Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why did My Brother Have to Die so Young?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parasha Chukat

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
Last week my brother, Sam, died. He was young and in the peak of his academic career. He had struggled with cancer for a while, but in the end, it just got him. I can’t express how devastating all this is to our entire family. Seeing Sam suffer, getting weaker and weaker until his system just shut down was unbearable. I can’t stop crying and crying, feeling this is so unfair. Sam was a good person, brother, husband and father, why did he have to get sick and die at his prime? Why does his wife have to be widowed and his teenage children orphans? I normally would not contact a Rebbetzin, since I am not religious, but a friend told me that you are a healer and that you may be able to help comfort me.
Susan Avila (name changed)

Dear Susan,
Mount of Olives 
My heartfelt condolences go out to you and your entire family. Illness and death are the hardest part of life. There are no words. There is only trying to share your pain. When, in the Bible, Aharon lost his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, he suffered in silence, as it states, “…they died before Hashem… and Aharon was silent” (Vayikra 10:2-3). I wish I could just give you a big hug and cry with you. I also wish I could answer your questions of why your brother had to die young. Even those of us who are religious do not understand Hashem’s ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares Hashem. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Yesha’yahu 55:8-9). We just accept the incomprehensible as Hashem’s will, as He is the true judge. 

Death is the Bridge of Life
As hard as it is when someone dies, believing that death is the end and this world is all there is to life makes it even harder. In the Jewish tradition, as mentioned in numerous Talmudic passages, Midrash etc., this world is only a small part of our eternal spiritual existence. We enter this world in order to fulfill a specific G-d given mission. When we have achieved what we came here to accomplish, then our time in this world is up. Therefore, rather than saying that someone died, we use the expression ‘departed,’ which indicates that the person is only departing from this world, while his or her soul lives forever. Rabbi Tucainsky in his book, Gesher Hachaim (the Bridge of Life), gives a parable of twins in the womb. One believes that departing the womb is the end of life, whereas the other believes that it is just the beginning. “Rabbi Ya’akov says, This World is the antechamber that leads to the Next World. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you can enter the banquet hall” (Pirkei Avot 4:16). We cannot prove absolutely that there is life after death. That’s where emunah (belief) comes in. However, many stories of near death experiences by both Jews and non-Jews confirm the Torah descriptions of the afterlife.

Perceiving the Hidden Good in Every Hardship
Originally, Adam and Eve were supposed to have been immortal. However, when they ate from the Tree and brought evil into the world and into themselves, their bodies were no longer pure enough to enjoy eternal life. Death and decomposition of the physical became necessary as the purification process that allows the recharged soul to re-enter the renewed body at the end of days. Due to the impurity that we ingested by eating from the Tree, we now suffer negative emotions such as jealousy, power- greed and cravings. When we work on our character and our cravings, we purify our body and enable the soul to dominate the body. This can also be accomplished through suffering and sickness (May we be able to avoid it!). Illness causes the body to disintegrate, thus allowing the soul to dominate. Consequently, the purpose of illness and suffering is to act as purifying agents, as it states, “Just as salt rectifies meat, so does suffering clean the sins of a person” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 5a). When we believe in the Almighty, Who is ultimate good, we have faith that even though we cannot understand why good people have to suffer, there is a deeper reason that actually is for the benefit of each person. One day, in another lifetime, when we reach a different level of consciousness, it will all make sense, and we will be able to perceive the hidden good of every hardship.

Dying through a Divine Kiss
In this week’s parasha both Miriam and Aharon pass away:
וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר צִן בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם:
(ספר במדבר פרק כ  פסוק א)
“Then the children of Israel and the whole congregation came into the desert of Zin, in the first month and the people abode in Kadesh. Then Miriam died there, and was buried there” (Bamidbar 20:1).

The Talmud teaches that both of them died by a Divine kiss (Baba Batra 17a). What does it mean to die through a Supernal kiss?  Rambam explains that when a person who has perfected himself to a high degree is about to die, his understanding of the higher worlds, which are usually far beyond our grasp, becomes clearer. Thus, the soul is happy to leave the body and get closer to Hashem. This happiness results from Hashem’s kindness which makes death so much easier. In such a case, the moment of death is not even noticed (Moreh Nevuchim 3:51). Death through a Divine kiss is compared to the ease with which a hair can be removed from milk. In the case of the wicked, death is compared to a ball of wool entangled in thorns which need to be yanked away in order to remove them (Berachot 8a). Since hair represents materialism and milk is spiritual in its white purity, why is the lightest of all forms of death compared to removing a hair from milk and not the other way around? In truth, hair represents the body and milk the soul. However, spiritual giants such as Moshe, Aharon and Miriam were almost all soul. The part of their body which was not illuminated by their soul was like a tiny, thin, little peel- like a minute hair that could easily be removed in order to allow their souls to bask in the rays of the Divine spiritual realms (Rabbi Label Lam, Torah.org). Thus, the degree of difficulty of death corresponds to the extent of the soul’s entanglement within the coarseness of the body.

Reunited with the Divine
How do we know that Miriam indeed died through a Divine kiss? It states about both Moshe and Aharon that they died עַל פִּי הָשֵׁם/al pi Hashem – by Hashem’s mouth. This expression is not used in regards to Miriam. Rabbi Abahu said, Miriam also died through a [Divine] kiss, as it states, “there,” which is the same word used to describe Moshe’s death. “Moshe died there, the servant of Hashem in the Land of Moav by the mouth of Hashem” (Baba Batra 17a). “The righteous are alive even when they die” (Berachot 18a). They don’t die in this world only there – in the-World-to-Come. Hashem shows them the greatness of the light, which is their portion in the afterlife. Then because of their great love and desire to be reunited with the light of Hashem, they do not want to return to this world. “There” – in the World-to-Come they are gathered to their people and reunited with the Divine (Kedushat Halevi, Rebbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdizchov 1898).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Why Can I not Be Free and Let My Hair Loose?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Korach

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
When I was reading your commentary on the parsha I came across the story about On’s wife. The commentary was in English, and for me, the crux seems to hang on the precise translation of ONE word. In the English translation of Tractate Sanhedrin it says that On’s wife “untied” her hair- not uncovered! To me, this implies that her hair was braided or otherwise bound, and she unbraided it or let it down. Perhaps, that was a sign that she was getting ready to be intimate with her husband? Do you know what the exact Hebrew word is in Talmud Sanhedrin? Moreover, the fact that she saved her husband’s life by untying her hair seems to indicate, that releasing the hair is a positive thing. It equals saving lives, and therefore it must be good to untie or reveal the hair! I don’t see any of these sources being clear enough to justify the obligation to cover one's hair. I also still can’t accept this whole notion that just because they covered their hair then, therefore, we must cover it now. Also, how come the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife showed hair from under her hats? Thanks for your time and patience.
Tammy Locks (name changed)

Dear Tammy,
As always, I’m happy to answer your questions. You are correct. In Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a, the wife of On ben Pelet is described as disarranging her hair. The original Aramaic in the Talmud is וסתרתה למזיה/v’sitrata l’mezeiah. She ‘let her hair loose’ to discourage the congregation of Korach from entering their house, in order to collect her husband to join his rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. Seeing her flowing hair, they retreated. In this way, On’s wife indeed saved her husband’s life, by preventing him from joining Korach’s congregation and sharing their fate of being buried alive or burned by heavenly fire. when the earth opened to swallow them up. Since, the mitzvah to save lives overrides all other mitzvot, the act of On’s wife was, therefore, as you write, extremely good and a mitzvah, just as it is a mitzvah to drive a car on Shabbat in order to bring a woman in labor to the birthing clinic. The commentaries explain that On’s wife acted this way because the hair of a [married] woman is considered to be the same as her private parts (שער באשה ערוה) (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 24a, Yad Rama, Sanhedrin 109b). On’s wife knew how holy all of Israel is. Even the opponents of Moshe and Aharon would not enter a house where the hair of a married woman is loose. If the hair of a married woman was normally uncovered, why would just untying her hair make Jewish men turn away? Rather it makes sense that the men turned away since they were not used to seeing a a married woman’s lose and uncovered hair.

Additional Holiness Requires More Coverings
I get numerous questions regarding hair covering; a topic that I already addressed in Parashat Naso, so I will be brief. I understand that it is a burning issue and that it is very difficult for many women to cover their hair, especially when living in a secular society. I imagine that you want to be free and let it all loose, rather than experience the restrictive feeling of being all covered up. I know the feeling, for I used to have long loose hair. I have exchanged my graceful dangling locks with long flowing colorful hair scarves, which became kind of my trademark! The makeover was never difficult. In Jerusalem, 1979, when I became newly religious and part of the Yeshiva world, hair covering was considered a crown of honor. Single women could hardly wait until they got married and adorn themselves by wrapping their hair with a beautiful flowing scarf. Our hair covering attested that we had finally entered the higher echelon of married women. There is a principle in the Torah that the holier something is, the more covering it needs. This is why the Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) is carefully covered, as well as all the vessels in the Mishkan (tabernacle). When a woman marries, she rises to a state of greater holiness, as she is now ready to become a mother in Israel, and a partner with Hashem in bringing holy souls into the world. For this reason, she needs more coverings than a single woman does (Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, Ish u’beito).

Did All Famous Rebbetzins Cover All of Their Hair?
In regards to your question concerning the wife of the seventh Lubavicher Rabbi, showing part of her hair under her hats, my Chabad friends believe that she was wearing a wig under her hat, although it certainly doesn’t look like that in the photos. In any case, the photos that show the most hair were taken in the privacy of her dining room. Most of the public photos show less than a tefach of hair (the width of two fingers at the forehead and down to the ears), which is permitted according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, 1 Siman 58). It seems to me that there is too much preoccupation with what this and that Rebbetzin wears or doesn’t wear. The late Rebbetzin, Chaya Mussia may also have struggled with hair covering, like many Chassidic young women, who came from Russia in the early 20th century, influenced by the enlightenment movement and the decline in observance under the Communist regime. Perhaps this is what spurred her husband, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to engage in a systematic campaign to promote and restore the mitzvah of hair covering for observant, married women. The Rebbe asserted that Jewish law demands that all – and not just part – of a married woman’s hair be covered (Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 75:2, Tzemach Tzedek, Responsa Even Haezer 139). He wanted to supplant the widespread aversion to appearing different and “too Jewish” with a strong sense of identity and pride. Still, he was sensitive to a woman’s concern with her appearance. For this reason, he advocated the wearing of wigs as opposed to scarves, which he recognized as an unattractive, even untenable option for most Jewish young women in America. The Rebbe worried that most women, even the more pious, would not wear scarves consistently and in a manner that covered all of their hair (http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/840202/jewish/The-Lubavitcher-Rebbe-on-Hair-Covering.htm).

Hair Covering Preserves a Woman’s Energy
Today, exciting headscarves have received a great renaissance. “Wrapunzel,” celebrating the art of head wrapping is only one example of the revival of women’s hair-coverings. You can be creative with your wrappings, using several scarves in different colors, tying them in new and artistic ways. Some women may prefer a fancy hat or even a wig. The choice is theirs, as long as they find a way of covering their hair that feels good to them. Here is a reason for women’s hair covering that I found really convincing: hair contains the lowest energy/matter ratio. That is why one can completely severe the hair all the way to the scalp while experiencing minimal pain. When the spiritual energy is reduced to a minimum, the potential for negativity and unholiness grows vastly. Spiritual forces of darkness, the kelipah, seek to feed off that type of weakened/darkened energy. By covering her hair, the woman prevents spiritual energy from flowing to the wrong places, while maintaining it for herself and her immediate family (Rabbi Tzvi Shapiro).

Kabbalistic Blessings 
The Zohar explains that by covering her hair, a woman brings tremendous blessings to herself and her family. A wife must be covered, even in the inside corners of her home. If she keeps this, it is written, “Your children are like olive plants” (Tehillim 128:3). What does it mean, “Like olive plants”? Just as an olive tree does not lose its leaves in winter or summer and is more valuable than other trees, so, too, will her sons be elevated above others. Her husband will also be blessed in everything, with the blessings above and with the blessings below, with wealth, children and grandchildren. This is what is meant by, “Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears Hashem” (Ibid. 4), and “Hashem shall bless you out of Tzion: and you shall see the good of Yerushalayim all the days of your life, and you shall see your children’s children, and peace upon Yisrael” (Tehillim 128:5-6); (Zohar Part 3, 126a).

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is it Dangerous to Live in Israel?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Shelach
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I grew up in NY and received a Chareidi education. While I love my family and my community, I somehow feel out of place here. I’m yearning for greater spirituality and closeness to Hashem and really wanted to live in the Holy Land or at the very least visit and get inspired. When I asked my Rabbi about going to Israel, he responded that it is not a good idea, because it is dangerous. So, I listened to my Rabbi and stayed in NY for an entire year, but I still feel torn. I want to respect my Rabbi, but on the other hand, I’m really miserable and lonely in NY, and my heart is telling me that my place is in Israel. What do you think? I really hope you can help advise me what to do, because I cannot go on like this.
Fayga Samuels (name changed)

Dear Fayga,
B'erot student trip to Kever Shimshon (Samson)
I commend you on your desire to do the right thing and respect your Rabbi. It is indeed very important in the Torah that we respect our Rabbis, otherwise each person would just do “whatever is straight in their eyes” and that would certainly undermine the authority of Jewish law. On the other hand, if your Rabbi tells you to disregard a fundamental mitzvah in the Torah, which numerous other respectable Orthodox Rabbis uphold, then you cannot follow your rabbi blindly. The soul of every Jew has a Divine spark, and when we truly yearn for closeness with Hashem and for truth, we receive guidance, that may differ from our Rabbis’ advice. When we desire to respect our rabbis, yet simultaneously listen to our inner voice, we can ask our Rabbi for advice rather than for a halachic decision which is binding upon us. The nature of your question to your rabbi sounds more like a request for advice rather than for a halachic ruling, and it is therefore not binding.

Overcoming Fears to Receive Hashem’s Protection
In this week’s parasha, we learn about the sin of the spies. They were the selected leaders of their tribes. Nevertheless, they sinned because they thought it was dangerous to conquer the Land of Israel. For thousands of years, throughout the generations, we still bear the consequences of the sin of the spies. Thus, we fast for their sin and ours every year on the 9th of Av. Hashem has promised us the Land of Israel numerous times, and in recent time, He has wrought great miracles for us, so that after two thousand years of exile, finally, the Promised Land is once again in Jewish hands. Nevertheless, we are still filled with fears, because we do not have enough bitachon, (trust) in Hashem’s promise. I’m not just blaming your rabbi; we all share some of his fear, each of us with a different fear threshold. For some people, the entire land of Israel seems dangerous. Others fear visiting the settlements on the other side of the green line. Then again, some people are afraid to pray at the holy burial site of our patriarchs and matriarchs in the city of Chevron. Even some of the most courageous of us may still be afraid to drive through Arab settlements, in our own country! Divine providence and protection depends on the level of our bitachon. “He who trusts in Hashem will be surrounded by kindness” (Tehillim 32:10). If a person’s trust in Hashem is perfect, the angels of Heaven watch his every footstep, so that nothing in the world can possibly harm him (Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, Parashat Mikeitz). Even if many harsh decrees have been passed in Heaven against a person, his trust in Hashem can protect him and prevent the punishment from befalling him (The Ba’al Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov).  As David HaMelech said, “He who trusts in Hashem is like the Mountain of Tzion, which will never falter and will remain forever” (Tehillim 121:1). Thus, the more we trust Hashem, and delight in the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel, the more we draw down His Divine providence and protection. This is congruent with the concept of the law of attraction, so popular in the new age movement.

Continuing the Sin of the Spies
“The great sages would kiss the borders of Eretz Yisrael, kiss its stones, and roll in its dust. as, it states ‘Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust’” (Tehillim 102:15); (Rambam, Laws of Kings 5:10). Why does the Rambam include these deeds in his halacha book? We would expect such stories to belong in a book of Jewish ethics, rather than in a book of Jewish law. The reason is to teach us that it is not enough to live in the Land of Israel. We are moreover obligated to love our good and Holy Land. The sin of the spies was that they spoke Lashon Hara about the Land of Israel, saying, “It is a land that eats its inhabitants” (Bamidbar 13:32), thus making the land undesirable to their generation. They moreover sinned by their fear and lack of trusting in Hashem, saying, that it is impossible to conquer the Promised Land. Although the prohibition of Lashon Hara only pertains to speaking about people, and not about trees and stones, it is still forbidden to speak Lashon Hara about the Land of Israel. The reason is that speaking badly about the Land of Israel prevents the revelation of Hashem’s name in the world, which specifically is revealed in the Holy Land. Therefore, the punishment of those who speak against the Land of Israel is very serious. Even the holy generation, who received the Torah at Sinai, was punished by the decree of death and 40 years of wandering in the desert because of their despondency regarding the Land of Israel (Rav Eliezer Melamed, Yishuv Ha’Aretz p. 15).

Protecting the General Community of Israel from Danger
We can’t really be sure where in the world it is dangerous to live. Recently, there have been terrorist attacks in both North America and Europe. Life in general is dangerous. Just getting into a car anywhere…. but we cannot live in constant fear. When our time is up, it’s up. So, we may as well live where we can best serve Hashem, and for a Jew that is in Eretz Yisrael. If every Jew was afraid to live in the Land of Israel, it would not only be much more dangerous to live in Israel, it would be extremely dangerous for a Jew to live anywhere in the world. The fact that the Land of Israel is in Jewish hands ensures that a holocaust can never be repeated. Even if it would be more dangerous to live in Israel than elsewhere, we are still required to endanger ourselves somewhat, to save the lives of another Jew, as it states, “You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood” (Vayikra 19:16). Rabbi Melamed teaches that to live in a Yishuv, in a disputed area that borders Arab villages protects the lives of Jews in the rest of Israel. Therefore, it is a great mitzvah to live in such a place even if it may be somewhat dangerous, since this protects the general community of Israel from danger.   

The Merit of Eretz Yisrael Protects Us
The merit of the Land of Israel protects us from danger. The Ba’al HaTanya wrote when he was released from prison: “This was all Hashem’s doing. He has arranged this by virtue of the merit of the Holy Land and its inhabitants. This is what stood by our side and will always assist in relieving us from the oppressor and delivering us from distress” (David Tzvi Hillman, Iggrot Ba’a HaTanya, 62). This concept can be found in “I will remember My covenant with Ya’acov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham I will remember and I will remember the Land” (Vayikra 26:42). Rashi asks why the Patriarchs are written in the reverse. He explains, that Ya’acov the youngest is worthy to bring redemption, but if he is not sufficiently worthy, then Yitzchak is with him; but if he is not sufficiently worthy, then Avraham is with him (Rashi, Ibid.). Rabbi Teichtal takes Rashi’s commentary a step further and explains that we can learn from the sequence of our Torah verses, that even if the merit of all the Patriarchs runs out, still “I will remember the land” –the merit of Eretz Yisrael will deliver us from distress (Eim HaBanim Semeichah pp. 33-34). Your soul, Fayga, yearns to live in Israel since it knows the truth: there is nothing to fear when it comes to the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel – a mitzvah which is the equivalent of all the Mitzvot in the Torah (Sifrei, Parashat Re’eh 28).  “A person should live in the land of Israel – even in a city where the majority are non-Jews. He should not live outside of Israel, even in a city that is predominately populated by Jews” (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:12). So, I hope that you will follow your heart and join us in the Holy Land!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Is Judaism Racist?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat B’ha’alotcha

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
There is something that really bothers me alot in the Torah. Why does the Torah relegate Cham’s descendants – the African black people- to be slaves? This seems to touch upon racism and intolerance. Personally, my son is Tibetan (Mongol). In my large family, there is a lot of diversity and a real deep openness to different ethnic groups and cultures. Diversity, unity and solidarity are important qualities towards which we should all aspire. So why does the Torah, at times, seem so chauvinistic, favouring only Jews – the Chosen People? What’s wrong with coloured people? Wasn’t Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, black? Also Yishmael, the father of the Arab nations, is called a “wild person” in the Torah. I believe that redemption will come when we all learn true tolerance, love and forgiveness.
Anna Newman (name changed)

Dear Anna,
Herbal Workshop in Rebbetzin's Garden
Hashem gives every person, no matter from which ethnic culture or tribe a chance to rectify himself and get close to Him- each person according to his own particular way. Every human being, regardless of race or color, is Hashem’s dear and beloved child. However, this world is a linear world of hierarchy with different levels. Just as genetic predisposition is an important factor in the intelligence of people, so, too, there are different soul-levels according to their spiritual genetics. Although we are all created by G-d, some souls are purer channels for His Infinite Light, whereas other souls are surrounded by denser קליפות/kelipot – husks. Avraham and Sarah purified their souls through their immense kindness to all mankind and via the incredible tests that they went through with flying colors. Their soul rectification was so profound that it penetrated the very fibers of their being. Consequently, they were able to pass down their spiritual genetics to their son, Yitzchak, who in turn passed them down to his son, Ya’acov. All twelve sons of Ya’acov inherited this elevated soul-level from Avraham and Sarah. They became the twelve tribes of Israel from whom the Jewish people stem. Just as Avraham and Sarah were chosen to be teachers and beneficiaries of humankind, so, too, the role of Israel is to be “a light to the nations” (Yesha’yahu 49:6), by facilitating the soul rectification of all peoples.

Inheriting Evil
We all have free will, but when someone repeatedly chooses to do evil, then he causes the husk surrounding his soul to become denser and denser, making the rectification of his soul more difficult.   This is what happened to the evil Pharaoh, who hardened his own heart during the first five plagues, thereby causing Hashem to harden his heart during the final five plagues (see Rashi, Shemot 7:3). Certain evil actions have negative soul consequences not only for the perpetrator but also for his descendants. This was the case with the Amonite and Moabite men who became the antithesis of the Jewish people by their refusal to offer bread and water to the Israelites – the descendants of Avraham whom they owed their very existence, since he saved their forefather, Lot from annihilation. Thus, Amonite and Moabite men forfeited their male descendants’ opportunity to convert and become part of the Jewish people (Devarim 23:4).

The Curse of Canaan
We can answer your question about the curse of Cham’s descendants in a similar vein. Cham committed immorality with his father, Noach, either by raping or castrating him (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a cited in Rashi on Bereishit 9:22). The basis for the assertion that Noach was castrated is the fact that Noach cursed Cham’s fourth son, Canaan, (see Bereishit 9:25 and 10:6), because Cham prevented Noach from fathering a fourth son. The curse had absolutely nothing to do with skin color, but it is interesting to notice the repetition of the wordעֶבֶד /eved – slave/servant in Canaan’s curse:

“He said, Cursed be Canaan; anעֶבֶד /eved – slave/servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. He said, Blessed be Hashem, the G-d of Shem; but Canaan shall be his servant.
G-d shall enlarge Yafet, he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; but Canaan shall be his servant” (Bereishit 9:25-27).

This curse was fulfilled in the history of the African people who indeed were slaves for centuries.

Righteous Black Jews
The ability to convert excludes Judaism from being racist. There are many great colored converts who are fully accepted into the Jewish fold, regardless of their skin color. One of my best friends, who lives in Bat Ayin, has skin as black as pitch, while being an incredibly beautiful woman inside and out. Every person has an opportunity for rectification; even someone whose soul is enclosed by a dense husk due to his sins whether in this incarnation or in a prior incarnation or due to the sins of his parents. His rectification may be challenging, but nevertheless, he still has the opportunity to choose good and crack his husk, allowing the light of his soul to shine through. Regarding Yishmael, he has the great merit of being Avraham’s son. Nevertheless, “He shall be a wild person means that his descendants will engage in wars with all the nations. At first he will win over all the nations, but he will be conquered in the end (Ramban, Bereishit 16:12). In addition, the land of Israel was given to Yitzchak and his descendants- not to Yishmael and his children. When the descendants of Yishmael recognize this, then they too receive their rectification.

Who was the Cushite Woman?
במדבר פרק יב:א וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח:
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman…” (Bamidbar 12:1).

There are different opinions regarding the identity of the Cushite woman. Besides Rashi’s well-known commentary that it refers to Tziporah, both the midrash and Arizal explain that Moshe was actually married to an Ethiopian woman, before he met Tziporah. According to the Midrash, Moshe was eighteen years old when he ran away from Pharaoh’s palace and ended up in the land of Cush. After spending ten years in their army, he successfully helped them conquer a very fortified city. They made him king over them and gave him the Cushite noble woman (the wife of the late, previous king) for a wife. But Moshe feared the G-d of his forefathers and did not have intimacy with her, because he remembered how Avraham made his servant Eliezer swear, saying: “Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan” (Bereishit 24:37). After Moshe had ruled over Ethiopia for forty years, his ‘wife’ complained to the ministers: “Behold, for forty years this one has ruled over Cush, but he has never touched me, and he has never worshiped our idols!” They then agreed to make her son the king, and sent Moshe away with lots of gifts and with great honor. At this time, Moshe was 67 years old. It was still dangerous for him to return to Egypt, so he traveled to Midian, where he met Yitro. When Moshe told Yitro about what happened to him in Ethiopia, Yitro was concerned that the Ethiopians would become hostile to him if he offered Moshe asylum. He, therefore, threw Moshe into prison for ten years. After being let of out of jail, Moshe married Yitro’s daughter Tziporah, who had secretly sustained him while in prison. She bore him two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 2:168).

Was Tziporah, Moshe’s Wife Black?
The only name of Moshe’s wife written in the Torah is Tziporah (Shemot 2:16-22, 4:25, 18:2). Thus, Rashi associates the Cushite woman with Tziporah. Scripture calls her black to imply that all agreed as to her beauty, just as all agree to the blackness of an Ethiopian. Moreover, the numerical value of כֻשִׁית/Cushite (736) is the same as that of יפת מראה/yafat mareh – “a woman of beautiful appearance.” Just as a כֻּשִׁי/Cushi –a black skinned Ethiopian sticks out among white people, likewise Tziporah was noticeably different from others through her good deeds. Therefore, she was called כֻּשִׁית/Cushit – black skinned. Israel, too, are called Cushim, as it states, “You are like the children of the Cushites to Me, O children of Israel. Says Hashem” (Amos 9:7). Thus being associated with a כושי/Cushi – black-skinned person is used as a compliment in the Torah. May we not then conclude that Judaism is far from being racist?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Where does the Torah Mention the Obligation of Hair-Covering for Married Women?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Naso
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin Chana Bracha,
I’m having serious issues with head coverings. I am trying to understand the modesty aspect and I haven’t been able to find any place in the Torah that states that married women have to cover their hair. How do we know that women in the Bible actually covered their hair, perhaps the whole hair-covering business is something the Rabbis, who were men, made up? Even if women in the Torah did cover their hair, why would that imply that we must cover it now? If it is THAT important, why isn’t it implicit in the Torah?  Perhaps if I learned the deeper meaning behind women’s hair-covering, perhaps if I could connect with some underlying Kabbalistic reasons for married women’s hair-covering, then it may be easier. Otherwise, I really can’t pull this off in in the long run. Whenever I am around women who let their hair down, I don’t feel comfortable sticking out, so I can’t help letting my hair-covering slip. If you could please shed some light on this topic, it would mean a lot to me.
Ahuva Freeman (name changed)
Dear Ahuva,
Pre-wedding tichel party at B'erot!
As always, your questions show your deep desire to keep the mitzvot from a place of true connection. Certain mitzvot are not easy to keep when we live in a secular environment. From the time of the enlightenment period, when the Jews began to blend into the general society, the kipah was exchanged with a cap and women’s hair covering with an occasional doily. The ba’al teshuva movement beginning in the late sixties wove new strands into the fabric of the mitzvah of women’s hair covering. When I got married 36 years ago in Jerusalem, I had no qualms about covering my hair. On the contrary, I was excited to mark my entry into the realm of the married crowd with the crown of Jewish womanhood – the long flowing headscarf. However, When I look around today, I notice that not every woman in the orthodox camp share my enthusiasm about hair covering. Lately, the newest style has, in certain circles, reduced the mitzvah of women’s hair covering to a symbolic hair-covering. Some signify matrimony with a headband rather than using a proper hair covering. In our time at the verge of the final redemption, our secular environment greatly challenges the Torah world. This challenge prompts us delve deeper into the inner Torah (kabbalah) in order to truly connect with the mitzvot.

How do We Know that Married Women in the Bible Covered their Hair?
Before giving you a drop of Kabbalistic insights, I’d like to answer your question about how we know that women in the Bible indeed covered their hair. The Talmud (Ketubot 72a) learns the fact that married women would keep their hair covered from a passage describing the Sota – the woman who went astray. This woman, suspected of adultery, is brought before the Kohen.

ספר במדבר פרק ה פסוק יח וְהֶעֱמִיד הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הָאִשָּׁה לִפְנֵי הָשֵׁם וּפָרַע אֶת רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה...
“Then the Kohen makes the woman stand before Hashem and makes the woman’s head wild…” (Bamidbar 5:18).

Note that it does not state, “Make the woman’s hair wild,” but rather, “make the woman’s head wild.” How would it be possible to disarrange the head of the woman any other way than by uncovering it? The root word, פָּרַע/para, used to describe what the Kohen does to the woman’s head is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. It usually means unrestrained, or uncovered. Thus Rashi expounds on the verse, “Now Moshe saw that the people were uncovered (פרע/fara), for Aaron had made them uncovered...” (Shemot 32:25), that the shame and disgrace of the people were revealed. Regarding the suspected adulteress, Rashi explains, AND HE SHALL PUT IN DISORDER [THE WOMAN’S HEAD] – i.e. he pulls apart her hair plaits in order to make her look despicable. We may learn from this that regarding [married] Jewish women, an uncovered head is a disgrace to them (Siphre). (Rashi, Bamidbar 5:18). Since the whole procedure describing the Sota aims at a scornful treatment of the woman who has by her own conduct subjected herself to suspicion, it follows that it was regarded as immodest for Jewish women to allow their hair to remain uncovered.

Why is Married Women’s Hair-covering not Mentioned Directly in the Torah?
If it is so important that married women cover their hair, why is it not written with an explicit command in the Torah? Why does it not state anywhere in the Torah, something like, ‘Every married woman must cover her hair’? Why must we learn about this mitzvah indirectly from the story of the Sota (suspected adulteress)? To answer this question, we need to understand that many important Torah laws are not written directly in the Torah. Rather, they are learned out through Talmudic exposition, based on the principles of the Torah. For example, most of the laws of Shabbat are not specified in the Torah. The Talmud learns the 39 forbidden creative works from the description of building the Tabernacle. The Torah itself states only, “Don’t do any work.” The kinds of prohibited works are not written directly in the Torah. Likewise, in regards to the laws of modesty, the written Torah states only the general law that “your camp shall be holy” and “you shall be holy.” It never states explicitly the laws of modest dress for women. Only in the Oral Law does it specify that the thighs, upper arms, and chest of a woman, and in the case of a married woman, also her hair, are considered her private parts. These other parts of our body that all women are commanded to cover, are not even hinted at in the Torah. Only the hair-covering of a married woman is considered a law from the Torah, based on our Torah verse regarding the sota (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 72a; The Bach, Even Haezer 21).

Did the Rabbis Invent the Mitzvah of Hair-Covering?
The fact that many mitzvot are learned out through the Oral Law does not decrease their importance. Many mitzvot, which most observant Jews regard as the core of Judaism, are ‘only’ rabbinic- such as lighting the Shabbat and Chanukah candles, hearing the Megillah on Purim and reciting blessings before eating various foods. The Torah explicitly commands us to listen to the Torah leadership (the Rabbis) (Devarim 17:11). The Oral Torah is handed down in direct transmission from Sinai to Moshe. Therefore, the entire Torah legal system is based on having faith in Rabbinical authority. Even if the rationale of certain mitzvot are not always revealed to us, it is important to develop emunat chachamim (faith in our sages), and humbly realize the limitations of our own understanding. The rabbis didn’t just invent the mitzvah of hair-covering in order to disparage married women and make their lives miserable. There are deeper reasons for the importance of hair-covering for married women which is emphasized in halacha, midrash and in the Zohar.

Protecting the Gates of her Head
“From the hair of a person you can know who he is…” (Zohar, Naso, Idra Rabbah 129a).
Long or short, hair is very deep. It’s like the body and soul’s antennas transmitting energy from a higher realm, while also exuding the deepest, most inner parts of one’s being. The hair acts as conduits for our light and energy. I have seen numerous young women changing as they learn Torah in our program. The first thing to be affected when a person undergoes transformation is the hair. Hair is even affected by our moods. It could change from frizzy to wavy, stand out or lie flat. Rabbi Yehuda said, the hair of the head of the [married] woman that is revealed causes another hair to be revealed {that is the power of the sitra achra that clings to the hair}… (Zohar Chelek 3, Daf 125b-126a). Rabbi Chaim Kramer, in Anatomy of the Soul, explains that the Hebrew word for hair שער/sa’ar has the same letters as the Hebrew word for שער/sha’ar – gate. The hair of the head corresponds to the gates, for they are outside the head, protecting all that is inside, as a gate protects a building from outsiders. Before a woman is married, her ‘gates’ are open to allow the man of her life to enter. A married woman, however, needs to close her ‘gates’ in order to guard the holy union with her husband from every outside intruder. Even a woman who is no longer married needs extra guarding of her ‘gates.’ Once her ‘gates’ have been entered, and her private parts opened, she becomes vulnerable to extraneous forces. Only the man who holds the key to her ‘gates’ must be allowed in.  

The Attraction of a Woman’s Hair – Reserved for Her Husband
Our hair is very much an expression of our inner soul. It is very alive and can be very attractive and sexy. Even if it is not attractive, it still reveals something very deep from within our soul, which for a married woman, is reserved for her husband alone. You can be creative with the coverings, using several scarves in different colors, tying them in new and creative ways. Of course, some women prefer a fancy hat or even a wig. Hashem gave women the ability to attract a man with our hair. Once we have attained our man, the attraction of our hair needs to be hidden from men other than the one and only man in our life. It is something special about us, which is just for our husband to enjoy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How can I Celebrate Shabbat Camping out in the Wilderness?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Bamidbar

Dear Rebbetzin,
I’m an ardent nature-lover and there is nothing that makes me feel closer to Hashem than being surrounded by serene landscapes far away from the distractions of the bustling city. I enjoy going camping, praying at the seaside, watching the sun setting into its reflection in the ripples of the ocean and gazing at the starry sky from around the bonfire while the guitars are strumming. A friend and I would like to go camping at the Dead Sea during Parashat Bamidbar – the Shabbat prior to Shavuot in order to prepare ourselves spiritually for receiving the Torah. I assume there is no halachic problem with this. After all, the entire Jewish people camped in the wilderness also on Shabbat. Please let me know if there is anything I need to be aware of and any preparation I need to make in order to be able to keep all the laws of Shabbat properly while camping out.
Tzipporah Natura (name changed)

Dear Tzipporah,
Sounds like camping in the wilderness, the Shabbat before receiving the Torah, could be an awesome experience, provided that you make the effort in proper preparation. I actually wish I had the time to join you! The Torah, which was given in the desert was written with black fire upon white fire (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereishit 1). In order to engrave the words of the Torah written with black fire in our hearts, we need to become like white fire – like a blank canvas or piece of paper, ready to receive new writing inspiration. I believe that the Torah was given in the desert because this place is the perfect vessel for receiving Torah. The silence of the vast emptiness of the desert cleansed the Israelites from their slave mentality. Likewise, the desert can purge us of our faulty beliefs, attitudes and negative emotions. The pristine wasteland is like a reset button on the computer- cleaning out all our old files to make room for the new. The bareness of the desert can open our hearts to receive. Yet, on a practical level, it is not so simple to keep Shabbat while camping out.

How Can I Carry On Shabbat in the Desert?
One of the 39 forbidden creative works on Shabbat is הוצאה/hotza’ah – carrying an object – regardless of its weight, size or purpose from a private to a public domain and vice versa, or carrying it more than four cubits (approximately 2 meters or 6 feet) within a public domain. Private and public do not refer to ownership, but rather, to the nature of the area. An enclosed area is considered a private domain, whereas an open area is considered public for the purposes of these laws. When living in Jerusalem, or in a Torah community, we are used to having an eruv. An eruv is a technical enclosure that surrounds both private and public domains, creating a large private domain in which carrying is permitted on Shabbat. When we spend Shabbat away from a Jewish community, in a place where there is no proper eruv, we cannot carry even a book out to a park. If you would like, for example, to take your siddur to pray outside of the tent, when camping on Shabbat, you need to learn the laws of how to construct an eruv. You must also plan to arrive at your campsite at least three hours prior to Shabbat, in order to have enough time to build it.

Basic Guidelines for Building an Eruv
It is permissible to carry in a closed structure with walls or a fence, etc. If there are no real walls, or if a wall is missing, you can create an enclosure with poles and strings. The easiest way to construct an enclosure is by using fishing line that connects from one pole to the next. The reason to use fishing line rather than  rope is that it stays straight. This is important because a sagging eruv line or one that moves around in the wind isn’t kosher. The poles have to be at least ten tefachim tall (80 cm). They need to be a bit longer in order to drive them into the ground, so they should be at least a meter each (3 feet). If you are camping out for only one Shabbat, four thin pieces of bamboo will suffice in constructing a square around your camp site. Drive a nail into the top of each pole. You could incorporate some of the natural terrain in your eruv such as a cliff wall, very thick bushes, or impassable brush. I recommend that you consult your rabbi about how to build an eruv as building an eruv is a fairly complex halachic endeavor. The Talmudic tractate Eruvin is considered to be one of the most difficult tractates. Look for more details on this website http://travelingrabbi.com/halacha-general/how-to-build-an-eruv-while-camping.

Shabbat Meals in the Wilderness
I can’t imagine spending a Shabbat anywhere without a source of fresh unsalted water. It would be quite hard to schlep all the handwashing water in addition to your drinking water. (A schlep it is going to be in any circumstance.) You will need a good size icebox to bring food for an entire Shabbat. Make sure the food is already prepared and plan meals that can be eaten cold such as wholesome bread, lox, salads and dips… I suggest keeping all your food in the icebox including breads and cakes to avoid invading ants and other crawling creatures. It would be a good idea to bring a battery-powered lamp, lantern or strong flashlight and keep it on for the entire Shabbat so you will have some light Friday night. I also suggest bringing a glass box such as what we use for our Chanukah candles, to insure that your Shabbat candles won’t blow in the wind, or even worse blow out. You may be able to keep your Friday night meal hot if you arrange to have your food kept warm  on top of covered embers before Shabbat goes in. You can relight your bonfire after Shabbat goes out for a spirited havdalah around a campfire.

Safety Suggestions
I suggest that you pack a fully charged cellphone, charger, extra food, at least two extra liters of water, appropriate clothes, emergency supplies and your list of emergency phone numbers. You may include a first aid kit with band aids, bandages and antiseptic wipes, rescue remedy and herbal pain reliever. During the day, protect yourself from the hot desert sun with a large brim hat. Wear lose cotton clothes that cover most of your body including your neck. After Shabbat, make sure to take out your trash and adhere to the principles of ‘Leave No Trace.’

Finding Your Personal Portion in the Torah
With all these preparations, for the sake of experiencing a holy Shabbat while camping out in the Holy Land, I’m positive that your Shabbat in the Desert is going to be an unforgettable experience. This is your opportunity for meditative reflection to really tune into your own soul and finding yourself and your personal portion in the Torah. Each of the Israelites camped around the Ark of the Covenant containing The Ten Commandments. Each person was associated with his own tribe and camped under the appropriate flag as it states,

ספר במדבר פרק א (נב) וְחָנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ עַל מַחֲנֵהוּ וְאִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ לְצִבְאֹתָם:
“The Israelites encamped in their own camp, each person according to his troop and by his flag” (Bamidbar 1:52). 

Each Israelite camped in their personal space and specific angle in relationship to the Ark of the Torah. Likewise, today, we all need to find our individual portion in the Torah while simultaneously knowing our place within the community. The Shabbat prior to Shavuot is the most suitable time to realign ourselves with our personal portion in the Torah and our true place within the Jewish community. What more appropriate place for such alignment than in the wilderness of the Holy Land? 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How do I Deal with Reminders of My Non-Jewish Past?

Ask the Rebbetzin! - Parashat Behar/Bechukotai
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I’m a recent convert who grew up in a devout Catholic family. For many years, I lived in a convent where I became a teacher and preacher. The more I delved into the Bible, the more I discovered inconsistencies in the Catholic faith. This eventually led me to discover the truth of Judaism. I am not hiding my past, but I am weary of always being reminded of my former life, wherever I go. I know people are well meaning and just curious. Most have never met someone who used to be a nun in a catholic convent, and they find my story fascinating. However, I have worked so hard to detach myself from my background, so it is quite annoying when, for example, at a Shabbat table someone will ask me, “So tell us Yehudit, what does Catholicism have to say on such and such topic?” I would much rather discuss what the Torah has to say without having to constantly refer back to my prior faith, which I’m trying so hard to forget. It is also a bit embarrassing for me to be reminded of my Catholic background in front of everyone, when what I desire most is to fit in, gain acceptance and feel part of the Jewish community to which I now belong. I don’t want to be rude, but I am beginning to become more and more resentful to the constant inquiries about my prior connection to and knowledge of Catholicism. How can I politely make people leave me alone and stop prying into my prior life?
Yehudit Baldwin (name changed)

Dear Yehudit,
First of all, I want to strengthen you in your desire to detach yourself from your past and deflect the constant reminders of your Catholic background. The Torah indeed recognizes the discomfort it may cause converts to be reminded about their former life. This is included in prohibited speech called Ona’at Devarim, which means verbal mistreatment. It entails saying things that would pain, make angry, hurt, frighten, bother or embarrass another person. So, according to the Torah, you are indeed entitled to be annoyed when people remind you that you used to be a Catholic teacher! However, are well-meaning questions from the Jewish community really considered Ona’at Devarim and how are you supposed to respond when you are faced with these kinds of probing questions?

Defining אונאת דברים/Ona’at Devarim
אונאה/Ona’ah is mentioned twice in Parashat Behar:
ספר ויקרא פרק כה (יד) וְכִי תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו:
“When you sell property from your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” (Vayikra 25:14). Rashi explains this verse to refer to deception in monetary matters.

ספר ויקרא פרק כה (יז) וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
“Do not wrong one another, but fear Your G-d, for I am Hashem your G-d” (Vayikra 25:17). 
Rashi explains that this verse refers to verbal oppression (wounding a person’s feelings). One should not annoy his fellow, nor give him advice which is unfitting for him, but rather in accordance with the plan and the advantage of the adviser. In case you would say, “Who knows if I had any intention to harm the person?” Scripture states, “But you shall fear G-d”! He Who knows the thoughts of people, He knows it!…

There are thus three forms of ona’ah. Besides dishonesty in business (Vayikra 25:14), there are two forms of verbal oppression (Vayikra 25:17). 1. Verbally misleading or tricking another and 2. Verbally causing pain or discomfort to another. Included in this is the commandment of “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” for if one causes pain to another for no reason, one is certainly transgressing the Mitzvah of treating every Jew in a loving manner.

The Talmud’s Examples of אונאת דברים/Ona’at Devarim
Just as there is a prohibition against exploitation [ona’ah] in buying and selling, so is there ona’ah in statements, i.e., verbal mistreatment. One may not say to a seller: For how much are you selling this item, if he does not wish to purchase it. He thereby upsets the seller when the deal fails to materialize. One may not say to a Ba’al Teshuva: Remember your former deeds. If one is the child of converts, one may not say to him: Remember the deeds of your ancestors, as it states, “You shall not mistreat a convert, neither shall you oppress him” (Shemot 22:20). If one is a convert and he came to study Torah, one may not say to him: Does the mouth that ate carcasses, repugnant creatures, and creeping animals, come to study Torah that was stated from the mouth of the Almighty? If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Iyov spoke to him: “Is not your fear of G-d your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished, being innocent?” (Iyov 4:6–7). Certainly, you sinned, as otherwise you would not have suffered misfortune (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 58b). Speaking in this fashion is prohibited from the Torah, as the Shulchan Aruch repeats the abovementioned examples word for word (Choshen Mishpat 228, 1-5). Furthermore, Ona'at Devarim is more severe than Monetary Oppression because a person feels more distressed when his feelings are hurt; and money earned dishonestly can be returned, whereas, hurt feelings cannot be undone (Ibid. 1). 

Verbal Abuse?
It is still questionable whether people who remind you of your Catholic background with their questions are indeed transgressing the prohibition against אונאת דברים/Ona’at Devarim, since their questions are not outwardly denigrating. They are not putting you down for having eaten unkosher food or worshipped idols etc. They may not even know that their questions are causing you discomfort. On the contrary, perhaps they think that they are showing you respect by requesting you to enlighten them about matters in which they themselves are ignorant. However, we must be extra sensitive and careful not to offend a convert in even the slightest way, as the Torah mentions numerous times that we must be kind to the convert. Since the convert comes from the outside and naturally wants to fit in, it can be expected that he or she is more vulnerable and sensitive even to well-meaning comments. The Shulchan Aruch states, “One needs to be most careful not to oppress the convert...” (Choshen Mishpat 228, 2). Likewise, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubawitz in his sicha from Mem Hei, seems to indicate that one is not allowed to remind a convert of his origins at all. Although, it seems that the halacha prohibits reminding a convert of his origins only when one’s intention is to denigrate him, the Rebbe writes, whatever it states in regards to the children of converts applies also to the actual convert, as a child of converts is also called a convert. He is completely separate from the nations of the world, even more than other Jews who were never part of the other nations. Thus, it is also not permitted to remind an actual convert about his background at all (Sichos of Rabbi Scheersohn of Lubawitz, 1980 ש"פ, אחו"ק).

The Holy Lineage of Righteous Converts
A convert who gave up so much to become part of the Jewish people deserves the greatest respect. When people make you uncomfortable with questions referring to your non-Jewish background, try not to take it personally. It is very likely they have such high regards for converts that they cannot imagine that any comment about your non-Jewish background could in any way be insulting. They also most likely are not aware that their questions or comments could be against halacha. You may gently remind them by responding something like, “I am not comfortable discussing these matters.” Know that once you have converted, you are no less a Jew than anyone else. As we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot we are reminded that every Jew was a convert. Moreover, Shavuot celebrates the birthday of King David who descended from Ruth the righteous “Jew by Choice.”