Graceful Acceptance / Graceful Masculinity: Chukas

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

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל.

This is the statute of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and they shall take to you a perfectly red cow, which has no blemish, which hasn’t had a yoke on it. (Numbers 19:2)

An interesting, if counterintuitive, aspect of the laws of the red heifer is that while the ritual of sprinkling its ashes purifies one who is impure, the pure person performing the ritual becomes impure. The Talmud (Nidda 9a)  asserts that even King Solomon, the wisest of all people, was baffled by this law. The verse “All this I tested with wisdom, I thought I could fathom it [through wisdom], but it eludes me – כּל־זֹ֖ה נִסִּ֣יתִי בַֽחכְמָ֑ה אָמַ֣רְתִּי אֶחְכָּ֔מָה וְהִ֖יא רְחוֹקָ֥ה מִמֶּֽנִּי” is understood by the Tamud as King’s Solomon’s acknowledgement that wisdom alone could not assist him to comprehend these precepts.

We often have a hard time understanding identities or experiences that are not our own. The rabbis observe this lack of first person engagement as an inhibitor to completely grasping Torah concepts.  A person doesn’t understand words of Torah until they have stumbled [in them] – אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל (Gittin 43a).

The Ohev Yisrael explains that we naturally think of ourselves as having a proper perspective on things and therefore assume we are going on the right path. However, when life happens and we fall down, we have an opportunity to acknowledge our mistakes, in light of the revealed truth of the matter, and to reorient accordingly. This is particularly true of folks who see themselves as “having no blemish.”

This, says the Chozeh Lublin, can only happen when a person “hasn’t had a yoke [of Torah] on them”. In other words, only a person who is unaware of the work that needs to be done in the world, and their role in it, can think that they have attained perfection.

Simply learning about a concept or idea doesn’t necessarily deliver the impact or proximity as a heart connection to those affected by the teaching. This is alluded to in the verse (Psalms 119:165) “There is an abundant peace to the lovers of your Torah, and they don’t have a stumbling block – שָׁל֣וֹם רָ֭ב לְאֹהֲבֵ֣י תוֹרָתֶ֑ךָ וְאֵֽין־לָ֥מוֹ מִכְשֽׁוֹל.” There is a particular grace and care that is achieved through the love that one has for another as a result of the investment of deep listening and learning. 

In Hebrew, the word for ear is ozen / אזן which has the same numerical value as grace, chein / חן  (AriZ”l). Listening is essential in learning the oral law and by toiling in it, we can broaden and develop our sensitivities to society. The role of grace in this is alluded to in the number of chapters of Mishnayos, 524, equaling the full spelling of the two letters in grace -חן-chein: חי”ת נו”ן. Additionally, תלמוד בבלי – Babylonian Talmud also has the numerical value of 524 (Seforim Hakedoshim). Through a deep engagement with the oral law, we train ourselves to listen carefully and internalize teachings, even when we do not completely understand them.

We always read and study this portion in preparation for the saddest time of the year, the three weeks leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis teach that the Temple was destroyed, and we remain in exile, because of sinas chinam – meaning hating people without reason. One of the lessons from studying a law that we can’t understand, but nevertheless accept, is that it models how to do the same with people. 

We don’t need to understand another person in order to accept them. One shouldn’t have to get to know someone, and then find something positive in them to justify caring about them. We don’t need reasons to love people. G-d’s love for us isn’t dependent on anything. The unconditional love that G-d has for us as children should motivate us to extend that ahavas chinam – free love – to all of our siblings.

That which is seen as perfect, perhaps conveys impurity to remind us that our path towards perfection necessitates struggle, and that struggle is itself purifying.

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Takings / Graceful Masculinity: Shlach

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

 

שְׁלַח-לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים, וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר-אֲנִי נֹתֵן, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו, תִּשְׁלָחוּ–כֹּל, נָשִׂיא בָהֶם.

Send forth for yourself men and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his fathers’ tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them. (Numbers 13:2)

 

Before Moses sent the scouts to report back on the land of Israel there was a sensitivity training of sorts, on the proper way to speak. Rashi observes that the spies are sent right after the incident of Miriam, who was punished for the way she spoke against her brother. Rashi notes, “these wicked ones saw [what happened to her] and yet didn’t learn from it.” The phrase that Rashi uses to describe their failure is the lack of “taking mussar-וְלֹא לָקְחוּ מוּסָר”, often translated as rebuke, and speaks to one’s capacity to become more aware of a better way of being and to then to grow into that better person.

Our ability to break cycles and patterns of negativity is generally contingent upon our optimism and hopefulness in achieving a different outcome. If we can’t see the positive potential that exists, it is much harder to try and actualize it. Lashon hara, speaking badly about another, at its core is highlighting the worst, and not the potential for improvement. 

The Talmud, Arachin 15a, offers the incident of the spies as the prooftext for the severity of lashon hara. “If one who defames the wood and rocks [of Israel] received such [a severe punishment], then one who defames another person, all the more so.” From the Talmud’s perspective, it seems that we are meant to learn from speaking badly about the land, that doesn’t have feelings or a soul, to know not to treat people that way. However Rashi, quoting the Medrish, blames the spies for not learning from speaking badly about a person to apply it to the land. The punishment of wandering in the desert for forty years seems quite excessive for not being about to intuit this a fortiori!  

Nachmanides implies that the essence of the sin of the spies was a lack of faith in G-d providing safe passage. Rashi (in Deuteronomy) explains that before this sin, they could have gone in peacefully without weapons and settled the land, but because of their lack of faith, they would eventually need to engage in the natural way of fighting for the land.

Indeed the word “שלח” “sh’lach” is an anagram of חלש meaning weak. They only needed to scout out the land because their faith in G-d’s ability to guide and protect them was deficient. They couldn’t imagine a different version that prioritized the spiritual over the physical. 

When they spoke out about the land, they could have focused on the positive, but chose not to. This is no different from the root of Miriam’s claim to Moses, assuming that he was like other prophets and therefore should have remained married. 

Rabbi E. B. Finkel points out that Rashi understands the problem with the spies not as one of a technical issue of speaking badly, but for not learning the lesson and working on themselves. A person, who speaks lashon hara is negatively affected when they diminish the Divine image in another person, and even the holiness of an object. He quotes R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz that the punishment of 40 years is not for the one moment of speaking badly, but for the entire 40 days where they were carrying these negative views. 

Perhaps this is why Rashi uses the language of “taking mussar.” It is not enough to learn or study in a proscriptive way, but a person needs to proactively deliberate and take the lessons, even if no one is giving them, to best know how to act. The Medresh (Mishlei 22:1), teaching about the value of חן, explains that the source of good, in grace, is in taking a truth and applying it to new situations.

We find similar advice in the Sefas Emes (Parshas Noach) who encourages us to guard and protect against anything that comes to minimize the Divine Image in humanity, because it is that image that produces grace. G-d’s expectations of us extend beyond our actions, to the root of our desire to learn from the world around us. Being able to appreciate the holiness of the land requires us to first be sensitive to the even greater holiness of people, and the potential for a peaceful coexistence.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

The Graceful Lightness of Being / Graceful Masculinity: B’ha’alot’kha

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

 

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ, וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ:  לָשׂוּם, אֶת-מַשָּׂא כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה–עָלָי.

Moses said to Hashem: “Why have you done evil to your servant, why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, that you place the burden of the entire people upon me?” (Numbers 11:11)

 

When we sense G-d’s closeness, our struggles feel holy, not heavy. As the clarity of our purpose increases, the internal resistance decreases – until the only opposition is coming from outside of us. When Adam and Eve were first created there was no doubt about who they were, in relationship to G-d. Then the snake came along and deceived them. By ingesting the forbidden fruit, they internalized the evil inclination and then needed to battle within themselves, to purge that voice of distraction that tries to divert our power away from goodness.

As G-d spoke this world into existence, through different utterances, the verses confirm “and it was so” “כן”, except for the creation of light where the word “כן” is missing. The rabbis explain that G-d was concerned that the light would be misused and so although G-d said “Let there be light”, G-d concealed and separated it for the righteous in the future (Chagigah 12a). This primordial light finds expression when Aharon lights the menorah and it is marked with the word “כן” (Emunas Eticha).

In the Genesis narrative, the word “light” (אור/ohr) is mentioned five times in the process of its formation. As a reference to that hidden light, we also find the word “ohr” five times in this week’s Torah portion. The light of the menorah also represents the light of the Torah and its wisdom, as the Talmud says: “the one who wants to be wise should face south” (Bava Basra 25b) for that is where the menorah was placed (Maharsha).

This wisdom, a consequence of the original light, is alluded to in the letter aleph (HaTzvi V’ Hatzadik) as the verse says (Job 33:33)  וַאֲאַלֶּפְךָ֥ כְמָֽה. The letter aleph “א“ is formed with two pairs of a yud and a vuv – יוי – one on top and one on the bottom (Megaleh Amukos 164) having a numerical value of 32 and corresponding to the 32 paths of wisdom and the heart (lev לב), the source of this understanding.

Moses had a light that shone from his face, and according to Tikunei Zohar (Genesis 36b), it originated in the light from the garden. Moses achieved this by correcting the sin of Adam and replacing the ohr (skin עור) with ohr (light אור) restoring the prelapsarian partnership with G-d. 

The Israelites had also acquired an elevated level, above the natural physical order, and were sustained by the mana. However, when they asked for meat, they no longer wanted to subside in such a spiritual plane and desired more physicality. They lowered themselves and created a separation from G-d, just as Adam and Eve did in the garden; desiring the desire for choice.

It is in this moment that Moses, as their teacher, feels the absence of this light and the subsequent weight of carrying the people without the same Divine assistance (R’ Vulli). The word for “found” in the phrase “Why haven’t I found favor in your eyes –וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ ” is missing the aleph (Iben Ezra). It was the people’s desire for meat that once again forced the exchange of the light for skin, and is alluded to in the word following “grace” “eynecha” literally “your eyes” but also meaning “your letter ע” (Yeytev Lev).

Having grace makes it easier for others to become close to us, and for us to be close to others. Knowing with certainty that G-d expects us to take care of one another, makes the desire for anything else no longer an option to choose from. While the work is still challenging, it is not burdensome. Feeling this partnership with G-d reminds us that with G-d’s help, nothing is impossible.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

Graceful Flags / Graceful Masculinity: Bamidbar

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

אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.

The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man at his banner according to the signs of their father’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp. (Bamidbar 2:2)

 

Our collective pursuit of unity requires the expansion of our individual identities, not an erasure of them. These forty nine days of counting the Omer correspond to the forty nine different ways that Moshe expounded on the Torah and encourage us to harvest the good that exists in the paths of others as a way of advancing our own development. The Medresh (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) finds support for this from the verse (Song of Songs 2:4) “[G-d] brought me to the banquet room and [G-d’s] banner of love was over me -הֱבִיאַ֙נִי֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַיָּ֔יִן וְדִגְל֥וֹ עָלַ֖י אַהֲבָֽה׃”. Banner / ודגלו has a numerical value of forty nine, an allusion to the various pairings of attributes – מדה – (also 49) with each other.

We are taught (Sanhedrin 90a) that all of G-d’s attributes are applied measure for measure – Midah K’neged Midah שכל מדותיו של הקב”ה מדה כנגד מדה. The Code of Jewish Law, (428:4) instructs us to always read this portion before Shavuot and it is seen as part of our preparation for the annual re-experiencing of Mt Sinai. The Munkatcher Rebbe points out the word “Neged” is a reference to the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:2) where Israel was “opposite the mountain.” Neged is a contranym, a word that has contradicting meanings, and here means both corresponding to and also in opposition.

We first find this when G-d forms a “helpmate” – ezer k’negdo – for Adam (Genesis 2:18). The Talmud (Yevamos 63a), sees this strange phrase as conditional: if one is worthy, then they will have a partner; if not – an opponent.

Rashi also deploys this word “k’neged’ to describe the arrangement of the different tribes that Bilam observes when he comes to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 24:2). However, when he sees “the openings of the tents were not aligned/k’neged to each other” (and therefore there is privacy between them) he offers the blessing of Ma Tovu – “How goodly are your tents.”

R’ Asher Rapshitz (Ohr Yeshie) explains that each one of us has a unique “opening” to spiritual practice. He understands the obligation to ask ourselves “when will my actions reach those of my ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” (Tana D’bei Eleyahu) not to mean that we should try to imitate our ancestors and simply act as they did, but just as our forefathers were each unique and brought new attributes to Divine service like kindness and strength, so too should we bring a new blend of ourselves.

This is also alluded to in the Talmudic principle (Succah 11b) of תַּעֲשֶׂה וְלֹא מִן הֶעָשׂוּי – We should prepare [the sukkah], and not just use that which has already been prepared (Rav Tov). A posture of creative production is not unique to building a sukkah, rather it generates the holiness of our spiritual contributions. They are offerings of our unique makeup.

Exploring who we are and how we are meant to be in the moment is the core of being human. Asking oneself “what is the right thing for me to do now?” is essential in creating the best outcome, particularly for a pleasant coexistence. The word for encampment – machene – is composed of the words מה חן ma chein, “what” and “grace.” Understanding what makes us different allows us to relate appropriately and come closer to each other as our distinct selves.

The way G-d spoke to Moshe at the burning bush was different from the way G-d spoke to all of Israel at the giving of the Torah. The Sifra (Parshat Vayikra), in comparing and contrasting the two languages, says that we can learn the teaching from the hermeneutical exegesis known as a binyan av. These thirteen Midos, or principles, correspond to the thirteen Midos HaRachamim, or Attributes of Mercy. According to Reb Lev Yitchak of Berditchev (Kidushas Levi Exodus Ki Sisa) the binyan av corresponds to chein – grace. When we can learn from each other and incorporate that knowledge into building better relationships, we develop more gracefulness. 

Each one of us has our own flag and special purpose in this world. Sometimes it is to be in support of those around us, and other times it is to be in opposition. The important lesson is to be thoughtful and deliberate in harnessing what is unique about us to improve the world for everyone. 

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

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 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.

Keep the Fire Burning

During 5781, a group of Bayit builders, led by R. Cynthia Hoffman, is studying the writings of the Baal Shem Tov. First and foremost we’re studying “lishma,” for the sake of the learning itself. We’re also keeping an eye out for short teachings that might give rise to practices, tools, and spiritual technologies.

The italicized lines, below, are from the Baal Shem Tov (Ki Tisa Comment 1); the regular print is our own addition. — The Bayit BeShT Study Sandbox

 

Keep the Fire Burning:

A Teaching from the Baal Shem Tov About Community

 

“They shall give…” (Exodus 30:13

This verse from Torah is talking about how each person, counted in the census, should give a half-shekel to God / to support spiritual community.

Rashi cites a teaching (found in Midrash Tanchuma and Talmud) that God reached beneath the Throne of Glory and withdrew a coin of fire, saying to Moses, “they shall give like this.” 

So perhaps the “giving” isn’t so much about money. Perhaps this is really about some other kind of giving. Here comes a parable to illustrate that:

Once there was a man who learned his art from a smith. After the smith taught him the art, he wrote down for the student a list of the tasks involved — but he didn’t write down that one needs to start with a coal of fire. It’s the most important thing, and he thought it went without saying. But he made a mistake in not writing it down. The most important thing is that there be a spark of fire to ignite the heart. 

No matter what our work, we need to remember what actually fuels us: the “coal of fire,” the spark of inspiration (which hints at holy spirit), the fire of love that ignites the heart. In every mitzvah, there needs to be the fire of love igniting the heart. So too we need to cultivate that holy spark in every action we take to build sacred community.

Without a coal of fire, a smith literally can’t start the furnace. Without the fire of love and inspiration, we can’t do the work of building holy community. Whether at a budget or committee meeting, or taking out the trash, or leading a program, or planning for the future: to build holy community “right,” we need to keep that spark of love burning in our hearts.

Artwork by Steve Silbert, from Color the Omer (buy a copy now before Pesach begins!)