “nega or skin affliction. The Midrash Tanchuma suggests the word also hints to the causes of the affliction; having their source in crossing the appropriate boundaries of another. As part of the healing process, it is therefore required that “they should be brought” by another person.

Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra additionally taught that anyone who speaks lashon hara, malicious speech, will contract this skin ailment. The Talmud teaches “All of the attributes of G-d are dispensed measure for measure”. Why is this skin ailment an appropriate punishment for gossip? 

A person who gossips exposes the flaws of another to public ridicule. As a result, the gossiper is punished by having their own flaws manifest as an external skin disease readily seen by any onlooker. 

Instead of speaking badly about someone, the Torah expects us to speak to them. It is not pleasant to receive input that asks us to modify our actions. Yet such a rebuke is the consequence and counterbalance to our own lack of awareness. If we could receive the memo internally, then we wouldn’t need another to deliver it. 

The Talmud extols the individual who appreciates this type of feedback. Rebbe taught: “A person should love admonition; for as long as it exists in the world, pleasantries come with goodness and blessing and evil is removed from the world.” And R’ Yochanan added “Anyone who rebukes their friends, with the right intentions, merits a portion of the Divine and even more so a cord of grace is extended on them as it says in Proverbs: “One who reproves someone will later find grace”.

The Malbim explains that even though it is the way of the world that people initially prefer to avoid receiving negative feedback, after time, the natural consequences of the “flawed perspective” catch up to a person and then, in the end, they really value the corrective support. It is for that reason that the verse emphasizes “later.” So too in the case of the metzora. They need to be brought to the Kohen because they are reluctant to hear the truth about themselves that this affliction will confirm.

In the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Bible he explains the prefix “to” in “לנגע” as the Torah’s way of teaching us that those around this individual are aware of the discomfort caused by them, and they are pained in observing it. When we have an insight into the character traits of another, that sensitive information can be used to encourage that person to talk more openly about the motivations and intentions, or it could be the portal into something hurtful, G-d forbid. The Gra writes that gracefulness is manifested as the awareness that someone cared enough to take the time, and the chance, to share a heart centered perspective.

This parsha of negyim invites us to reflect when we see something, in another, that doesn’t land so well for us – perhaps something similar exists in ourselves. Having something “seen” by someone else helps us have a more accurate vision of ourselves. Rabbi Jacob said: this world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, so that you may enter the banqueting-hall. Rashi explains that people are already dressed and ready for the party by the time they arrive; they just need to make minor adjustments to their hair or clothes before they formally present themselves. We all want to be the best versions of ourselves, and help others in doing the same, but that requires willingness to see the work that still needs to be done.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Shame / Graceful Masculinity: Shmini

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Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים; וַיַּרְא כָּל-הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ, וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם.

A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed from the altar, the olah offering, and the fats; the people saw and they praised and fell upon their faces. (Vayikra 9:24)

Making mistakes, and learning from them, is part of life. One of the great indicators that we have really begun to internalize the new lesson is that deep feeling of disappointment and embarrassment that we didn’t realize this particular truth earlier, and that we were ever capable of doing the previous thing at all. 

This can be a shameful experience that tries to burden us with negativity that inhibits growth and change. There is another, holy variety, of shame called busha, בושה.  It propels us towards a more sensitive version of ourselves that just can’t imagine doing that thing ever again. We are simply no longer that person and wouldn’t ever want to be again. 

This movement, of coming closer to the ideal, is the act of offerings, korbanot (the word comes from a root meaning to come closer). Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi taught (TB Sotah 5b) the greatness of being of broken/humble spirits “is as if one has offered all of the sacrifices.”

The parable is given of a beloved prince, who one day rebels and acts inappropriately towards his father the king. As the king deliberates on the correct response, and overcomes his own anger and disappointment with his son, he decides rather than punishing him directly, he will instead advance the prince’s place in the kingdom and afford him even more honor and glory. When the son hears about this generosity, aware in his heart that he truly behaved poorly to his father, he is overcome with busha over his immaturity and can’t even show his face at the dinner in his honor, until he properly apologizes.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d acted towards the Jewish people with an unending love. G-d so wanted to dwell among the people and bestow goodness that folks were overcome with busha and needed to cover their faces in humility. Rina, the Hebrew word used here, is a unique language of praise; in that it expresses a mixture of happiness and sadness (Rav Tov).

Toras Kohanim says that when the fire descended and consumed the offerings they declared (Psalms 33:1) “Sing joyfully, righteous strugglers, because of HaShem.” It is specifically with “Hashem,” the attribute of mercy, that one can approach G-d from a place of regret, and pain of the past, with gratitude for the opportunity to commit to a different future.

However, the order of the verse is a little strange. Why are they praising G-d before they fall on their faces? If they were really overcome with embarrassment, how did they first sing out before they processed the emotional component? 

The Zohar (Mishpatim 108a) teaches that we don’t offer the sacrifices in a vein of the strict attribute of judgment, associated with G-d’s name Elokim, but to the Shem Havayah, the Tetragrammaton. When spelled out יו”ד – ה”י – ו”ו – ה”ה it has the same numerical value as מזבח, the altar, and with the word itself each equal חן, grace. 

In the mystical tradition,(Bris Kahunas Olam) G-d’s foundation of grace was revealed through this exchange on the altar and is hinted to by the Talmud (Sotah 47a), that a place, Makom – the Omnipresent – is graceful to its inhabitants.

Perhaps it is the compassion of the place where we are, wherever that may be in the moment, recognizing that G-d is patiently there with us that stirs us to be vocal about our relationship with G-d and give thanks. What follows may be less about a reflection of the past mistake, but more of an attitude towards our future state of being.

After the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, Moshe tells the people: “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of G-d may be on your faces, so that you do not go astray.” (Exodus 20:17). The Talmud (Nedarim 20a) quotes this verse and declares “זו בושה,” “this is shame,” and posits: “It is a good quality in a person that they are capable of experiencing shame. Others say: Any person who feels shame will not quickly sin.”

Learning more about the way we impact others, through simply being ourselves, is often a painful realization. It can potentially fuel insecurities about being good enough or worthy of being in relationship with others. The Torah is teaching us to reject and replace those thoughts of shame with the commitment to a healthier being. It takes faith and a deep desire for self-improvement to explore the next lesson we didn’t yet know we needed to learn.

 

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Offerings / Graceful Masculinity – Vayikra

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וְאִםמִןהָעוֹף עֹלָה קָרְבָּנוֹ, לַיהוָה:  וְהִקְרִיב מִןהַתֹּרִים, אוֹ מִןבְּנֵי הַיּוֹנָהאֶתקָרְבָּנוֹ.

If one’s offering to Hashem is an olah offering from the fowl, one should bring their offering from the turtledoves or from the young doves.

Vayikra 1:14

When G-d introduces G-d’s self to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:5), G-d says: “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” At Mount Sinai, when G-d reveals G-d’s self to the world, it is also amidst fire, and again we are warned to make borders and not approach the mountain (Exodus 19:12). The main purpose of the Torah is to guide us in coming closer to G-d. This models a healthy relationship where each party defines what the appropriate closeness is for themselves, which then informs the available proximity that the other is invited to approach.

The offerings, korbanos in Hebrew, literally means an act of closeness, and is a representation of self sacrifice. However not all acts of self sacrifice bring us closer to the Divine, or to each other. It is necessary to be able to discern what are the healthy and holy pleasures that we are meant to pursue; those that elevate all involved and transcend physical limitations into spiritual spaces. We also need to take care not to cross dangerous lines of consumption and debasement, while also avoiding asceticism.

The first chapter of Vayikra discusses bird sacrifices. “From the turtledoves” מן התורים (min hatorim) is understood as allusion to two Torahs, the oral and written (Rabbeinu Efrayim). There is often a vast space between what the text says and what it actually means. God tells us that investing and toiling in the process of understanding the Divine Will, through Torah study, brings us closer to G-d. Perhaps for this reason the Talmud teaches (Eruvin 63b) that the study of Torah is greater than the offering of the sacrifices.

Hillel had 80 principal students, the greatest of whom was Yonatan ben Uzziel. The story is told (Sukkah 28a) that when Yonatan ben Uzziel would sit and learn Torah, any bird that would fly over his head would be incinerated.  Tosafot explains that his teachings were comparable to the giving of Torah, which was done with fire. Another Medieval commentary, R’ Chananel, explains that the Divine Presence was there, and therefore the space was designated as sacred.

Yonatan ben Uzziel is also the author of the classic Targum, translation of the holy texts, known by his name. The Minchas Elazar posits that the act of translation, by its nature, is to bring outsiders in, by granting access to otherwise guarded spaces. For this reason it was necessary to add an additional layer of protection to mark the contours of this space, with fire.

The Torah is also referred to as derech / a “path” (Exodus 18:20) because it informs how we are meant to travel and navigate this world. In Sotah 49a we are warned that if two Torah scholars are walking along the way / the derech and there are no words of Torah between them, then they are deserving of being burned in fire. The Ben Yehoyada explains this teaching by quoting the Prophet Jeremiah (23:29) that Torah is also called אש aish – fire. He continues that those who learn Torah generate חן chein – grace, and observes that the combined numerical value, 301+58, equals שטן 359 – Satan, a force that was appointed to distract us from G-d. “Therefore, two scholars who are traveling on a dangerous path, and are not learning Torah to combat the evil opposition, are then worthy of being consumed by the fire of the Satan,” instead of being led by the light of Torah.

It is the way of the evil inclination to falsely present the bad as good, like “stolen waters are sweet”(Proverbs 9:17). Our response, the Rabbis teach (Kiddushin 30b) is to “pull it into the study hall,” quoting again from Jeremiah: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord?”. Through the study of Torah we are able to both connect to the source of all truth and also achieve the ultimate pleasure, coming closer to G-d through respectfully engaging with each other.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Optimism / Graceful Masculinity – Ki Tisa

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיִּשְׁמַע הָעָם, אֶתהַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּהוַיִּתְאַבָּלוּ; וְלֹאשָׁתוּ אִישׁ עֶדְיוֹ, עָלָיו.

The people heard this bad tiding and they mourned; and they, each man, did not put on his crown. (Exodus 33:4(

When G-d created this world, it was filled with hope, possibilities, and aspirations. On the sixth day of creation G-d said (Genesis 1:31) וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ “And God saw all that G-d had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” At that moment, according to the midrash, G-d declared “I wish that there would always be as much grace before me as there is now.” The grace that G-d is referring to here is the grace that is found when the desire for evil (Tov Meod) is converted to good and then becomes “very good.”

This was ultimately achieved at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah. Even the angel of death was banished (Eruvin 54a) on the sixth day of Sivan. This moment was so essential to the purpose of this world that the Rabbis (Shabbos 88a) read “The six day,” in Genesis, as the acceptance of the Torah by Israel on the sixth day of Sivan as a condition for the world’s continued existence.

The Talmud explains that when we said “We will do and we will listen”, angels descended and wove two crowns upon our heads. Tragically this was undone with the sin of the golden calf, which the people requested when it appeared to them that Moshe was delayed in returning from the mountain (Exodus 32:1). The word for delayed בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ is understood (Shabbos 89a) as “with the sixth” hour of the day and it was at that moment that we lost our crowns.

Recanti (Vayeitzie) explains that חן / chein (grace) is a language of “crown”, as in Proverbs 1:9 when the traditions of parents are described as: “They are a graceful crown upon your head.” It is not coincidental that we find the word “grace” six times in this parsha as the remedy for our miscalculation.

G-d wanted to create this world exclusively through the strict attribute of judgment but saw that the world created in such a way wouldn’t last, so G-d made a partnership with mercy. The purpose of mercy, in this arrangement, is to create a path back to the ideal space, free from negative judgment. Ups and downs are certainly part of life, and the true test of our faith is what we do when we find ourselves in the lower spots.

Rashi explains that after the sin of the golden calf, they mourned the loss of their crowns. R’ Moses Feinstein (Drash Moshe) understands their grief coming from a mistaken sense of hopelessness. They felt that their distance from G-d was permanent and they would never be able to restore their former glory of closeness. The Shach explains (33:7) “Moshe took” as meaning that he returned the crowns to them on erev shabbos.

We are not static, which means we have the capacity to change for good. King David wrote (Psalms 24:3) “Who may ascend the mountain of the L-rd? Who may stand in G-d’s holy place?” Coming down from a mountain doesn’t mean we can’t still stand in a holy place.

The numerical value of the word חןchein (grace) is 58. The six times that “חן” appears in this week’s Torah reading add up to 348, the value of the word שמח, happy. Making amends for our mistakes is a mitzvah, and we are meant to serve G-d with joy. Our ability to correct the missteps of the past, and our faith in G-d’s desire for us to be imbued with grace, is a source of light and gladness even in dark and troubled times.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

Graceful Companionship / Graceful Masculinity: Tetzaveh

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

And you will command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you clear olive oil, crushed, for illumination, to light a lamp continually. (Exodus 27:20)

Although G-d is speaking to Moses, Moses is addressed as “you.” Not only is Moses’s name omitted from the first verse of the Torah portion, his name is not mentioned in it at all! The Baal Haturim understands this phenomenon as a fulfillment of Moses’s request from G-d that he would like to be erased from the Torah if G-d wouldn’t forgive the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:32).

Perhaps the reason why this location is chosen, for Moses’s perceived absence, is because “to light a lamp continually” is a reference to learning Torah, (L’horos Nosson). As King Solomon (Proverbs 6:23) teaches “a commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light.” Moses, by removing himself here, is exemplifying the teaching: “The matters of Torah do not endure except in one who considers himself as if they are nothing.” (Sotah 21b).

The word “erased” מח, is also an allusion to the מח, 48, ways of acquiring the wisdom (Avos 6:6) of the Torah, and is necessary in forming the word “wise” חכם. True knowledge leaves an impression and connects us to G-d. The Talmud teaches that: One who walks along the way without having someone to accompany them should occupy themselves with words of Torah, as it is stated (with regard to words of Torah): “For they shall be a chaplet of חן, grace, to your head, and chains around your neck.” (Proverbs 1:9 & Sotah 46b). 

“Tetzaveh” is a language of commandment, and also of connectivity. When we relate to G-d through the learning of Torah, then it accompanies us on our journey. It’s noteworthy that the Talmud chooses to highlight this benefit of Torah study when one is alone. We are taught (Pirkei Avos 3:2) if two are together and do not speak words of Torah then it is a meeting of scoffers. There is a unique, and perhaps deeper, connection when we are guided by those who are not physically in our presence. 

Our attachments affect and influence us. The Talmud (Taanis 5b) declares “Jacob our father never died.” The Rabbis challenge this claim by quoting the scriptures that mention his funeral. The teaching is then clarified by stating “Just as his descendants are alive, so too is he still alive.” When we affect another, their related actions are also an extension of our impact.

Yocheved, Moses’s mother, is credited by the Midrash with giving birth to 600,000 because of the role her son played in leading the nation to Mount Sinai. This is especially true for the learning of Torah. 

Reish Lakish (Avodah Zarah 3b) says: anyone who occupies themselves with Torah at night, the Holy One, Blessed be G-d, extends a thread of kindness over him by day, as it is stated: “By day, the L-rd will command G-d’s kindness, and in the night G-d’s song shall be with me” (Psalms 42:9). Rashi explains this Divine extension of kindness as “the person presenting with grace to others.”

We must strive to be Talmidei Chachamim, students and practitioners of wisdom.  When we allow G-d’s wisdom to guide our path in life, then we are always traveling with great company.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

A Graceful Table / Graceful Masculinity: Trumah

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת-הַשֻּׁלְחָן, מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת, וְאֶת-הַמְּנֹרָה נֹכַח הַשֻּׁלְחָן, עַל צֶלַע הַמִּשְׁכָּן תֵּימָנָה; וְהַשֻּׁלְחָן–תִּתֵּן, עַל-צֶלַע צָפוֹן.

You shall place the table outside of the dividing curtain, and the Menorah opposite the table on the southern side of the Tabernacle and the table you shall place on the northern side. (Exodus 26:35)

 

“Let them build for me a tabernacle and I will dwell among them”. God’s command at the start of Parshat Terumah is famously understood as “I will dwell in each and every one of you.” Why is it necessary then to build G-d a physical space, for the resting of the Divine Presence, if G-d dwells within us all? 

To better understand the purpose of the tabernacle and how it allowed us to come closer to G-d, particularly through offerings (the Hebrew word korban, offering, comes from the root meaning to draw close), it is helpful to see how we have responded to our current lack of a physical dwelling place for G-d.

“The altar, three cubits high…This is the table that is before the Lord”. (Ezekiel 41:22): The prophet starts with “altar” and ends with “table”. The Talmud explains the connection: “When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now (that the Temple has been destroyed), it is a person’s table that atones for them.” 

It is for this reason that many have salt on our tables, like the salt that was part of the offerings. It’s also this reason that many remove, or cover, any knives before the grace after meals. The Mechilta understands the prohibition (Exodus 20:22) of using hewn stones for an altar because “[the altar] was created to lengthen a person’s life, and iron was created to shorten a person’s life”. Since the altar should not have cutting implements, there is a tradition to remove them from our tables as well.

The Talmud teaches, “whoever extends their table, their life is extended”. The Rabbis understand this blessing to come when we are prepared to help a person experiencing food insecurity and, more broadly, inviting guests to come together over food.

On the verse, “Cedars are the beams of our house, Cypresses the rafters,” (Song of Songs 1:17) the Gra comments that although G-d dwells among each of us, we needed a singular place to gather and unify all of our individual hearts together. That place was the tabernacle, which was built by the collective, through the individual contributions of the heart. The main resting place for G-d is determined by our hearts coming together as one, whether at the giving of the Torah or in the Temple. 

Jerusalem is described by King David as “a city that is united together”, (Psalms 122:3), and is understood by the Jerusalem Talmud as “The city that brings everyone to friendship.” It is perhaps for this reason that we are taught that the Temple was destroyed because of blatant hatred. Destruction is simply the consequence of division and lack of caring for each other.

Being able to come together (socially distanced)  around the same table is an act of atonement for separation, and a restoration of the closeness that we once had for G-d, and each other. That is why it is so essential to bring the right intentions to the Table.

In Hebrew, the word for table — שלחן / shulchan — is parsed by the Ben Ish Chai as  של חן – shel chein / of grace. “Only when it is filled with grace will it atone” and bring people together. We find the power of the evil opposition alluded to in the word as well. In Psalm 23 King David says “ You prepare a table for me before my enemies.” The word “שלחן” (table) also contains the word “נחש”, snake, an allusion to the potential for food to be misused and cause a separation between people and God.

After nearly a year of being physically apart from each other in community, we find ourselves in Adar אדר which is understood as living together as one א -דר. This coming week we will celebrate Purim which is a holiday of tremendous “unity and togetherness.” Purim is also, though, the only holiday that is not observed by all Jews on the same day, as those in unwalled cities celebrate on the 14th of Adar and those in walled cities celebrate on the 15th of Adar. Being apart or different doesn’t mean that we are not connected, as long as we are able to see the holiness of the Divine in each and every one of us.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Forgiveness / Graceful Masculinity – Mishpatim

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם.

And these are the judgments that you shall place before them. (Exodus 21:1)

When we ask G-d for forgiveness, in our daily prayers, we bless G-d as “the gracious One who pardons abundantly”. The Zera Kodesh explains our need for that “abundance” because even when we apologize to G-d for our mistakes, and regret them, we are limited in our understanding of the impact of our actions. Because we cannot fathom the full extent of our wrongs, we cannot adequately appreciate what we are asking for when we beg forgiveness. 

The Zera Kodesh offers a parable of a simple villager who breaks an ornate window belonging to the king. Not having any understanding of the exorbitant value of the broken window, the villager brings an inferior one to the king as a replacement when asking for forgiveness. The king, being compassionate and gracious, accepts the apology and the window, but then shows the villager the process of collecting and adding the precious stones and the exquisite artisanal embellishments required to return the window to its original state. Only then does the villager understand how much damage he really did and just how forgiving the king was in accepting the inadequate restitution.  

This is true in our human relationships as well. It is almost impossible to ever really understand the true depth of hurt and damage we cause another. Even when someone lets us know that our actions caused them pain, often our first reaction is to want to minimize our role to avoid taking full responsibility. It is perhaps for this reason that the Mishna (Bava Kama 9b), when teaching about damages, deviates from the standard third person language. Instead it uses the first person, to center the text in one’s ownership of one’s impact: 

כל שחבתי בשמירתו הכשרתי את נזקו הכשרתי במקצת נזקו חבתי בתשלומי נזקו כהכשר כל נזקו

Anything that I am obligated to safeguard, I am responsible if it becomes damaged. If I facilitated part of the damage it caused, I am liable for payments of restitution for damage it caused, as if I were the one who facilitated the entire damage it caused.  

Parshas Mishpatim opens with G-d telling Moses to “place [the laws]  before them”. Rashi explains that G-d was teaching Moses that when it comes to these laws, it is not enough just to teach and review until people have memorized them, but you must go further and expound on the reasons and explanations until it is clearly presented before them.

The Talmud, Eruvin 54b, asks: 

כֵּיצַד סֵדֶר מִשְׁנָה? 

“How was the teaching organized’?’ 

The Talmud explains that Moshe taught it four times, and this teaches that students need repetition and need to learn new material four times. Rav Nosson Gestetner explains that the four times is understood as a reference to Pardes, פרדס, the four levels at which the Torah can be understood. The Mishna is the P’shat – פשט, the simple teaching. The other 3 levels in Pardes (Sod – סוד, the hidden secrets,  Drash – דרש, homiletics,  Remez – רמז) all allude to the סדר, order.

An essential aspect of understanding the laws of damages is recognizing how deep and profound the effect of our actions can be. In other words: it’s not enough to simply teach commandments so that people understand the way to behave. We need to impart with clarity a sense of responsibility and ownership for the hidden, and often traumatic, impact of our actions.

The word “judgment” –  הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, is understood by the Baal Haturim, the author of the Tur, the precursor to the Code of Jewish Law, as an acronym:  הדיין מצווה שיעשה פשרה טרם יעשה משפט – “the adjudicator is obligated to make a compromise before issuing a judgment.” When two people are in conflict, and both feel entitled to something, they should each first try and share their experience with the other. When we ask someone for forgiveness, we may be asking them to compromise, to give something up.

Forgiveness can also allows for a reconciliation that brings people closer together, perhaps even closer than they were before. The Vilna Gaon understands the word rachamim (mercy) as the tool for forgiveness, and chein (grace) as the transformation of a negative act into a positive one. The blessing for forgiveness asks G-d to “Return us in complete repentance before you,” understood by the Nefesh HaChaim as “out of love”. Saying that we are sorry doesn’t undo what happened. But if we can approach apology from a heart-space, with a deep commitment to understanding how we negatively impacted another, the apology can go a long way to heal the pain of the past and build healthier relationships in the future.

 

 

Discussion questions:

What are some things to think about before we ask for forgiveness?

How can we make sure we focus on the other and not make it about us?

If our apology isn’t immediately accepted, how should we respond?

Why do we find it so hard to take responsibility for our mistakes? 

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.