Weekly Torah Commentary – Kedoshim May 6, 2016

Leviticus 19-20

In last week’s Torah portion, we were given several commandments prohibiting certain behaviors.  In this week’s reading, we move to positive commandments.

The section opens with these words:

The Lord also said to Moses, ‘Give the following instructions to the entire community of Israel.  You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy…….’Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.’

By connecting these two commandments within the section, we understand that from God’s point of view, there is no true holiness without loving others.  As has been said, ‘If you cannot love your brother whom you do see, how can you love God whom you do not see?’

Holiness is defined as the state or quality of being holy.  Becoming holy is a process  comprised of daily choices that in reality boil down to one fundamental choice: will I live by God’s instructions or not?

In this week’s portion, for instance, there are also the commands: ‘Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people’ and ‘Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives.’  Both of these relate directly to the commandment: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’

Every time we choose to bite our tongue rather than lash out in anger at someone else, we take a step towards holiness.  Every time I pass up the opportunity to gossip about someone, I take another step towards holiness.

Now here’s the rub.  We all get hurt – it’s part of life.  But…what we sometimes forget is this: we all hurt others as well.  It’s a two way street.  We may not intend it but it happens. If we want understanding and forgiveness from someone we may have offended, then it is incumbent upon us to be ready and willing to forgive those who offend or hurt us.

Centuries ago, Rabbi Akiva said: ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellowman; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”  In other words, treat other people the way you want to be treated yourself…and do it first!  Can you imagine what this world would be like if as a society we all lived by this principle?

Why don’t we?

Consider: Moses had ample opportunities to be offended.  Remember when his sister and brother spoke against him in Numbers 12?  Yet in that very passage, God called him ‘the most humble man in all the earth.’

Humility is not weakness; it is the fundamental character of a person who understands that we are all fallible; everyone of us makes mistakes.  Therefore, when someone behaves or speaks in a way that irks me or annoys me, rather than react in anger and lash out, humility causes me to take a step back and recognize my own fallibility.  As I do, an attitude of understanding and compassion can arise in me towards the offender.

That does not mean we just let people get away with anything and everything.  Absolutely not.  But it does mean that if I am in the position to address the offense and offer some correction or means of reconciliation, I do so maintaining respect for the offender, not belittling or demeaning him or her but communicating in a clear and appropriate manner, designed to minimize any damage to the relationship.

To walk in love towards others requires willingness on our part to exercise patience, kindness and humility.  To walk in love towards others is no small matter.  But it IS a commandment. Therefore, if we have dedicated our lives to following God and His Word, the choice has already been made.

May God help each of us to live up to our commitment.

In Tune with Torah this week = honestly assess how you are doing in this matter?  Do you love your spouse, your children, your neighbors, your co-workers, as you love yourself? What does that mean to you?

Shabbat shalom and a blessed weekend to you.




Weekly Torah Commentary — Re’eh Deut. 11:26 – 16-17 August 2, 2013

This week’s jam-packed portion opens with these words: “I set before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing: if you obey the commandments of God…; the curse if you do not … and you follow other gods.”

It continues with rules and laws for the land of Israel primarily oriented towards staying away from idol worship and from embracing the other religions in the land.

One of the indications of the existence and necessity of the Oral Torah — an explanation and clarification of the written Torah (The Five Books of Moses) — comes from verse 12:21 “You will slaughter animals … according to the manner I (God) have prescribed.” Nowhere in the Torah are we instructed in the manner of shechita, ritual slaughter. One might conclude that there was a very sloppy editor. Or — one might conclude that there are additional teachings clarifying and amplifying the written Word which is what is referred to as the Oral Torah, the instructions Moshe taught the people and which have been handed down throughout the generations.

The source of the Chosen People concept is found in 14:1-2: “You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord. God has chosen you from all nations on the face of the earth to be His own special nation.” We are chosen for responsibility, not privilege — to act morally and to be a “light unto the nations.”

The Torah states, “For if you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him…” (Deuteronomy 11:22). How does one “cleave to the Almighty?”

The Torah tells us that even someone who appears to be highly observant of the commandments and loves God, must show in his behavior and interactions with others that he is an imitator of God (“to walk in all His ways”). Only then can a person be considered as one who cleaves to Him. Emulating God means being compassionate and bestowing kindness on others. (“He is merciful so we should be merciful, He bestows kindness, so we should bestow kindness” — Rashi). One might think that a person who loves God need only devote himself to prayer and Torah study and by this means he will cleave to God. We see from this verse, however, that an essential ingredient in cleaving to God is caring about our fellow man.

It is by truly caring about others (you shall love your neighbor as yourself) that we show ourselves to be godly.

It is noteworthy that this parsha is read just before the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul which will begin on Tuesday of this coming week (actually at sundown on Monday). Elul, when spelled in Hebrew letters, is the acronym for the words, “I am to my beloved, my beloved is to me” (ani l’dodi v’dodi li — oftentimes it will be inscribed on the inside of an engagement ring).

The month of Elul is a time of heightened spirituality where the Almighty is, as it were, closer and more approachable. It is a time of introspection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time to do a spiritual audit and to fix up your life.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we approach the month of Elul, let us take very seriously the admonition to use this coming month as an opportunity to do a true “check up from the neck up” – to examine ourselves and our thought life as it is our thoughts that give birth to our words and our behaviors. How are we doing at loving others as we love ourselves, for example? This is the month to search our own souls and determine to grow in godliness in the new Hebrew year which will begin on September 4, 2013.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Devarim July 12, 2013

Having completed this year’s study of Bamidbar/Numbers last week, this week we open to the first portion of Devarim/Deuteronomy. The book opens with the message, “These are the sayings that Moshe told to all Israel…”
and continues a couple of verse later by saying, “Moshe began explaining the Torah….”

From these statements we understand that the Torah was given not just to the generation at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but to all Jews in every generation since then. It was a national gift, a constitution for the budding nation. While it is true that each of us has mitzvot/commandments to observe, the intent of the Torah is bigger than the individual. It was given to “all Israel”.

Each action of the individual Jew does in fact affect every other Jew. We are all connected in a very deep and significant way because of the covenant between the God of Israel and His people. Think of it this way: Every cell of your body exists for its specific task of promoting and guarding the health of your body as a whole. A heart cell does not get jealous of a liver cell; a kidney cell does not envy a brain cell. Each one fulfills its distinct purpose for the good of the entire body. So, too, is every Jew tasked to live his or her individual life in such a way that all of Israel benefits. This sense of community is at the very heart of Judaism.

That is not to minimize in any way the patriotism or sense of community found in the citizens of other nations — not at all. What we are saying is that fundamentally our Jewish sense of community derives from the encounter of God with our father, Avraham; it was confirmed to Yitzhak and Ya’acov and the Torah was given through Moshe. Our connection is spiritual from its very inception.

So, too, is our connection to the Land which God has chosen. The Chosen Land and the Chosen People are one. God promised the land of Israel to Avraham and his descendants forever. Early in this week’s reading, Moshe tells the people, “Enough of your dwelling by this mountain. Turn yourselves around and journey…” In modern terms we might say it this way, “Leave the comfort and convenience of exile and go to the Land where you belong.”

We are well aware that many Jews have made “Aliya” (which means ‘to go up’) to Israel in recent years. They have in fact left their place of birth, family, friends and careers to come to Israel and start anew. But the concept of ‘Aliya’ is broader than just physically moving.

“Aliya” begins in exile; it begins with a change of mind, a change of heart, a life-altering decision. The actual move to Israel is the result of that earlier decision and commitment.

The concept of “aliya” (to go up) yields spiritual ramifications as well. Life is a process of ‘aliya’ – a journey of going from one level of spiritual maturity to the next. Each change within ourselves that we decide to make is ‘aliya’ – going up higher. There is always a measure of risk in growth, in change. Stepping into the unknown or the little known is a scary proposition.

For the Jews coming home to Israel, a deep and abiding faith in God’s covenant with this Land and with His people is fundamental to a successful ‘aliya’. Add to that, a sincere love for the Land and for one’s fellow Jew and a successful aliya is virtually assured.

Rav Avraham Kook, of blessed memory, taught that it was incumbent upon us to love the Land that God loves and to love the people that God loves. He was a master at finding the good in every person he met. He used to teach that Ahavat Yisrael (the love of Israel, both the land and the people) was not an emotion; it was a commandment and in keeping it, we reflect the same kind of love that God Himself shows towards the Land and His people.

Rav Kook also taught us that the greatest way to protect our Land from its enemies is by increasing unity within the nation. That doesn’t mean letting other issues slide; what it does mean is not allowing those issues to overshadow the main task of promoting love and unity among our own people. Divisions and hostilities weaken the spiritual fabric of the Land. May God help us!

In just a few days, we as a nation will be observing Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. The reason we lost the Temple and our Land was because of baseless hatred towards one another. When strife and divisions abound, love for one another wanes and so does the love of our Land. How appropriate that this is the Shabbat we should be pondering these principles.

I am well aware that not all of my readers live in Israel; in fact not all of you are Jews. But the underlying principles apply universally – in families, towns, cities, and nations.

In Tune with Torah this week = The familiar psalm comes to mind, “How blessed it is when brethren dwell together in unity….there the blessing flows…” Wherever you are this Shabbat, ask yourself how well you are promoting unity, love and peace in your own home, your own community, your own country.

“If My people, who are called by My Name, will humble themselves, turn from their wicked ways…….then will I heal their Land.” Israel needs this healing but so do all the other nations of the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Lech Lecha October 26, 2012

In keeping with our theme for this year — finding inspiration in every week’s Torah portion regarding the cardinal commandment to love our fellow man — we look this week at Hashem’s commandment to Abram (later to become Abraham) to leave his native land and his father’s house and go to the Land that Hashem will show him.

What is intriguing is that in “Lech Lecha”, the words that identify this portion, God is literally saying to Abram, ‘Go for yourself’ meaning ‘Go for your own sake…’ He followed this command with the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be a source of blessing to the entire world: “And I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse; and in you will all the families of the earth be blessed.”

It sounds at first glance as though Abraham is being sent for the benefit of the world, rather than ‘for his own sake’. Quite the opposite.

Abram’s choice to follow God’s command was the strategic decision of his life. Had he not followed, he would not be the Patriarch that he is, the Father of many nations that he is, the progenitor of the chosen people that He is. Had he chosen to ignore God’s call, Abram would have utterly failed to fulfill the destiny for which he was born and the repercussions would have been devastating for millions upon millions of people throughout the generations. This scenario underscores a vital issue that touches every one of us.

Every human being is born with a destiny bigger than him/her self. To choose God’s way and will for your life is first and foremost the highest ‘gift’ you give yourself; i.e., the opportunity to fulfill the purpose for which you were created. Any lasting good that you or I can do for others is predicated on this critical choice. “Go for your own sake…” means that in choosing to follow God’s call, Abram embraced and acted upon this truth: Fulfilling the purpose for which I was created and put on this earth is more important than my historical lineage, more important than my geographical homeland, more important than my occupation or ‘career’, more important even than upholding my parents’ traditions when those traditions and beliefs are contrary to the truth.

It did not mean that Abraham cared little for his father and mother, for his family; it meant that he loved God more — and that he had a healthy self-respect that demanded he commit himself to fulfill his destiny, even in the face of opposition and uncertainty.

You cannot love your neighbor unless you first love yourself enough to make right choices. In essence, God’s challenge to Abraham was this: I want to use you, Abraham, to bless the entire world in every generation to come. For Me to do so, however, requires that you make the vital decision to follow My path for your life. Will you do it? Selah…..

A bit later in the Torah portion we read that there was strife between Abraham’s herdsmen and those of his nephew, Lot. Lot’s workers, with Lot’s agreement, were trespassing on land belonging to the Canaanites and the Perizzites who were living in the Land at that time. This action could easily have precipitated a major conflict.

Abram wanted peace and though he was the Elder and the one to whom God had promised the Land, and therefore would have been well within his rights to dictate the terms, he chose the path of humility. “So Abram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no strife between me and you and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen for we are brothers. Is not all the Land before you? Please, separate from me. If you go left, then I will go right, and if you go right,then I will go left.’ “

There are many things we can learn from this exchange. Among those lessons is this: clearly, Abram ascribed more value to his relationship with his nephew than to his position of preeminence. Abram would have been well within his rights to choose and legislate to his nephew where he could take his flocks and his workers. But that is not the approach he chose.

Abram believed God’s promise; he felt no need to fight for what God had already promised him. He felt no need to exert any superiority. He was far more concerned with achieving peace.

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself…’ In his interactions with Lot, Abram left us a powerful example not only of how to show love and respect towards your fellow man, but also how humility is the path to greatness. The Elder set an example that has reverberated through the ages.

In Tune with Torah this week: no one truly fulfills their personal destiny by trampling on others or clawing their way past those around them. The path of peace, humility and respect for others is the surest, if not the quickest, way to becoming the person you were created to be.