Friday, June 25, 2010
The Book of Michah 5:6-6:8
This week’s haftorah includes the famous verse regarding walking modestly with Hashem. I would like to call on you, dear reader, to share your perspective on how to apply this principle in our time. I’m also interested in your opinion about co-ed college bathrooms.
The Connection between the Haftorah and the Torah Reading
This week's haftorah reveals Hashem's amazing love for His people. It opens by describing the messianic epoch when there will no longer be any need to turn to other nations for assistance. Prior to the war of Gog and Magog the mighty nations of the world will assemble against Israel. However, Israel will turn into a strong “lion among the beasts of the forest,” no longer relying on the other nations, but finally triumphing over all of them. At that time, the Jewish people will place their full trust in Hashem and recognize that salvation comes from Him alone. Michah continues describing the purification process during the Messianic era, leading to complete belief in the one true G-d by all the people in the world. Hashem will remove all the weapons of war from Israel, because they will no longer be needed. In the same vein, Hashem will destroy all forms of idolatry including sorcery, fortunetellers, and the Asherah trees. Michah recalls some of the ways in which Hashem protected Israel during our 40 year journey in the wilderness. He mentions the incident of Balak the king of Moav hiring the sorcerer Bilam to curse the Jewish people – the main topic of this week's Torah reading. He describes how Hashem delivered Israel from Egypt and replaced the curses that Bilam, son of Beor, tried to utter against them with blessings. Thus, this is an appropriate haftorah for parashat Balak. Michah concludes the haftorah with advice regarding the main thing Hashem requests of us, namely to: perform justice, love kindness and walk modestly with Hashem.
Miriam – Inspirational Teacher of Women
Among the many great things Hashem did for us, that we need to properly appreciate was providing us with excellent leadership: "For I brought you up out of the land of Mitzrayim, and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moshe, Aharon and Miriam" (Michah 6:4). Reading about this great team of Jewish leaders at the present time can also be seen as a tribute to Aharon the Kohen and Miriam, the prophetess, who passed away in last week’s parashah, Parashat Chukat. Targum Yonatan adds in his translation of this verse: “Miriam to teach the women,” just like Moshe Rabbeinu was the first "Rosh Yeshiva," Miriam was the first Torah teacher of the Jewish women. Rav Aviner explains how humanity is created in the image of G-d, both male and female. Our physical and spiritual differences, make it impossible to teach men and women in the same manner. Each gender has its own way of learning and requires its own separate guidance.
If Miriam is the role-model for all female Torah educators of women, why is it not mentioned directly in the Torah that Miriam was the teacher of women? I believe this is to teach us a vital difference between the teaching method of men and women. Since, men are more rigid and scientific; they need formal teaching such as lectures. However, women learn from many different modalities of education. In a formal lesson, only the intellect is speaking. In real life, the entire personality relates. Since women sometimes learn more from behavior in real life than from a formal shiur (lecture), Miriam did not necessarily apply the formal way of teaching. In the national bestseller, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Deborah Tannen explains that men report while women “rapport.” Whereas, men seek information, women care most about “gaining closeness through more intimate self-revelation.” For this reason, Miriam is not described directly in the Torah as “the teacher of women,” because she was not a formal teacher. When she went among the women with her tambourine and danced, they were motivated to get up and join her exhilarating praise of Hashem. It didn't state that Miriam told the women to go out with drums and dances, only that “Miriam the prophetess…took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Shemot 15:20). It was her charismatic personality and righteousness, which inspired the Jewish women to follow her lead. Miriam, the prophetess, taught all the daughters of Israel by way of her righteous deeds. From Miriam, the entire nation of women learned how to improve their behavior and connect with Hashem.
“Walk Modestly With Your G d."
The conclusion of our haftorah describes how in the messianic era, the Jewish people ask for guidance how to serve G-d. The prophet reminds us, that all we need to do is contained within the Torah and the mitzvoth, which he sums up as follows: "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what G d requires of you: only to do justice, love kindness, and walk modestly with your G-d" (Michah 6:8). The Hebrew term for “modestly” used in this verse derives from the root of the word tzniut. This teaches us about the vital importance of tzniut for men, as well as women, especially in the messianic age. The three most important character-traits we need to cultivate are justice, chesed (kindness) and tzniut. It is easy to understand the centrality of kindness and justice in the Torah. Hashem created the entire world for the sake of chesed (Tehillim 89:3), and the Torah is permeated with stories of the chesed of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Without justice, the world cannot continue to exist. Therefore, establishing a court of justice is even among the seven mitzvoth for B’nei Noach (gentiles). However, what is so important about tzniut, that it is included in the three main attributes Hashem requires of us?
It is interesting to note that only tzniut is described as walking with Hashem. Although some mistranslations may read “before your G-d,” the Hebrew word im does not mean “before,” but rather “with” (Maharzav, Bemidbar Rabah 1). Through developing the mida of tzniut, we emulate the ways of Hashem as the following midrash demonstrates:
"'Hashem spoke to Moshe in the ohel moed (the private tent of meeting)' (Bamidbar 1:1). Hashem had spoken to Moshe earlier from the burning bush, in Mitzrayim and in Sinai. Once the ohel moed stood, Hashem said: tzniut (modesty) is beautiful, as it says, '. . . to walk modestly with your G-d' (Michah 6:8). So said David, 'Every honorable bat melech (princess) dwells within' (Tehillim 45:14). Bat Melech refers to Moshe . . . Hashem said, 'Such is My honor, that I will speak from within the ohel moed"' (Bemidbar Rabah 1:3).
Rabbi Mordechai Willig learns from this midrash, that our pasuk from Michah refers not only to man’s tzniut before G-d, but also to Hashem’s own modest behavior. Hashem acts with utmost tzniut by speaking from the interior covered space of the ohel moed. We acquire closeness to Hashem by emulating Him through tzniut behavior. Therefore, we must be tzanua with Hashem, who modeled tzniut to the point of being invisible.
Co-ed Bathrooms and the Honor of the King’s Daughter
In contrast, I was made aware by some of my Shabbat guests, that the female students in certain very well respected colleges, like Yale, have no option but to share bathrooms with their fellow male students. “What exactly is wrong with co-ed bathrooms?” asked my guest. “There is nothing specific in the Torah against that.” I’m not even going to attempt answering the question, as the issue seems to me so basic that it doesn’t need any particular command. I am saddened about how decadent our Western society has become, that we have lost all sense of decency and modesty. Even the Moabite women were permitted to convert to Judaism precisely because of the notion of modesty. While the Moabite men are forbidden to convert, “because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Miztrayim” (Devarim 23:4-5), this did not apply to the Moabite women, since it is not the way of a woman to go out towards wayfarers, to bring them bread and water (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 77a). Now tell me, is it the way of a woman and “the honor of a king’s daughter” to go out to the co-ed bathroom, brushing her teeth next to a man shaving, even if she is perfectly covered by her bathrobe?
“Tzniut is Beautiful”
Although tzniut applies to men and women alike, women have the potential to express this attribute to an even greater extent. Perhaps, this capability is related to the inherent beauty of women. The phrase “tzniut is beautiful” is a recurring theme in the Oral Torah. In our midrash from Bemidbar Rabah, Hashem calls tzniut beautiful. Prior to the giving of the second luchot (tablets), Hashem told Moshe, “No man shall ascend with you [up the mountain]” (Shemot 34:3). Rashi explains, “…there is nothing more beautiful than modesty.” The Torah giant and landowner Boaz, noticed Ruth because of her exceptional tzniut (Rashi, Ruth 2:5).The midrash commenting on this verse, explains, that since he [Boaz] saw her beautiful deeds, he asked about her (Ruth Rabah 4:6). Through her beautiful deeds, Ruth merited to become the mother of royalty, the ancestress of King David, and ultimately, the Mashiach. Likewise, if we, Jewish women learn to excel in tzniut and model exemplary modest behavior, in spite of the immodest spirit prevailing in our current Western society, we will G-d willing walk with Hashem on the path of our final redemption.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Rabbi Zev Leff being asked the similar question, answers on an audio recording, that living together without kedushin is a Torah prohibition. A pilegesh relationship involving a man and a woman who live together without being married is actual znut (harlotry). Therefore, in order not to promote znut, the Rabbis prohibited single women from immersing in the mikvah. Although living with a niddah is a much more serious prohibition than living with a single woman after her mikvah, the Rabbis still considered it so important to minimize premarital/extramarital relations, that it took precedence over minimizing the transgression of sexually active unmarried couples. Rabbi Leff concludes that there is no heter (permission) for unmarried couples to live together, as we say at the marriage canopy: “Who forbade us those betrothed to us, but permitted us those married to us by means of chupah and kidushin.”
The real problem facing us today is that the sanctity of marriage has broken down, even among the religious. The Kabbalist Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi said that “One does not have to offer Kabbalistic explanations to understand that to renew the practice of pilegesh today would destroy the institution of Jewish marriage. A pilegesh was something exclusive to the times of the Bible.” Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, concurs: “Our duty as rabbis is to encourage the holy institution of marriage, not to ape the licentiousness of the Western world, which places egotistical satisfaction before everything else.” Unfortunately, those “spiritual leaders” who promote pilegeshut have seemingly forgotten that the main reason of our life is to perform mitzvoth and thereby elevate our lower inclinations in the service of Hashem. It seems to me that the main motivation for the attempt to halachically legitimize the institution of pilegesh, is in order to cater to the yetzer hara (selfish inclination) of religious people, who have become greatly influenced by the pleasure seeking of Western Society, and its pursuit of instant gratification. The problem is, that many of those practicing what they call a pilegesh relationship, validate their individual yetzer harah, believing that their actions are totally halachically justified. This reminds me of the Jewish gay movement. Before that movement became popular, a man, born with an abnormal sexual disposition, was aware that acting upon his tendencies, violates the Jewish practice. However, today some people do not see a contradiction between being gay and Jewishly observant. Nowadays, you can find gay “Rabbis,” gay minyans (prayer quorums), and even gay “married couples.” In a similar manner, certain “Rabbis” and “spiritual leaders” wearing the orthodox garb with long beard and peyot, promote the social institution of pilegesh. They may quote and misquote all kinds of halachic sources to legalize their position, most often because of their personal desire to take a pilegesh for themselves. It is alarming that these “Rabbis” have no shortage of followers who welcome the opportunity for instant corporal gratification through minimum effort, without having to make any commitment. We may have compassion for a single man who is unable to control himself and live in long term celibacy. When such a man gives in to his inclination, he is fully aware that his behavior is far from the ideal, but that unfortunately, he can’t help himself. However, it is much more alarming when pleasure-seeking and lust turns into a trend, disguised by the so-called pilegesh relationship, without the slightest feeling of shame.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Shabbat Rosh Chodesh
Birth, Renewal, and Redemption
The forthcoming redemption described in our haftorah, in fact employs the metaphor of labor and birth: “Before she labored, she was delivered. Before her pangs came, she bore a son. Whoever heard of such a thing?...Can a land pass through labor in a single day? Or shall a nation be born all at once? ...Shall I, who bring about labor, not bring about birth? ...Shall I, who cause birth, shut the womb?” (Yeshayahu 66:7-10). According to Metzudat David, “Before she was in labor she gave birth” refers to Tzion, because when all of her children will gather inside of her, it is considered as if she gave birth to them, without labor or contractions. Radak explains this metaphor to refer to the sudden redemption which will come upon Israel. Yerushalayim is compared to the mother, and the Jewish people, her children. Before all the children of Israel have gathered completely, the redemption will come unexpectedly to Israel, just like a woman giving birth prior to having contractions. Since the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth were the consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, at the time of redemption, when the Tree of Knowledge becomes transformed into the Tree of Life, labor pangs are lessened and the process of birth will be less painful. In our time, we are already experiencing the beginning of this change. I know many women who gave birth before they reached the birthing clinic. This almost happened to myself. I just made it, and gave birth both times, less than twenty minutes after I had arrived. Our haftorah is overflowing with lush promise and hope, maternal love, and divine protection. “I will extend peace to her like a stream...Then you shall suckle, and be carried upon her sides and be dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you and you shall be comforted in Yerushalayim” ( Yeshayahu 66:12-12). Radak reveals that the metaphor of a woman is employed because women puts more effort into things than men. Just like a mother comforts her children from any difficult experiences they may have gone through, so will the Divine Mother comfort her children, Israel, from the suffering of exile. The prophet relates the place of comfort to Jerusalem, for in this place Hashem will reveal His glory to us. Metzudat David expands this concept and explains that we will be comforted in Yerushalayim, because specifically in Jerusalem will Israel receive much goodness, as a comfort for all the suffering we endured. During redemption, Hashem will give birth to a renewed reality. Spiritually, the world becomes reborn, with a heightened consciousness and capacity for prophecy. This is reflected in Rosh Chodesh, when, on a small scale, we renew our awareness of Hashem. Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch explains, that each time the moon finds the sun again, receiving its rays of light afresh; Hashem wants His people to find Him again, and to be illuminated with His fresh rays of Light. By seeing the renewal of the moon, we access our potential for personal renewal. The more we allow this renewal to enter our lives, the closer we get to the ultimate renewal and the final redemption, as described in our haftorah.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Haftorat Parashat Shelach Lecha
This week’s haftorah about Rachav the convert, teaches us about the ability of a person to completely turn her life around from being on the lowest spiritual rung (Rachav was a harlot) to raise herself up to the highest spiritual level of closeness to Hashem. (Rachav merited becoming the wife of Yehoshua the leader of the Jewish people). It is also interesting that Rachav’s declaration of conversion includes recognizing the right of the Jewish people to conquer the Land of Israel.
Rachav the Harlot
“Yehoshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying go view the land, and Yericho. They went, and came to the house of a woman harlot named Rachav, and lodged there...” (Yehoshua 2:1). Most commentaries agree that Rachav was a harlot, and although the word zonah can also be translated as inn-keeper (from the same root as the word mazon), she was only called thus as clean language – to diminish her disgrace. Possibly the “inn” served as both a place for lodging and meals, where even her body became food for the lodgers. Rachav, the harlot was a “loose” woman. Just as she lacked the boundary of morality, her home, rather than being inside of the boundary of the city, was strategically built into the city-wall. Rachav became well-known in the world, since important officials visited her “inn” and confided in her. The spies of Israel went to Rachav, because top secrets were revealed to her through her important connections.
Rachav: Woman of Ultimate Renewal
Upon meeting the Jewish spies, a spark was ignited in Rachav’s soul. She was inspired to turn her life completely around and perform the highest teshuva possible. She risked her life to save the Jews from the king of Yericho, as she explained the reason for her heroic action: “I know that Hashem has given you the Land, and that dread of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of you. For we have heard how Hashem dried up the waters of the Sea of Suf before you, when you came out of Egypt…” (Yehoshua 2: 9-10). The midrash explains how there was no ruler or noble-man who had not come to Rachav, the harlot. She was ten years old when Israel left Egypt, and she was involved in an immoral way of life during all the forty years when Israel was in the wilderness, but in the end of her fiftieth year she converted. (Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 1:9). What motivated Rachav the harlot to do this intense teshuva? It was what she heard about the miracles Hashem performed for Israel that inspired her, as she stated, “For we have heard…” There are many different levels of hearing. The rest of the Canaanites also heard. They became afraid and were trembling, but their hearing did not motivate them to any personal commitment or action. Only Rachav responded to the truth that she heard – about Hashem’s miraculous salvation of the children of Israel, and she processed what she had heard for forty years. Despite all of these years, none of the original excitement of the event had faded in her memory. At the age of fifty, she was finally moved to act upon what had made such an impression upon her as a little girl. Her recognition of Hashem being the Master of the Universe moved her greatly. However, it was only by meeting the righteous Israelites that she received the impetus to change her life around completely. In response to Rachav’s intense teshuvah, the Jewish spies promised her that they would save the lives of her and her family, at the time of the Jewish conquest of the city.
Elevating the Tools of Immorality
The highest form of repentance is through using and elevating the identical tools employed for the previous sin. This kind of teshuva is called teshuvat hamiskal. For example, if someone used to cook milk and meat together daily, for a decadent non-Jewish restaurant, then the highest form of repentance would be elevating his cooking skills by cooking for a holy Jewish event, such as a wedding or sheva bracha. This kind of teshuva transforms the previous sins into merits. Perhaps the reason why Scripture mentions Rachav’s previous occupation, calling her “the harlot” even after her conversion (Yehoshua 6:22), is to emphasize the greatness of her teshuva. Davka (specifically) from the lowest place of being a harlot, a person can seek refuge under the wing of Hashem and be saved from both physical and spiritual death. It was actually the extent of her prior sins that eventually brought her to convert and seek closeness with Hashem. Rachav saved the Jewish spies by “letting them down by the rope through the window” (Yehoshua 2:15) Rashi explains that by means of this same rope and window the adulterers used to come up to her. She said, “Master of the Universe! Through these I sinned, through these please forgive me! Through these I had my escapades so to speak. With these very tools of sin, I'm going to risk my life and let down these two Jewish spies.” Rachav teaches us that human beings can use the exact tools of their failure to anchor themselves closer to the Ribono shel Olam, and merit to be accepted into the elite of Klal Yisrael. Rachav merited to become the wife of Yeshoshua, and have eight prophets and Kohanim descend from her. They were: Yermiahu, Chilkiah, Shariah, Ma’aseha, Baruch ben Niriah, Chanmael and Shalom.... Rabbi Yehudah says even Chuldah the prophetess was descended from Rachav. If someone who came from a people [the Canaanites] about whom it states, “Don't keep any soul alive,” could bring herself so close to Hashem, how much more so concerning the Jews when we keep the Torah. There are several pious female converts: Hagar, Osnat, Tziporah, Shifra, Puah, Bat Pharaoh, Rachav, Ruth and Yael the wife of Chaver the Keni (Yalkut Shimoni Yehoshua 1:9).
The Wall, the Rope and the Window
There are different opinions as to which tools of sin Rachav elevated through her teshuva. According to Yalkut Shimoni they were the wall, rope and window. These three things can be compared to the three main mitzvoth of women: Chalah, Family Purity and Candlelight. The wall protects the home and teaches us proper boundaries, this corresponds to the mitzvah of chalah. Taking a piece of our bread and giving to the Kohen teaches us the proper boundary of holding ourselves back from grabbing everything for ourselves. Like the wall, the gift of chalah protects and blesses the rest of the fruits in our orchard. It is interesting that only after her realization of Hashem’s oneness does Scripture emphasize that Rachav lived in the wall (Yehoshua 2:15). Now she has learned to place the proper wall around her being, which used to be open for all to take. However, she keeps a window open in order to interact with the outside world. She is learning when to open herself to others and how to raise up her vulnerable spot. Instead of being taken advantage of by men, now, with full consciousness, she allows herself be vulnerable, by risking her life for the sake of saving these holy men of Israel. From the window light emanates into the home. This corresponds to the mitzvah of candlelight, which enlightens the home. With the rope you connect. This corresponds to the mitzvah of family purity through which a woman connects herself to her husband. Possibly, the rope can also symbolize how Rachav elevated her past sins and thus connected her past and her future.
The Flax and the Rope
According to the Maharal of Prague, it was the flax, the rope and the window that Rachav used to help the men who came to her for prostitution. She would hide them with the flax, to save their reputation. By means of these same three things, she merited to rescue the spies. The Maharal explains that someone who commits illicit relations, sins first with his eyes. This can be compared to the window as we know the eyes are the windows of the soul. Afterwards he begins to sin with lustful thoughts, and finally, G-d forbid, through the deed itself. Just as flax is used to produce the rope, so is the thought (hirhur) the beginning of actual sin. The lustful thought is still present during the sin, in the same way as flax continues to be part of the rope. The rope is compared to the act itself, as the rope can be used to connect two people together for bad or for good (Chidushei Agadot, Part Four, Page 74, Mesechet Eduyot).
Becoming White as Snow
“She bound the scarlet cord in the window” (Yehoshua 2:21). The red thread of our haftorah ties together with the blue thread of this week’s parasha reading, where we read about the mitzvah of the techelet string in the tzitzit. Why was Rachav instructed specifically to hang a red thread of scarlet from her window as a sign to Yehoshua’s men that her family was to be saved? The color scarlet, in Hebrew is usually referred to as tola’at shani. The word “tola’at” means “worm” and “shani” refers to the dye (or the dyed material) obtained from the eggs of the insects which attach themselves to the kermes oak. The red color carries associations to Rachav’s previous occupation, such as the “red light” district. However, just as the red color of fire turns in to white ashes, the red string is a vivid symbol of no matter how immoral and wormy anyone has become, there is always hope of returning. Actually, the Hebrew word used for cord in our verse, is the very unusual “tikva,” which means hope, like in Israel’s anthem “Hatikva.” The exquisite Torah verse that we read in Shabbat hachazon eternally reminds us that “Although your sins be like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like [white] wool” (Yeshauyahu 1:18). Even if our sins are as striking as a red dye, through teshuvah we can rise above them, like Rachav, the harlot, who became the wife of the leader of Israel.
Transforming the Fire of Lust into Passion for Holiness
While the color scarlet contrasted with white usually is a negative color symbolizing sin, The Eishet Chail uses the color of scarlet in the reverse way, to protect her household against the cold of snow. “She does not fear the snow for all of her household are clothed with scarlet” (Mishlei 31:21).The color of scarlet – deep red – is the color of fire. Perhaps we can say that the Eishet Chail has her own and her family’s fire in control. She protects her family by channeling the very same fire which usually causes people to sin, into fire and passion for Hashem’s mitzvoth. One of the problems of our time is that even when a person is able to overcome his passion for sin; he sometimes forgets to remain hot for holiness. This makes him susceptible to Amalek’s influence, which cooled down Israel’s desire and yearning for holiness. Pursuit of holiness such as Torah learning, tefilah, yearning for the Temple and for Mashiach requires deed, initiative and warmth. The scarlet string may symbolize how Rachav transformed her fire for immorality into the greatest passion for holiness. This also fits in with the name Rachav which means broad.
As Rav Tzadok of Lublin explains, the advantage of the ba’al tshuva over the tzaddik is that when a crocked line is made into a straight line, the line becomes broader (Sefer Chesbonot Charutz, Chapter 6). I’d like to call on the readers to give examples of the broadness of the ba’al teshuva/convert.