Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Blessings of Blessing

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat V’Zot Ha’Bracha
Blessings Create Positive Reality
“It’s my birthday today so I would love to give you a bracha (blessing) May you discover your true place in Judaism, find your soulmate, express your potential in the service of Hashem and feel fulfillment in life!” Blessings like these are not only on my lips time and again, but Torah observant people the world over, also frequently express such blessings at various occasions. Hebrew birthdays are prime times for blessings, when the energy that created us is in its element, empowering us with spiritual alignment. Other elevating junctures, such as the bride on her wedding-day and the Sandak who has held the newborn at his brit are also occasions for blessings. We believe that words have power, as reflected in the classical incantation of the magician, אַבְּרָא כְּאַדַבְּרָה/Abra K’adabra – “I will create as I speak!” It was through speech that Hashem created the world as it states, “G-d said let there be light, and there was light” (Bereishit 1:3). Words, indeed, create reality, so we must use them well, and by all means avoid negative speech. Even fine nuances of speech can make a positive difference. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t put antibiotic cream on your wound, it will take a lot longer to heal,” try turning your speech around for the good, in the following way: “If you put antibiotic cream on your wound, it will heal a lot faster.” This way you can attach a blessing to your advice, rather than the opposite. The more we express optimism, hope, gratitude, and pleasure, the more we bring about a flow of goodness to ourselves and to the world. It takes a bit of conscious practice to develop greater awareness and fine-tune the constant stream of words emanating from our eager lips, but it is surely worth the effort.

The Torah Culminates in Blessing
It is not by chance that the very last parasha in the Torah is called וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה /V’Zot Ha’Bracha –This is the blessing, for “all is well that ends well!” We all like to squeeze out the last drops of goodness left in the honey jar, we enjoy the precious moment with our children before they go to sleep, and we relish in the last piece of chocolate or in picking the very last grapes from the vine. The end is always precious and people are especially open to read the conclusion of a book, hear the last words of their Rabbi’s lecture, and listen intently to family members before they go on a journey or pass on. Therefore, Moshe blessed the Israelites on the day of his demise, as Rashi comments, “if not now when?”

“He Who Blesses Will Become Blessed”
ספר דברים פרק לג (א) וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַךְ משֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ:
“This is the blessing that Moshe – the man of G-d – blessed Israel before his death” (Devarim 33:1).

Ohr Hachayim points out that it was specifically when blessing the people that Moshe became elevated to merit the great title: “Man of G-d.” Therefore, the verse starts with “and this” through this ability to bless the Israelites, Moshe reached his highest potential as a man of G-d. It is an all-inclusive principle that “he who blesses will become blessed” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38b). The art of bestowing blessings is to become divinely inspired to give exactly the blessing each person needs. Hashem rewards our desire to generate goodness, by allowing us to become a channel for His blessings.

Holding the Key of Blessing
Although all blessings emanate from G-d, Hashem desires the blessings of people, and thus He commanded us, “You shall bless Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 8:10). Blessings have everlasting effects. This is why the Torah begins with the letter ב/beit (the first letter of the word ‘bracha’) describing the creation of the world, as a blessing that is established forever. Hashem blessed Adam and Noach but to Avraham – the Father of our Faith – He handed over the power to bless, saying, “It shall be a blessing” (Bereishit 12:2). With these words, Hashem told him, “You are the source of blessing, you have the ability to bless whoever you desire. From Avraham and on, the power of blessing was handed over to the tzaddikim. Thus, Yitzchak blessed Ya’acov before his death, and Ya’acov blessed his children on his deathbed as it states, “וְזֹאת /V’Zot – and this is what their father spoke and blessed them” (Bereishit 49:28). Moshe Rabbeinu, likewise, blessed the tribes before his passing, and began his blessing with the word וְזֹאת /V’Zot – “and this,” as he continued where Ya’acov ended (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Devarim 33:1).

Actualizing the Blessing by Believing in its Power
We learn from Chana – the Mother of our Prayer – that when we receive a bracha it is important to believe in the power of the blessing, in order that the blessing will come true. After Eli, the high priest blessed her saying: “Go in peace, and may the G-d of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him,” Chana was no longer depressed, and was immediately able to eat again (I Shemuel 1:17-17-18). This teaches us that she trusted that Eli’s blessing would be fulfilled. Her faith and positive attitude attracted the baby of her dreams, and soon afterwards, she conceived. I certainly believe in the importance of receiving a bracha from a holy tzaddik, as the prayer on our behalf by someone close to Hashem is very powerful. Yet on the other hand, a blessing from anyone, especially someone who loves you, may be no less potent, as the Talmud states:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ז/א שלא תהא ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך:
“Do not take a blessing from a commoner lightly” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7a).

Becoming a Channel for Hashem’s Perpetual Blessing
Every blessing – no matter from whom – is packed with potential, as long as we take it seriously and believe in its power. By responding “Amen” to a blessing, we unpack its goodness and actualize its blessed potential. Let us, therefore, take advantage of each occasion to bless each other and to answer amen at every opportunity! Let us hold on to the key of blessing that we inherited from Avraham Avinu (our father) and apply it to refine our speech, so that constant blessings become second nature in our daily interactions! I bless us all, that we may merit to become divinely inspired and be a channel for Hashem’s perpetual blessing!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Did Our Parents Leave the Path?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ha’azinu
Rebbetzin's Great Great Grandfather z"l
Returning to the Path of Our Ancestors 
In my father’s memoirs, there is a photo of his great grandfather, which really struck me. He wears the same kind of yarmulke-hat as my husband, and I recognize the mild pious gaze in his holy eyes. I estimate the photo to be from the middle of the 19th century more than 150 years ago. Yet, he looks like he could be someone right out of Meah Shearim today. We don’t have any information about him, except that he was from Russia. We don’t even have a name, but as I gaze into this photo I feel a deep connection, and I wonder if he learned the same kind of Torah as my husband and I. Also on my mother’s side, there is a photo of her father’s grandfather, Berish. He was a Chassid with a long beard and peyes. He had a pious modest wife, Pessel, wrapped in a shawl with a simple scarf on her head. Most Jews, today, don’t have to go back many generations to find ancestors devoted to the Torah. I’m grateful to my father for writing his memoirs and collecting photos of his ancestors. It certainly is a mitzvah to investigate our family roots as we learn from Parashat Ha’azinu:
ספר דברים פרק לב
(ז) זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר וָדֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ:
“Remember the days of old, reflect upon the years of many generations; ask your father, he will tell you, your elders, they will inform you” (Devarim 32:7).

When I look into the eyes of my great, great grandfather, the notion of the cyclical nature of history really hits home for me. How I long to tell him, “Grand-Zeideh! We have returned to your ways! And even more! We have returned to our homeland that you dreamed about and yearned for!” Yet, what happened to the three generations in between my grand Zeideh and I? How did it come to pass that they began to scorn the “old ways” and decided to ditch their head-coverings of subservience in order to make it in the modern secular world?

Forsaking Spirituality for the Sake of Material Pursuits
The answer is hinted at in Parashat Ha’azinu. Moshe leaves the people with a poem, which is to serve as a testament and warning to all future generations. The Ha’azinu Song contains a prophecy that our ancestors fulfilled when the opportunity to leave the shtetel of poverty presented itself:
ספר דברים פרק לב
 (טו) וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ וַיִּטּשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ:
“Jeshurun became fat and rebelled; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Israel] forsook the G-d Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation” (Devarim 32:15).

Throughout history, during exile and suffering, we proved ourselves resilient in our faith. Yet the blessings of abundance presented a greater challenge and temptation for our people to forsake the Torah for material pursuits. The leaders who were supposed to set an example for the nation regressed to materialistic lifestyles. Preoccupied with the pursuit of physical pleasures, they were no longer capable of maintaining a spiritual existence, as Sforno explained almost 500 years ago:
ספורנו עה”ת ספר דברים פרק לב פסוק טו
(טו) וישמן ישורון ויבעט. והנה גם בעלי העיון שבהם הנקראים ישורון מן אשורנו ולא קרוב עשו כמו הבהמות הבועטות בבני אדם שנותנים להם מזון: שמנת עבית כשית. הנה אתה ישורון קהל תופשי התורה ובעלי העיון פנית אל התענוגים הגשמיים ובזה עבית מחבין דקות האמת כאמרו וגם אלה ביין שגו ובשכר תעו כהן ונביא. כשית. כאמרו כי טח מראות עיניהם מהשכיל לבותם: ויטוש אלוה עשהו. ולפיכך נטש ההמון אלוה עשהו:
“Behold, even the scholars and philosophers among them, who are called Jeshurun from the root ‘shur,’ to see (Bamidbar 23:9), referring to the people of vision within the community, acted as animals that kick those who give them food. Behold, the congregation of Torah adherents and scholars, have turned to material pleasures and grown thick, (incapable) of understanding subtle truths, as it states, ‘But these also reel from wine and stagger through strong drink, the priest and the prophet’ (Yesha’yahu 28:7). [You are also] covered with fatness as it says, ‘for He has shut their eyes that they cannot see and their hearts that they cannot understand’ (ibid. 44:18).” Therefore, the multitude forsook the G-d that made them… (Sforno, Devarim 32:15).

Just as bribe blinds the eyes, so can materialism obscure the vision of even our greatest leaders.

The Abundance-Addiction Rehab Structure of the Sukkah
After tempting Eve to eat from the Tree, Hashem told the serpent: “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life” (Bereishit 3:14). Why was it a curse for the serpent to eat the dust of the ground? Having our food readily available can be a curse that makes us forget Hashem, since we do not need to turn to Heaven to pray for our sustenance. Likewise, living within solid stonewalls can be isolating and separate us from Hashem’s protection. No matter how affluent and independent we may have grown, the simple Sukkah returns us to Hashem’s bosom. It takes an entire week after moving out of our comfort zone and into the shelter of the Cloud of Glory to return to our pure faith. Therefore, Hashem commands us– at the very beginning of the New Virgin Year – to dwell for seven days under the shelter of His wings as it states:
ספר ויקרא פרק כג 
(מב) בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת:
“You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are Yisraelites shall dwell in booths” (Vayikra 23:42).

Some people may think it is enough to eat the main holiday and Shabbat meals in the Sukkah, and reside, the remainder of the week, in the comfort of their homes. Yet, this defeats the main purpose of the Sukkah to recharge our emunah by enveloping us with Hashem’s presence, and letting us get a glimpse of the stars from the apertures of its fragrant roof. A full seven-day dwelling in the Sukkah is what it takes to de-escalate the fat of rebellion caused by the comforts of abundance. Therefore, the Talmud insists:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף ב/א
רבא אמר מהכא בסכת תשבו שבעת ימים אמרה תורה כל שבעת הימים צא מדירת קבע ושב בדירת עראי... 

What does it mean, “You shall dwell in booths for seven days”? The Torah said, the entire seven days you must leave your permanent home and live in a temporary dwelling (Sukkah 2:1).

‘Kicking’ Themselves Upwards in Society
It is human nature to always aspire towards progress. I do not blame our grandparents – who after generations of excruciating poverty – took advantage of the opportunity to advance their families by integrating into higher society. More comfortable, safe living conditions are conducive to better physical health. Access to cultural resources, provide opportunities for the advancement of children. When the doors of higher education opened for the European Jews, it is no wonder that the majority embraced the prospect of integrating into general society and procuring a higher living standard for their families. During this era of ‘enlightenment,’ Jews rose to become the cream of the crop, harvesting multiple Nobel prices as well as amassing prestige and material goods. Serving Hashem gradually became relegated to the background. Even the Jewish holidays took on less and less significance. Our parents were raised to ‘kick’ themselves upwards in society, yet, their material blessings did not lead to a higher level of morality and fear of G-d. It soon became apparent that materialism without spiritual content is an empty shell. The divergence of overflowing abundance and Divine service can be compared to the intake of high calorie rich foods without exercise. The surplus material is stored in the body, becoming a gross layer of excess corpulent obese fat.

Filling Our Plate with Spiritual Content
Recent generations that grew up with material abundance seek to fill their plate with spiritual content. We are no longer so hungry for food or thirsty for water, but rather for hearing the words of Hashem” (Based on Amos 8:11). We aspire to engage the natural desire for advancement into spiritual elevation and character refinement. However, spirituality does not negate material wealth, so long as we remember the true Source of our blessings. The Tishrei Holidays come to remind us that everything we have emanates from G-d. May we always remember to turn to Hashem for our needs, whether physical or spiritual and may we always be aware of how Hashem “opens His hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing!”

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What is the Purpose of the Aging Process?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Vayelech
Physical Decline Allows the Soul to Shine
Yona by B'erot Student Nish Garcia
It is hard to come to terms with the fact that people age. Not only people, but also trees, pets, appliances and even my favorite outfit! I wish that whatever I love would remain forever. I can mend and fix, but there is a point when we need to let go and accept the fact that everything in the world is temporary just as this world itself is transient. In Paradise, we were originally supposed to live forever – delighting in the perfect utopic Garden, without a strand of gray hair. Yet, we messed up, became mortal and were charged with accepting physical decline for the sake of perfecting our soul. The goal of the constant warfare between our physical and spiritual drives, is to allow the physical to make way for spiritual illumination.

In preparation for my 50th birthday, I studied the rabbinic teaching, “A 50-year old for advice…” (Pirkei Avot 5:21), and one of the commentaries struck me. It went something like, at the age of 50, a person’s physical faculties are declining but his spirituality is growing. An older person is not only more experienced, but also has more capacity for wisdom, precisely because the reduced physical strength allows his soul to shine. Even so, it is hard to wake up to new wrinkles around the eyes and brown age spots on the hands, not to mention graying hair, and getting out of breath when walking uphill. The entire world revolves around the younger generation. Perhaps, the mitzvah to honor the elders is designed to counteract the natural tendency to relegate them to the fringe of the family, while serving the needs of the younger and stronger. Aging must be so much harder for a secular person. If you don’t believe in the eternity of the soul and life after death, after going ‘over the hill’ what is there to look forward to except the body going downhill?

Value What You Have Today for Tomorrow it May be Gone!
The awareness that our lives are not forever, teaches us to appreciate the sweetness of the moment. Sunsets are so beautiful because they are fleeting, and we cannot hold on to the sunrays’ reflections of orange and pink behind the purple clouds. When I look at my brown-bearded 20-year-old baby son, I cannot believe how this large strong grownup man standing before me was once the cute little boy calling “Look Ima, look Ima!” as he bounced the ball. What happened to the baby I cradled in my bosom and whose first smile I welcomed? Soon, I will have to completely let him go to another woman, as he will build his own family. So, if your children are still young, don’t forget to enjoy them, even if they are a challenging handful! Before you know it, they will have grown up. The phase of ‘empty nesters’ teaches us to appreciate and enjoy our lifelong partner and spouse. Even for those of us who are not into world-travel-pleasure-trips, spending quality time learning Torah, taking a mountain hike or even caring for grandchildren together is a treasurable privilege. Knowing that someday it will be over, makes us value what we have today. When we designed our home, the architect suggested a covered entryway, since guests taking leave usually hang out together with the host at the doorway for another expanded and prolonged moment, not wanting the visit to pass.

The Ego-Breaking Experience of Aging
Witnessing how people often go through a painful aging process makes us wonder, what is the purpose of all of this suffering? Why do some people endure prolonged illnesses at the end of their lives? Why do others – who may have been brilliant highly educated prominent people – end up in a home for demented? Without claiming to have a ready-made pat answer to these existential questions of how Hashem runs His world, I would like to suggest that the aging process is a preparation for the ultimate life in the hereafter. Our souls have been sent down to this temporary world not only in order to repair the world but first and foremost to repair our essential selves. In the struggle between selfish pride and selfless humble giving, we must overcome the ego’s obsession with grabbing honor and material goods . Growing older and weaker and having to depend on the help of others is an ego-breaking experience par excellence. There is likewise no greater humbling experience than losing one’s memory and mind. Smaller signs of aging – such as no longer being able to run uphill, or keeping up with the grandchildren in a memory game are humbling as well. It is not for us to judge, for only Hashem knows who and when someone needs a dose of ego-diminution before s/he is ready to transit to the eternal world. In order to endure the intense light of the world of truth, we also need to be clean of transgressions. Thus, the suffering of sickness serves as a spiritual washing machine, which cleans out the stain of sin.

Humility: The Anti-Aging Agent
In Parashat Vayelech Moshe Rabbeinu takes leave of his beloved people, as he prepares to go the way of all the earth. Although Moshe – the embodiment of humility – was above the natural aging process as “his eyes did not become dim, neither did his flesh lose its moisture” (Devarim 34:7), he nevertheless knew it was his time to go.
ספר דברים פרק לא
 (א) וַיֵּלֶךְ משֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל: (ב) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם לֹא אוּכַל עוֹד לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא וַהָשֵׁם אָמַר אֵלַי לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה:

“Moshe went and spoke these things to all of Israel. He said to them, I am one hundred and twenty years today, I can no longer go out and come in; and Hashem has said to me: You shall not go across this Jordan River” (Devarim 31:2).

Why does Moshe go? To where does he go? “Moshe went from the Camp of Levi to the Camp of the Israelites to honor them, as one who wishes to depart from his friend goes to him to receive his permission to leave” (Ramban, Devarim 31:1). Ibn Ezra adds, “Moshe went to each tribe individually to inform them of his impending death.” Although Moshe already had all of Israel assembled and could have easily taken leave of them in one shot, he chose to take the time to show each and every tribe love, care and appreciation with his personal farewell. With fatherly reassurance and utmost humility, he told the Israelites, “I have become old and am no longer of any use for you. My student Yehoshua who is younger and stronger will take over my role and lead you in conquering the land.”

May we all learn ultimate humility from Moshe Rabbeinu and accept that everything in the world is temporary just as this world itself is transient. May we be ready – when the time comes – to let go and hand over responsibilities to the next generation, without needing any ailments to remind us of our frailty! May we learn to relinquish our ego and remain healthy and strong, aging with grace like Moshe – the man of G-d!

G’mar Chatima Tovah

May you be sealed in the Book of Life!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Returning to the Root of Our Existence

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Nitzavim
Returning to the Divine Spark of Our Soul
We definitely feel the teshuvah (repentance) in the air as the full moon rises in the Elul sky, and we awake to the call of the neighbors’ shofars. It strikes me that for most of us, teshuvah is about getting rid of the smuts of our negative emotions and habits such as selfishness, jealousy, anger, judgment, lashon hara, disrespect, lack of modesty etc. Thinking about the meaning of the word תְּשׁוּבָה/teshuvah – return, it seems that rather than being preoccupied with what to return from, the focus needs to be on to where and what we are returning. I would like to return to who I really am, to the person Hashem created me to be – to become aligned with the Divine spark of my soul. Teshuvah is about searching for our essence by visualizing our higher selves and reconnecting with the part of ourselves that may be hiding behind layers of errors caused by fear, pain, anger etc. In the process of searching, we usually remove everything that’s in the way in order to find our lost jewel. However, if we get stuck in clearing away the garbage but forget about the jewel what have we accomplished? Throughout the sin-confessing process of teshuvah, let us not forget that each of us is a precious Jewel, which just needs a bit of polishing to adorn the crown of the King.

Returning to Our Place Within the Community of Israel
Parashat Nitzavim designates the goal of our teshuvah. We are called upon to return until Hashem our G-d:
ספר דברים פרק ל פסוק ב וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ:
“Return to Hashem your G-d, and listen to His voice with all your heart and soul both you and your children, just as I command you this day” (Devarim 30:2).

Eight verses later, at the end of the paragraph, the Torah seemingly repeats itself, directing us to once again return to Hashem.

ספר דברים פרק ל פסוק י כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ:
“…since you will be heeding the voice of Hashem your G-d, to keep His commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law; once you return to Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul” (Devarim 30:10).

If we compare the language used to describe each of the returns to Hashem, we discover that the first return is described as עַד הָשֵׁם/ad Hashem, whereas the final return is described as אֶל הָשֵׁם/el Hashem. What is the difference between returning ad or el Hashem? “Ad Hashem” is returning “towards G-d” – approaching, but not fully attaining. The Torah often uses the preposition עַד /ad, indicating a state of ‘towards, but not included in the category’ (עַד - וְלֹא עַד בִּכְלָל/ad, velo ad bichlal (Berachot 26b and more). This is genuine yet incomplete repentance, obscured by many veils. Perhaps, this first stage of teshuvah refers to individual teshuvah which every Jew can do even while in exile. However, complete return to our essential selves – אֶל הָשֵׁם/el Hashem cannot be achieved as individuals on foreign soil. On Rosh Hashana we come before Hashem not only as individuals but also as a flock of sheep. Who we are is not defined by our individual virtues alone, but rather, by finding our true place within the greater whole of the nation of Israel. This can be compared to a stitch in an embroidered challah cover. The stitch by itself may be absolutely perfect, yet it only expresses its fullest beauty when connected with the other stitches, forming an intricate pattern. The struggle to find our true place within the greater group, where we can both contribute and receive is an important part of returning to our highest selves cleaving completely to Hashem. The spiritual progress of any individual Jewish is intrinsically dependent on the spiritual state of the entire Jewish people (Tal Chaim, p. 18).

Ultimate Teshuvah on the Holy Land
Although there are Jewish communities in exile, returning to Hashem and ourselves can only be fully accomplished in the place designed for our ultimate purpose. The Jewish people is compared to a grapevine that will only yield an abundance of healthy succulent fruits when planted on suitable soil with optimal conditions (The Kuzari, 2:11-12). True teshuvah pertains to both body and soul, and the Land of Israel is the only place where a Jew can become both physically and spiritually aligned to Hashem’s will. The soul-root of every Jew is in the land of Israel, where we can thrive to our fullest, on an individual, communal and national level. This concept is supported by the intermediate Torah verses between the two directives to return to Hashem. After describing the initial stage of teshuvah, the Torah goes on to describe how Hashem will gather us from the furthermost corners of exiles, return us to the Land of Israel, circumcise our hearts, and bless our produce and offspring. Meriting this Divine assistance will enable us to achieve the final culmination in the teshuvah process – a new kind of teshuvah, where we will not only return towards Hashem עַד הָשֵׁם/ad Hashem, but rather a complete all-embracing cleaving אֶל /el – to Hashem:

ספר דברים פרק ל (ג) וְשָׁב הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה:(ד) אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ:(ה) וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ:(ו) וּמָל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ:(ז) וְנָתַן הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הָאָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וְעַל שׂנְאֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר רְדָפוּךָ:(ח) וְאַתָּה תָשׁוּב וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל הָשֵׁם וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם:(ט) וְהוֹתִירְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ לְטֹבָה כִּי יָשׁוּב הָשֵׁם לָשׂוּשׂ עָלֶיךָ לְטוֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂשׂ עַל אֲבֹתֶיךָ:
“Then Hashem your G-d will return your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where Hashem, your G-d, has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are dispersed in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And Hashem, your G-d, will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. Then Hashem your G-d will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. Hashem your G-d will afflict all these curses upon your enemies, and foes who persecuted you. You, however will return and harken to the voice of Hashem, and obey all His commandments that I command you this day. Then Hashem your G-d will grant you abounding prosperity in all of your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good. For Hashem will again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your fathers” (Devarim 30:2-10).

Even if we are unable to rise to the challenge of the highest level of teshuvah cleaving completely to Hashem, it is important to recognize and appreciate each little baby-step of teshuvah. Our desire to change and improve in itself has value, leading us on our way to attaining complete spiritual elevation.

Taking us By the Hand through the Teshuvah Process
Rashi asks why the Torah uses the form of the word shav when describing how Hashem will return our captivities rather than heshiv, which means causing others to return. The form shav indicates that Hashem himself returns with us. Since the Shechina dwells among Israel in exile, at the time of our redemption, Hashem Himself is redeemed as well (Megillah 29a). In addition, the day of the ingathering of the exiles will be so great and difficult, that Hashem himself will hold the hand of each and every Jew personally escorting us back home, as it states, “You will be gathered up one by one, O Children of Israel” (Yesha’yahu 27:1); (Rashi, Devarim 30:3). Rav Shmuel Tal explains that ‘exile’ can also refer to the distance of our soul from its source. Thus, we may learn from Rashi’s explanation that Hashem’s presence always dwells within the teshuvah process of both the individual Jew and the general community of Israel. In addition, we learn that Hashem himself takes each of us by the hand in order to help lift us up and out of sin and exile. He guides us personally to return to His presence, by removing the blocks of our ‘heartwalls’ (Based on Tal Chaim, pp. 26-28).

­­­­­­­­­­Why Bother Doing Teshuvah when We Relapse Year after Year?
When I look through my old confession-journals, I find many repetitions, from year to year. Resolutions I took upon myself were short-lived and each year after the High Holidays passed, it seems like I slid back from the ladder of teshuvah. “So what,” I ask myself, “does teshuvah accomplish if it is so ephemeral?” Why go through all the motions of teshuvah only to relapse year after year? This can be compared to a religious Jewish family preparing for Pesach. Everyone is busy cleaning, dusting, scrubbing and polishing. Yet, soon after Pesach, the muck, dust and dirt begin to sneak back in and by next Erev Pesach the home is no cleaner than the previous year. So what is the value of cleaning if everything becomes dirty again? Rav Tal explains that even the short time that the home is sparkling clean adds greatly to the holiday Simcha. In addition, if we never cleaned our house for Pesach, the accumulated dirt would make our home more filthy year by year. This applies to the concept of teshuvah. Even if we only manage to keep our resolves of repentance for a short time, the time we enjoy our newfound connection with the Divine spark of our soul has value in itself and imbues the High Holidays and Sukkot with an added dimension. Moreover, more and more blocking barriers would accumulate around our heart, making it harder and harder to return to the essence of our soul, if we didn’t take advantage of this favorable yearly time for teshuvah (Tal Chaim, p. 15-17).

Revealing the Light of Hashem Within Us
Sin can be compared to darkness; as soon as we turn on the light, it is dispelled. Likewise, we can dispel the darkness of depravity. Once we infuse our thought, speech and actions with deep Divine connection, our prior faults evaporate. This is because darkness and sin has no true existence. They only comprise lack of light and Divine Presence. As soon as we repent, Hashem shines His light upon us, melting away the stain of sin (Ibid., p. 10- 11). Through teshuvah towards ourselves, our people, the world and all the worlds, the entire existence will return to the Light of the Light of life. This is the secret of the light of Mashiach – the soul of the world (Based on Rav Kook, Orot HaTeshuvah 15:10). May we merit climbing the ladder of teshuvah, growing closer to complete alignment with the essence of our being! May we all return to the root of our existence, revealing our shiny jewel within which will adorn the crown of the ultimate King! 

Shana Tovah Tikateivu V’Tichateumu!
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why Do We Need to Tithe the Produce of the Holy Land?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ki Tavo
Ingathering the Exiles by Performing the Mitzvot of the Land
Today I got the following SMS from my downstairs’ neighbor and tenant Yehudit:
Boker tov (good morning) I see there is a lot of fruit to be picked… Do you want help with this? Just let me know when and how.” I am happy to share the fruits in the garden in exchange for picking help, especially since the pomegranate trees in my backyard are out of range of my cordless phone, making it difficult to find time to pick them. “Just bring me the fruits, I will take ma’aser and give you your share!” I told Yehudit. Taking ma’aser (tithes) of the fruits and veggies that grow in our garden is a mitzvah that we, who live out on the land, get to perform daily, sometimes several times a day. It is one of the mitzvot ha’teluyot b’aretz – special mitzvot that we only perform inside of the Land of Israel. The Vilna Gaon believed that the performance of these mitzvot connected to the land brings redemption closer as he explains based on the opening verse of Parashat Ki Tavo:

ספר דברים פרק כו פסוק א וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ...
“It shall come to pass, when you come to the land…” (Devarim 26:1).

This refers to the ingathering of the exiles, similarly it states, “when you come to the land, you will plant,” (Vayikra 19:23), which means you must fulfill the commandments contingent on living in Eretz Yisrael. For the ingathering of the exiles depends on the blessings which follow the fulfillment of both verses, according to our Sages in the Talmud (Megillah17b; and Sanhedrin 98a) …this was the Vilna Gaon’s great aspiration (Kol HaTor 3:7). We are very fortunate that we get to fulfill this aspiration and witness Jews returning to our holy land from the four corners of the earth! Why is the mitzvah of taking tithes so important and what does it involve?

The Fruits of the Land are Holier than Us
In the Land of Israel, the fruits are “holier than thou.” What this means is that the essence of the fruits and vegetables from the Land of Israel is already in tune with the final redemption, whereas we are still in the process. These fruits are so holy that part of their holiness cannot be accessed today. Only at the time of redemption (may it be soon), will we and the Kohanim be able to eat them in purity and holiness. The fruits of the Land of Israel include a part that is already imbued with the holiness of the Temple, and can only be eaten at the Temple Mount. Therefore, growing fruits in the Land of Israel brings us closer to the final redemption. “But you, O mountains of Yisrael, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people of Israel; for they will soon be coming” (Yechezkiel 36:8). The Talmud comments, “…there is no more revealed end [of days] than that… (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a).

The Tribe of Levi – Dedicated to Fulltime Temple Service
When the Jewish people originally inherited the Land of Israel, each tribe was allotted a portion corresponding to its spiritual essence. However, the tribe of Levi did not receive any portion of land, because they are chosen for the fulltime occupation of serving in the Temple. The demanding work of farming was not to detract from their one hundred percent dedication to the Temple – the place where Heaven and Earth meet. When the Kohanim would sacrifice, the Jewish people and the entire world would receive atonement, become elevated, and connected with Hashem.

Offerings of Elevation
How did the tribe of Levi support itself while engaged in selfless work to benefit the world? In addition to receiving specific parts of the sacrifices, each of the remaining tribes were to give ten percent of their produce to the Levites (Bamidbar 18:21, 18:24), who assisted the Kohanim in the Temple service and accompanied them with musical instruments. This tithe is called מַעֲשֶר רִאשוֹן/ma’aser rishon – first or primary tithe. The word מַאַשֶר/ma’aser literarily means “from ten” referring to the ten percent which every tribe was to give to the Levites. The Levites supported the Kohanim by giving them ten percent of the produce they received, (See Bamidbar 18:26, 18:28). This tithe is called תְרוּמָת מַעֲשֶר/terumat ma’aser – contribution from the tithes. Receiving their main sustenance from the Levites, it was sufficient for the rest of Israel to give the Kohanim an undefined small amount (According to the Torah all we needed to give was שהוא כל/kol shehu – something, even just one grain of wheat (Rambam, Laws of Terumot, Chapter 3, Halacha 1). The contribution given to the Kohen is called תְרוּמָה גְדוֹלָה/terumah gedolah – the great elevation, since we become elevated by means of giving an offering to the Kohen whose service connects every Jew with their Father in Heaven.

Integrating Working the Land with the Holiness of the Temple
In addition to the tithes for the tribe of Levi, Parashat Ki Tavo mentions מַעֲשֶר עֳנִי/ma’aser ani – the tithes for the poor to be given every third and sixth year of the Sabbatical year cycle. This tithe is one of the many ways that the Torah ensures that the poor will be supported and have all their needs met.

ספר דברים פרק כו (יא) וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ: (יב) כִּי תְכַלֶּה לַעְשֵׂר אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁת שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר וְנָתַתָּה לַלֵּוִי לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה וְאָכְלוּ בִשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְשָׂבֵעוּ... (טו) הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמְּךָ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֵת הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לָנוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ:
“You shall enjoy together with the Levite and the stranger among you, all the bounty that Hashem your G-d has bestowed you and your household. When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield – in the third year, the year of the tithe – and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; that they may eat their fill in your settlements… Look down from your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers” (Devarim 26:11-15).

The remaining years, (one, two four and five following the Shemitah (Sabbatical Year) every Jewish farmer was to appear in Jerusalem with his מַעֲשֶר שֵנִי/ma’aser sheni – secondary tithe, from the produce that he had grown himself in the Holy Land. He was to take off time from the demanding work of the Land, in order to become spiritually elevated while immersed in the holiness of the Temple environment. The ma’aser sheni assures the connection and integration of the physical work of the Land, with the spiritual holiness of the Temple. The mindful eating of the holy produce of ma’aser sheni at the holiest place on earth and the conscious thankfulness to Hashem with every bite chewed elevates the eating and reminds the farmer, that it is only Hashem’s blessing rather than his personal effort, which brings about this abundance.

Perpetuating the Agricultural Tithes
Today, due to our long winded exile, we are, unfortunately, unable to keep all the laws of tithes the way the Torah originally intended. No one today, is able to eat anything in ritual purity, as we have not yet been able to access the means to properly purify ourselves from contact with death. Therefore, it is neither possible for us to elevate ma’aser sheni – the tithe to be eaten in purity and holiness at the Temple Mount, nor for the Kohen to eat terumah. However, since the laws of tithes of our produce are written directly in the Torah, and are so important, we are required to keep these laws even in a more limited way today, in order to ensure that we do not forget them. I feel honored to be perpetuating the holy laws of the Land by keeping them in the manner possible today, and by teaching them to my students, ingathered from the exile to the Holy Land. May the day come soon that we will once again be able to fulfill all the laws of the tithes in the highest way intended by the Torah! I can’t wait to bring my tithes of grapes, figs and pomegranates, in decorated baskets to relish in the holiness of the Temple Mount.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Whom Do we Benefit by Dressing Modestly?

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Ki Tetze

Self-Expression versus Modesty
When I first heard about the concept of tzniut (modesty), I didn’t understand it at all. I was a new, 19-year-old girl in the Yeshiva, coming from a more than open-minded Western background. For a nature-loving, flower-power girl who believed in full self-expression, without hiding any part of herself, connecting the word ‘modesty’ – a synonym for humility – even loosely to women’s dress code seemed absolutely absurd. Many of my friends, whom I considered humble and modest, walked around naturally in their birthday suit on islands for likeminded naturalists. After several years of searching for the connection between modesty and covering up, I can easily relate to the struggle with tzniut that many women face today. Understanding the meaning of modesty, unrelated to dress code, is in itself a challenge- especially since self-expression has been on the top of the list of my values even as a one-year old, when I would sing for passersby from my father’s shoulder. During a gradual process, while becoming a channel for Divine expression has surpassed the need for egocentric self-expression, I have nibbled at the concept of modesty, which is bit-by-bit becoming more palatable. Modesty entails being thankful for our G-d-given gifts rather than taking personal pride in projecting our talents and assets outwardly. More important than a preoccupation with expressing ourselves in words, song and art, is tuning into what others need to hear, see and learn from us. Rather than being motivated by the need to receive credit and recognition, a modest person operates in this world as a humble servant, desiring to use her talents for the benefit of others.

Modesty in Dress – A Service to Mankind
How can we apply the concept of modesty to our wardrobe? How do we dress as women who desire to use our assets to benefit others rather than gaining personal recognition? Whom would we benefit by wearing long sleeves and closed necklines? We need to understand that the beauty of our body is a G-d-given gift, granted to us for holy marital pleasure, rather than for receiving personal acknowledgement. Dressing publically in a way that accentuates our physicality, does not serve anyone, let alone ourselves. If we cannot benefit the public, by the choice of our clothing, then at the very least, we have a responsibility to avoid dressing in a way that does a disservice to others. Many women are unaware that men’s desire for a female body is not always holy. Therefore, dressing modestly avoids being a detriment to the male population. Since, a woman’s body may entice a man’s yetzer hara (negative impulse); we benefit men, by concealing our physical figure.

Protecting the ‘Weaker Sex’ from Temptation
Many women take offence by the notion of dressing modestly for the sake of avoiding “putting a stumble block in front of the blind” (Vayikra 19:14). They claim that they are not responsible to keep men’s appetite for women in check. Why should a woman suffer by wearing suffocating necklines in the heat of summer, just because a man cannot control his own animalistic tendency? I usually explain that just as it would be very inconsiderate to smoke in front of a person who is super sensitive to cigarette vapor, so is it inconsiderate to dress in a way that appeals to men’s lower instincts. Hashem created the nature of men and women in such a way that they would want to get married and fulfill the first commandment: “be fruitful and multiply” by building families. A woman naturally longs for an emotional and intimate bond with her soulmate, who will elevate her to become a mother of children whom she yearns to nurture. However, the male nature craves independence above all. To tie himself to a family can be challenging for a man. Therefore, Hashem imbued man with a very strong physical desire for women so that he too will seek a suitable mate, and elevate his desire through the holy marriage union. Any caring person would want to protect the weak from temptation. Therefore, realizing the nature of man and the intensity of his desire should naturally make a woman want to dress in a way that protects him from being enticed.

Do You Want to be a Face or a Behind?
The reason why many women are obstinate in this respect is that they have been force-fed tzniut down their throat since early childhood, in a way that makes them feel inferior, as if they do not have value as humans but are regarded merely as evil temptresses of men. In order to assert their own self-respect they reserve the right to dress as they please whether it bothers Rabbis and other men or not. Many women who dress seductively are motivated by an inferiority complex. A woman with low self-esteem intellectually, may compensate by asserting the power her body has over men. True self-confidence inspires an attitude of magnitude that affords dressing in a way that considers the limitations of others. Yet, dressing modestly is not only a way of showing consideration for others- it actually serves the woman herself by imbuing her with true self-respect. Realizing that the purpose of our body is to serve our soul – a spark of the Divine Indwelling Feminine Presence – naturally makes us want to dress in a way that causes others to view us as spiritual rather than physical beings. Covering our bodies with soft, flowing, loose wrappings highlights the light of our soul that shines through our facial features. Even though it is permitted for women to reveal their body in front of other women, out of self-respect, many women avoid doing so, as they want everyone to regard them as a face rather than as a behind.

Does the Shechinah Reside in the Nudist Beaches?
The holier something is the more covering it requires. This is why the Torah scroll is covered by both velvet and silver, before being enclosed in its special cabinet. The holiness of womanhood – embodying the Shechinah – necessitates a high standard of covering. Upon marriage, a woman rises to even higher holiness, as a potential mother. Therefore, a married woman requires an even greater level of modesty that includes a covering for her head. Just as greater levels of holiness require higher levels of modesty- so does lack of modesty cause the holiness of the Shechinah to depart:

ספר דברים פרק כג (טו) כִּי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ וְלָתֵת אֹיְבֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא יִרְאֶה בְךָ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְשָׁב מֵאַחֲרֶיךָ:
“Since Hashem your G-d walks in the midst of your camp to protect you and deliver your enemies to you. Therefore, let your camp be holy, let Him not find any nakedness among you and turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15).

Parashat Ki Tetze teaches us that immodesty in dress and demeanor chases away the Shechinah. Therefore, the holiness of the camp of Israel, permeated with the Shechinah, precludes public nakedness and improper sexuality, which is also called nakedness. As kind and as humble people may be on the nudist beaches, the Divine presence surely does not reside there.

The Burkini Outlaw
Today, it is not the nudists that cause the biggest stir in the news. Rather, a fully covered woman, who chooses to enjoy a swim at the beach is considered much more offensive by the authorities of the Western world. I can’t believe that in the Free World of the 21st century women, whether Muslim or not, have been arrested for wearing a modest swimsuit at the beach, while various degrees of exhibitionists and other perverts are free to expose their sexual appetites publically. This lack of religious freedom seems even more backward than the attempt to enforce women to wear modest dress in certain neighborhoods. I guess the Burkini threatens the Western World’s penchant for flaunting the flesh of full female forms freely. What it boils down to is that every woman is in charge of her own body. No one has the right to force a woman to either uncover or cover. However, I hope that every woman will choose how to dress wisely, showing consideration by thinking twice about the effect her uncovered body parts have on men, on the world and on her self-dignity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fostering Fruit Friendships

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat Shoftim
My Emotional Attachment to Fruit-Trees
I have a sad, dead nectarine tree in my garden. It is the third nectarine tree to go, and I’m mourning because my trees are in some aspect like my children (not quite – obviously –but I do feel a strong attachment). Even when my husband prunes the fruit trees during their dormant winters, I may feel pain, if too much of the branches were chopped down, or the wrong branches were cut in the wrong way. Not that I could do it better myself – that’s for sure – and how can I ever expect my patient and kind husband to wait for me to tell him where to cut each and every branch? Even that, however, may not spare me from pain, as I might give him wrong instructions… Believe it or not, the Torah has very strict requirements regarding cutting down and even pruning fruit-trees. This is because a human being is compared to a tree, as we learn from Parashat Shoftim.

The special quality of plants and trees lies in their attachment to the earth, the source of our existence and nourishment. Whereas our intellect is connected to the animate, our emotions are compared to vegetation that embody growth and development. Just as vegetation is unique in its constant unification with its source, so too within humans, our emotive powers are always attached to our essence. This also explains why emotional traits and tendencies are so powerful, and why it is so difficult for a kind person to become severe, etc. By comparing humans to “a tree in the field,” the Torah is alluding that our emotional qualities are more essential than our intellect. When we work on ourselves, we need to focus on refining our emotions rather than our mind, for perfecting and polishing our emotive character has the greatest impact on our essence. I hope and pray that the dead nectarine tree in my garden represents some of my negative emotions that I am now ready to let go.

Do Not Kill a Fruit-Tree!
ספר דברים פרק כ (יט) כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר:

“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” (Devarim 20:19).

This verse describes a war-situation in which we are forbidden to destroy fruit-trees in the enemy city. Since fruit-trees give life to humanity and are intended for food, we are not permitted to cut them down – even in order to conquer the city. How much more so, may we not cut down trees wantonly. It is prohibited to uproot or cut down a fruit tree if we do not have an acceptable reason to do so (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:8). There are different opinions about what is considered “acceptable reasons.” Some halachic authorities permit cutting down a fruit tree if we need the place. Others permit cutting a tree down only if it is damaging the ground, and the surrounding trees (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 116; Shemirat haGuf veNefesh veBal Tashchit 15). Therefore, before cutting down any fruit-tree, please consult with a competent rabbi. Whereas, there is no halachic problem cutting off branches of a fruit tree if it will cause it to grow better, certain halachic authorities hold that destruction of any portion of a tree that does not result in its improvement is forbidden (Har Tzvi, Hilchot Sukkah, 101; Yechaveh Da’at, Vol. 5, 46). This makes sense since a fruit-tree is compared to a human being, and just like an operation could cause death, so have I experienced trees dying as a result of pruning. How much trepidation must a person have when pruning his fruit-trees. Good my husband is a doctor!

Take from Nature What You Need, But Do Not Destroy It
Our sages expanded the Torah prohibition of Bal Tashchit – “do not destroy” – to refer to vandalism of any nature. It includes any wanton or needless destruction of anything on earth.

רמב"ם, הלכות מלכים פרק ו, הלכה י  ולא האילנות בלבד, אלא כל המשבר כלים, וקורע בגדים, והורס בנין, וסותם מעין, ומאבד מאכלות דרך השחתה, עובר בלא תשחית...
Not only trees, but also whoever breaks vessels, rents garments, destroys a building, obstructs a wellspring, or wastes food in a destructive way transgresses the mitzvah of “Bal Tashchit” (“do not destroy”)… (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:10).

The Torah cautions us not to waste anything in the world, especially not food. In our world of abundance, we often take food for granted and are not always careful to avoid wasting it. On a deeper level, we can learn the importance of not squandering our talents and time on unworthy pursuits. The mitzvah of Bal Tashchit also highlights the Divine imperative to do what we can to preserve our environment. Sefer Hachinuch makes a connection between character development and avoiding even the slightest waste. He equates unnecessary destruction with “every evil thing” and explains that righteous people who inspire others to come close to the Torah must develop a higher sensitivity and love for everything good in Hashem’s world. Therefore, by conducting ourselves with concern for the environment, we gradually accustom ourselves to caring for not only our fellow human, but also for all of Hashem’s creation (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 529).

Guidelines for Fruit-Pickers
It can be challenging not to waste the fruits of the garden. During picking season, most fruit trees are surrounded by mounds of fallen fruits that attract flies and insects. Chickens will happily munch on fallen and damaged fruits, especially when picked up before they are completely sundried. As part of caring for all of Hashem’s creation, I endeavor to master the art of picking fruits, walking the tightrope between under and over ripe. We can learn to develop our sensitivity to these gentle G-d given beings, by considering texture and color. This way we may hear the soft call of the fruits asking to be picked. Grapes need to be soft to the touch and not hard as golf balls. Yellow plums must not be green, and you actually need to wait for red plums to turn purple. The trick is to tug very gently at a fruit. If it comes off easily without having to yank it, then it is fully ripe. It is a challenge to get to everything in time and to manage to put the fruits, which need extra time to continue ripening in the house, in the fridge at the right time, before they turn brown.

Using Each Fruit for Its Highest Purpose
Keeping the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit entails utilizing each item according to the way it is created to benefit us best. Each fruit has its purpose. You may serve the highest quality fruits in a fruit basket. Those with blemishes can be cut and used for fruit-salad. The mushy overripe fruits are ideal for a smoothie. Likewise, we sort the grapes into three piles: for eating, for grape-juice, and to feed the chickens. You can make fruit compote by cooking any combination of soft-pitted fruits for approximately twenty minutes to half an hour on low heat. I like to add raisins and cinnamon to my compote. There is no need to add sugar. A favorite compote with my students is made from apples, raisins, and cinnamon. Fruit compote keeps in the fridge for several weeks. Applesauce, pie, peach preserve and apricot ice cream grace my freezer. When fall kicks in, and the trees stand bare, I sigh a sigh of relief!

Practical Tips to Avoid Wasting Precious Natural Resources
Avoiding waste is relevant year round and we must always inculcate the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit into our overall awareness. Here are a few things we can do to reduce wasting paper – made from trees.

· Keep a place or box for scrap paper to be used for quick notes, shopping lists and art projects, etc.

· Save your work on the computer and only print out the final version.

· Adjust the default of your printer settings to print on both sides.

· Donate online and minimize the need for printed materials to be sent to you.

Trees need water, and especially during the hot and dry Mediterranean summers, water is scarce. Water is our most vital natural resource, since no human effort will ever be able to artificially manufacture water. Repeated water abuse is threatening our planet with dehydration. Let us develop positive habits for the conservation and recycling of water:

· Scrub your fruits and veggies in a big bowl and tub, and reuse the water to water your garden or houseplants.

· Reuse the water from rinsing your sprouts to water your plants. Notice how your plants will grow better with the extra nutrition contained in the “sprout water.”

· Do not wash your dishes with running water but in a tub. Soap the dishes with the water off and then turn it on to rinse. You will use less water this way and the water of the tub can be reused to water your grass or fruit-trees.

· Be mindful of waste with regard to watering gardens, and do NOT hose down your walkway to make it clean.

· When turning on water while waiting for it to turn warm enough for the shower, fill up a bucket or a few Netilat Ya’dayim cups for reuse.

We live in an era of instant gratification. The western “consumer culture” (an outgrowth of the hedonistic Roman perspective) persuades us to concern ourselves with our immediate comfort without considering future consequences. However, everything in creation contains sparks of vitality. We can elevate these sparks by making a conscious effort to compost, preserve and recycle rather than throwing everything away.