Weekly Torah Commentary — Acharei-mot & Kedoshim April 24, 2015

Leviticus 16-20

This week our Torah reading encompasses two sections: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. At the very center of this double reading, we come across a succinct yet most powerful commandment:

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I,the Lord your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:1-2)

In its simplest definition, to be holy is to live one’s life according to the disciplines and instructions of God. Holiness is the fruit of a deliberate and ongoing choice to order one’s thoughts, words and deeds according to God’s revealed will as expressed in the Bible. Holiness is not some ethereal, pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic way of life. It is at once eminently practical as well as profoundly spiritual. It is summed up in the two greatest commandments: to love God with our whole heart, soul and resources and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

To be sure, volumes have been written about holiness and a brief commentary such as this cannot begin to describe it in all its beauty. But I offer the following thoughts for your reflection:

1) Holiness is not a negative commandment; it is not a matter of what you cannot do but rather an issue of the heart. What is the predominant motive for your daily thoughts, words and actions? Do you live each day against the backdrop of a desire to delight the heart of God? Is that your over-riding purpose in life?

2) Holiness does not mean you never fail or make a mistake. What it does mean is that when you do, you turn quickly to the Lord in repentance, ask His forgiveness and learn from your failure. Holiness is a journey, not a destination.

3) Holiness is not old-fashioned, nor is it reserved for the ‘chosen few’. We live in a culture that pushes the boundaries with language, with entertainment, with alcohol, etc. It is written that Job was “righteous in his generation.” That means that in the midst of a culture that was not unlike ours, Job maintained his integrity and morality. Everyone around him could have made the same choice but Job was not moved by their choices. He stood firm in his own.

4) The choices of those who desire holiness is thought of by some as judgmental and intolerant. Political correctness frowns and criticizes those who uphold a higher standard of living based on God’s word. It does not like words or phrases such as ‘self-discipline’ or ‘obedience’ or ‘the righteous fear of the Lord’. It labels those who uphold such principles as ‘radicals’. If being ‘radical’ means that you love God sincerely from the heart and seek to live according to His ways, then to be called a ‘radical’ is the highest compliment you could receive!

5) Holiness is not ‘weirdness’. True holiness will transform you into a loving, kind, gentle and compassionate person. Loving God is not weird; neither is loving your neighbor. Mother Teresa gained worldwide acclaim, not for railing against sinners, but for extending compassion and care to the needy around her. She is remembered for saying:
‘Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier’
‘We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do’
‘In this life we cannot do big things but we can do small things with great love’.

In Tune with Torah this week = a fresh look at the true meaning of holiness is in order for all of us. How are we doing at loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourself? In these two commandments are hidden the ways and means to holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Passover April 3-4, 2015

Exodus 12: 21-51

As Passover this year falls on Shabbat, the regular Torah reading cycle is interrupted to accommodate the passages from the book of Exodus describing the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves under the leadership of Moses.  After repeated pleas by Moses to Pharaoh, ‘Let My people go!’ the ruler of Egypt finally relented after the final plague, the deaths of the firstborn of every household in Egypt. A nation of slaves became free men – literally overnight. Their hard labor was over.  Never again would they suffer the whippings of the taskmasters, the taunts of their supervisors.

Freedom from hard labor and physical bondage can be won in a day but attaining inner freedom is a lifetime journey all of us make.  Shackles can be removed from wrists and ankles but what of the mental and emotional shackles?

The story of the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land is that of life itself.  With freedom comes responsibility.  The children of Israel soon learned that their exit from Egypt gifted them with choices previously unavailable. But that very freedom carried consequences, as every decision does.

They learned that freedom doesn’t mean you can do anything you want; it means you are free to choose what is right and honorable. Excuses and rationalizations for doing otherwise have been eliminated.

They learned that freedom doesn’t provide the opportunity to indulge every self-serving whim but the privileged position to serve others in kindness and humility.

The freedom given to the Hebrew slaves was not an end in itself; it was the pathway to become what they were called to become: a holy nation, a chosen people, a treasure to the Most High.  Growing into that destiny meant daily repeated choices to obey God’s voice and follow His instructions.  As slaves they were required to obey the injunctions of brutal foremen who never hesitated to beat them into subjection if necessary.  As free men, they were called to obey the life-giving principles of a loving God, who was also their Father and their King. The truth is that obedience to God and His Word is the highest form of freedom man can enjoy.

To this day, men still struggle with the idea of freedom.  The lazy man prefers bondage for it demands no personal responsibility.  Yet God did not fashion us for captivity, but for freedom.

Passover is a good time for a spiritual ‘check up from the neck up’ because the main obstacle to our spiritual freedom is our mind; the world of our thoughts.  It’s no wonder that Solomon wrote, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

How free are you inside? In your inner being?

Are you free of the fear of what other people think?  (Or what you think they think?)

Are you free of negativity, complaining and griping?

Are you free of gossip and slander?

Are you free of greed, jealousy and envy?

The Holy One of Israel set us free, not that we should enslave ourselves all over again, but that we should live productive, loving and meaningful lives.

In Tune with Torah this week = during this major biblical holiday, take some time to have that ‘check up from the neck up’ and purpose to embrace the godly freedom that will propel you forward in your journey towards holiness.

May each of you be blessed in abundance this Passover week.  Let all of the ‘leaven of this world’ be eliminated and embrace with passion the purpose and destiny of your soul.

Shabbat Shalom and a wonderful Passover week to you all!

Weekly Torah Commentary — Bamidbar May 23, 2014

BAMIDBAR/NUMBERS 1:1 – 4:20

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. Numbers” is the name by which the fourth of the Five Books of Moses is commonly called in English Bibles, but in the Hebrew original it is known as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” Of particular interest is the fact that this is the Torah portion always precedes the Festival of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. Why is that?

We know that Israel is called to be a ‘light to the nations’; we are called to ‘be holy as I am holy, says the Lord’, Consequently, Shavuot is not just a celebration of an historical event, not just a remembrance of that awesome day when God Himself descended on Mt. Sinai and gave us His Torah. As great as that is, Shavuot is more than that.

God could have chosen to give the Torah to Avraham. He didn’t. He could have given it to Jacob and his twelve sons. He didn’t. He could have given it in the holy city of Jerusalem. He didn’t. He chose the wilderness, the desert, as the suitable place for this awesome event.

THe desert is a no-man’s land. It is ownerless and barren. Just as a desert is empty and desolate, so does each of us need to know that we are but an “empty vessel.” Humility is an essential character if we are to successfully absorb the divine wisdom in the words of Torah – and those of the prophets as well.

As long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions, we will not be able to integrate the essence and spirit of the Torah into our hearts and lives. Even when we think we know a good deal about the sacred writings, the truth is, as the old proverb describes, “the older I get, the less I know” or as one of the Sages wrote, “as much as you know, you are still an undeveloped wilderness.”

Another reason we can consider to answer the question, Why did God give the Torah in the desert?, is that an ownerless wilderness is open to anyone. No person or group of people has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not just the rabbis or the yeshivah students, or the religiously observant. “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Add to that, the multitudes of descendants of Jewish ancestry that in our day are making their way home; those described in the prophet Ezekiel, as the ‘house of Israel’ are being reunited with the ‘house of Judah’ though they have lived as Gentiles because of past generations’ assimilation under persecution. It is an astonishing and inspiring phenomenon as we today witness, for example, literally thousands of descendants of the generation of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and France, re-connecting to that holy spark of their ancestors and returning to the Torah, for the Torah is also theirs.

While we acknowledge that there is much hard work ahead of us if we are to acquire the Torah and make it ours, we also know that with diligence and effort we can succeed. Some of Judaism’s finest Torah scholars throughout the generations have emerged from the simple, ordinary folks; shepherds, tailors, cobblers and the like.

Now, while this holy Torah, given in the wilderness, is available to all, it is those who embrace it with love, who let go of preconceived notions and attitudes, and the inclination to ‘pick and choose’ among the commandments, who progressively discover a living relationship with the God of Israel, the joy of which is un-equalled by any other relationship or experience. Rightly did David cry out, “In Your presence is fulness of joy; at Your right hand, are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16:11

For this, in fact, is the heart of Shavuot: that the the God of Israel ‘married’ the people of Israel and the Ketubah (marriage contract) is the Torah. The Torah was NOT given to establish a religious system, contrary to what some may think. The Torah was given to establish a living, breathing, pulsing, joyful and intimate relationship between God and His people.

This statement does not in any way demean Judaism as a religion; rather, it is intended to highlight the GOAL of Judaism – to provide a framework where His chosen people, learning and living according to the Torah, would become a community, a nation, that would demonstrate the incomparable beauty of a living relationship with the Almighty. To observe the mitzvot and the traditions of Judaism without the inner, personal relationship with God misses the mark entirely.

As Maimonides has commented on this verse: Behold, I have take the Levites from amongst the children of Israel… and the Levites shall be Mine (3:12)

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man of all the inhabitants of the earth whose spirit has moved him and whose mind has given him to understand to set himself aside to stand before G-d to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d and walk justly as G-d has created him, and he casts from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek–this man has become sanctified, a holy of holies, and G-d shall be his portion and his lot forever, and shall merit him his needs in this world, as He has merited the Kohanim and the Levites.”

In Tune with Torah this week = may the very title of this week’s reading, “Bamidabar/the Wilderness”, and the significance of it which we have briefly discussed, give us ample food for thought as we prepare ourselves for the upcoming Festival of Shavuot, which will be observed from sundown, June 3 through sundown, June 4th. May we embrace the Torah anew with joy and earnestness, so that this important festival will be both memorable and meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Kedoshim/Shabbat Pesach Apr. 19, 2014

KEDOSHIM Leviticus 19-20 Exodus 12:21-51

This Shabbat falls during the festival of Passover and therefore, a specially chosen reading is heard in the synagogue service; i.e., the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. It is found in Exodus 12: 21-51 and I encourage you to read it during your quiet time.

However, for our purposes, I want to look at the Torah portion called Kedoshim which covers the 19th and 20th chapter of Leviticus. The opening words of the reading are an invitation that includes the entire congregation in a unique directive:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to all the congregation of the People of Israel, and say to them, ‘You shall be holy; for I, The Eternal and Almighty God, am holy. (Vayikra 19:1-2)

Since the customary “God spoke to Moshe, saying” is expanded with the words ‘speak to the entire congregation’, we can assume that the message about to be shared is of the utmost importance and concerns every child of Israel from the greatest to the least. The words that immediately follow are, “you shall be holy,” yet the Torah does not define holiness, or even tell us precisely what to do to achieve holiness.

Countless definitions of holiness — or what it means to be a holy person — have been offered through the centuries. One thing is absolutely certain: holiness is NOT a matter of perfectly executed external rituals, performed in rote fashion. G-d forbid! Rituals DO have their place as a way of expressing our love towards God – and towards others. Celebrating a family member’s birthday, for example, is a ‘ritual’. Giving your prospective bride an engagement ring is a ‘ritual’.

There’s nothing wrong with ritual correctly applied. There is EVERYTHING wrong with ritual when it is a substitute for personal relationship with the Receiver. In the classic work, THE WAYS OF THE TZADDIKIM, we read, “There is no form of Divine Service higher than serving God out of love.”

Holiness is all about the heart, the soul. Holiness is all about LOVE.

In the Shema, we repeat the commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources…” And in another place we are told, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

No one can achieve holiness in a vacuum. The Torah knows nothing of holiness outside of living in community with other people. How do we learn to love all men (‘your neighbor as yourself)? By giving of ourselves.

Perhaps one of the greatest exhortations to a life of holiness is found in a personal letter written by the Ramban (Rabbi Moss ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides) to his son, Nachman. The Ramban was born is Spain in the year 1195 and was one of Judaism’s greatest Sages. A prolific writer of classic texts on the Torah, at the age of 72, he settled in Israel, in the coastal city of Acco (Acre). We do not know the exact date on which he wrote this letter to his son, but we do know it was sent from Acco to Spain, where his son lived. To this day, these words are studied by thousands of Jews, eager to learn how to live a life of holiness. Here is a portion of the letter.

“…Accustom yourself to speak gently with all people for this will protect you from anger, a most serious character flaw…Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart. This sterling quality is the finest of all admirable traits…Through humility, the fear of God will intensify in your heart for you will always be aware of where you’ve come from and where you are destined to go…. When your actions display genuine humility…then the spirit of God’s presence will rest upon you…Let your words be spoken gently….let all men seem greater than you in your eyes. If another is more wise or wealthy than you, you must show him respect. And if he is poorer than you…consider that he may be more righteous than you are. If he sins, it may be through ignorance, while if you sin, it is deliberate for you should know better….In all your words, actions and thoughts — at all times — imagine that you are standing in the presence of the Holy One…”

This isn’t even the entire letter but there is more than enough in these excerpts to give us pause and to nourish our thoughts regarding our personal growth in holiness. The exhortations of the Ramban to his son regarding how he should behave towards others is simply a pattern for developing not only a love for other people, but that holiness which God has called all of us to achieve.

In Tune with Torah this week = As this week is devoted to meditating on the miraculous deliverance from slavery which our ancestors experienced, it behooves us to ponder our own condition. Are we ‘delivered’ from slavery to selfishness, to arrogance, to haughtiness? Or are we growing in our ability to love others as we love ourselves and to love God with all our heart, soul and resources?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach (A Joyful Holiday of Passover)