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

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.” 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Why Can’t I Marry a Kohen?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Emor
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I’ve been divorced for more than ten years and am really exasperated by being set up with one weirdo after the other without being suggested even one decent man to date. I’m sick and tired of being alone and look forward to sharing my life with a quality man that shares my values and interests. Last month, at a social event, I met the nicest man. He was polite, intelligent, had a sense of humor and very attractive. Even more so, he showed a great interest in me and seemed to really understand me. You can only imagine my disappointment when I found out that he is a Kohen and prohibited from marrying a divorced woman. I’m so frustrated about this and have a very hard time understanding this law. Why does the Torah have to be so restrictive preventing two single people from sharing their love and life? 
Marian Willner (name changed)

Dear Marian,
How I feel for you in your loneliness and frustration. After all these years, you finally found a man of your heart and then it turns out that the Torah prohibits a marriage between you. The man with whom you fell in love seems to be like any other Jewish man, and the fact that he happens to be a Kohen doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in our current reality. So, in your case, it is indeed hard to understand why the Torah seems so cruel.

The Spiritual Leadership of the Kohen
The Blessing of the Kohanim 
at the Kotel during Sukkot
The Torah laws preserve the eternal reality even if at a given time they may seem irrelevant. Today, a Kohen may appear no different than any other Jew, however, we need to understand his being selected for special holiness. The Kohen was given the role of the foremost religious leader of the Jewish people. He served in the Temple and was exclusively involved in the study and practice of the Torah and the spiritual development of Israel. His ancestry is from the most distinguished family – a direct descendant of Aharon the High Priest. Throughout Jewish History, the Kohen was granted the highest status of communal leadership, together with the king, the prophet, the judge and the scholar. Whereas, the king provided national stability, the judge social stability, the Kohen provided religious stability and continuity. He connected people with Hashem through offering the sacrifices; he was a spiritual healer, a judge and a teacher. Thus, it was vital to preserve the purity of the Kohen’s heredity. Therefore, due to the special holiness of the Kohen, the Torah places certain restrictions on him: He is forbidden any contact with the dead, except for his own immediate family and the abandoned dead; and there are restrictions regarding whom he is permitted to marry.

The Role of the Kohen in Our Time
Unlike the determination of Jew or non-Jew, which follows the mother, the tribe is passed down from the father. The Kohen inherits his status from his father and bequeaths it in turn to his son. While the primary functions of the Kohen have been suspended since the destruction of the Temple, certain functions remain. He delivers the Kohanim blessing in the synagogue on holidays in the Diaspora and daily in Israel; and he officiates as the representative of the Temple in Pidyion HaBen (Redemption of the First-Born) thirty days after the birth of a first-born male. He is called first to the Torah, and he has the privilege of leading the grace after meals. Just as the Kohen has certain honors, he also has certain restrictions. To maintain the purity of the Kohen’s lineage he was kept to stricter marriage standards than his Jewish brothers.

The Marriage Restrictions of the Kohen
Parashat Emor opens with restrictions for the Kohanim (Vayikra 21:1-8), in order to preserve their special holiness. Since they are designated by G-d to serve Him in a more intimate capacity that other Jews, they are required to maintain a higher spiritual level. Their marriage restrictions are sandwiched between two Torah verses emphasizing the additional holiness of the Kohanim. “They shall be holy unto their G‑d, and not profane the name of their G‑d, for the offerings of the Lord made by fire, the bread of their G‑d, they do offer; therefore shall they be holy” (Vayikra 21:6). The following verse emphasizes the strict requirements for their family purity. This includes the prohibitive commandment that forbids a Kohen from marrying a divorced woman as it states:

ספר ויקרא פרק כא פסוק ז אִשָּׁה זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה לֹא יִקָּחוּ וְאִשָּׁה גְּרוּשָׁה מֵאִישָׁהּ לֹא יִקָּחוּ כִּי קָדשׁ הוּא לֵאלֹהָיו:
“They shall not take as wife a zonah (woman who has violated sexual prohibitions), or chalalah (woman of defective Kohen status); neither shall they marry a gerushah (divorced woman); for he is holy unto his G‑d” (Vayikra 21:7).

The following Torah verse instructs the Israelites to honor the Kohen: “You shall sanctify him because he offers the bread of your G‑d; he shall be holy to you; for I Hashem, Who sanctify you, am holy” (Vayikra 21:8). The wordקָדוֹשׁ /kadosh – ‘holy’ means separate. This is learned from the fact that the first time the word appears in the Torah is in connection with the Shabbat which is separate from the six days of creation (Bereishit 2:3). Likewise, the additional holiness of the Kohen is distinguished by certain separations. Although a regular Kohen is not restricted to marry only a virgin, he is prohibited from marrying certain women who have had an intimate relationship with another man. He is prohibited from marrying a divorcee (even his own divorced wife); a chalalah (woman of defective Kohen status), zonah (a woman who previously violated certain sexual prohibitions, including having relations with a non-Jew), or a giyoret (convert). If he marries any of them, their children likewise become chalalim (defective Kohanim). Sons do not have priestly status, and daughters may not marry kohanim. Thus a woman who is Jewish from birth, not a challalah and never married, may marry a Kohen even though she has had premarital relations, provided none of her partners were prohibited to her.

The Kohen’s Prohibition from Marrying a Divorcee does not Reflect any Blemish in Her

The prohibition of a Kohen to marry certain women seems somewhat condescending to these women, especially in light of the Torah’s reasoning that a Kohen is required to be קָדוֹשׁ /kadosh – ‘holy,’ implying that a divorcee is an inappropriate wife for one who is holy!  Why does the Torah penalize a woman who had a bad marriage, through no fault of her own, and has now met a Kohen who wants to give her a new life? Did not Amram, father of Miriam and Aharon, remarry Yocheved after divorcing her, who then gave birth to the holy Moshe Rabbeinu? I was mulling over this question for quite a while, unsatisfied with the answers I found on the net, until my husband came up with an answer that truly made sense. Since the Kohen is a direct descendant from Aharon, who is known to be the peacemaker in Israel, who “loves shalom and pursues shalom” (Pirkei Avot 1:12), the role of the Kohanim, as well, is to restore peace between family members, neighbors, friends and most importantly between husband and wife. Therefore, the lineage of the Kohen precludes the divorcee, whose marriage did not succeed. In order to preserve the ability of the Kohen to fulfill his elevated role properly, the seed of the Kohen must spring only from Jewish offspring of stable lasting marriages.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Honoring Parents

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Acharei Mot/Kodoshim
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I’m a new Ba’alat Teshuva learning to keep the Torah and Mitzvot, but I’m struggling with how to keep the mitzvah of respecting my parents. They want me to go to college and get a secular education, but I want to go to Israel and learn in a Yeshiva for women. Every night at the dinner table we fight about this issue, and sometimes I get so upset that I use bad words and call them duped, narrow minded and ruthless. Then I feel terrible and remember that I have a mitzvah to respect my parents and even fear them. Does that imply that I have to do what they want and enroll in college?
Jenny Wise (name changed)

Dear Jenny,
Rebbetzin with her father in Denmark, April 2017
What you are going through is not easy. You are developing your own identity separate from your parents who are not religious. You want to live your own life, but your parents are adamant that you get a secular education so you will be able to support yourself. You are torn in your desire to follow your heart and soul to immerse yourself in Torah in the Holy Land, while keeping the mitzvot of honoring and fearing your parents. Your discussions with your parents have turned into unproductive confrontations where your temper gets the better of you, and you later regret your disrespectful words. So how can you live your own life and still respect your parents when they demand that you obey them doing the opposite of your soul’s calling?

The Mitzvah to Obey Parents
Parashat Kedoshim teaches us the mitzvah to fear our parents, which can be hard to relate to in our times when it is popular to love but not fear and we are encouraged to do whatever we feel like.

ספר ויקרא פרק יט (ג) אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
“A person must fear his mother and father but keep my Shabbats, I am Hashem Your G-d” (Vayikra 19:3).

What is the difference between “honoring” and “fearing” our parents? Honoring includes: giving them to eat and drink, assisting them to dress, helping them enter or leave a room or building i.e.  picking them up and driving them back to where they want to go, and in general to take care of their physical needs. On the other hand, the mitzvah to fear one’s parents includes: not sitting or standing in their place, and not contradicting their words (Babylonian Talmud, Kedushin 31b). Not contradicting their words entails obeying our parents if they tell us to do a particular action. Therefore, whenever possible we should try to fulfill our parent’s request. However, if the parent will not benefit directly, whereas the child will suffer some type of loss by obeying, the child is exempt from complying with their request (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 1:50). It is not clear whether this exemption applies to you, since it is possible to say that your parents indeed will benefit from your ability to gain the means to make your own livelihood and no longer depend on their financial support.

Fear and Respect Parents Without Infringing on Mitzvah Observance
So do you really have to give up your dream to learn Torah in Israel in order to keep the mitzvah of fearing your parents? “…But you shall keep my Shabbats…” – Scripture places the mitzvah of keeping the Shabbat immediately after that of fearing one’s parents in order to suggest the following: “Although I admonish you regarding the fear due to your parents, yet if they bid you to desecrate the Shabbat do not listen to them. The same is the case with any of the other mitzvot. This is evident, since Scripture adds, “I am Hashem your (plural) G-d,”– both you and your parents are equally bound to honor Me (Rashi, Vayikra 19:3). 

The Mitzvah of Learning Torah in Israel Overrides the Mitzvah to Obey Parents
From this we learn that a Jewish person must fear his Jewish parents only as long as respecting them does not infringe on mitzvah observance. For example, if your parents tell you to turn on a light for them on Shabbat, you may not obey. Likewise, you are not obligated to honor your parents by living outside of Israel in order to be geographically close to them, since it is a mitzvah in the Torah for every Jew to live in Israel. Yishuv HaAretz – Settling in the Land of Israel takes precedence over all mitzvot, for it is the only mitzvah that overrides a rabbinic ruling relating to the Shabbat. The Rabbis allow a Jew to purchase a home in Eretz Yisrael on Shabbat, if necessary, even if this entails violating the prohibition to tell a non-Jew to violate Shabbat on his behalf (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 8b and Bava Kama 80b with Tosafot). Likewise, the mitzvah of learning Torah outweighs all other mitzvot (Mishna Peah 1:1). Therefore, although this goes against your parents’ wishes, the mitzvah of learning Torah in Israel overrides the mitzvah to obey them.

Three Partners in Creation
Although you are exempt from complying with your parents’ desires when doing so would disobey Hashem and His Torah, you still need to go about your life in the most respectful way possible. It is of utmost importance to respect our parents in in every possible way without transgressing the Torah. This is because the creation of a child includes the partnership between three: Hashem and both of our parents. Therefore, by disrespecting our parents we also disrespect Hashem, G-d forbid. Raising our voice and using insulting words towards our parents could border to the prohibition of cursing them, which is very serious, as it states in Parashat Kedoshim:

ספר ויקרא פרק כ (ט) כִּי אִישׁ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יְקַלֵּל אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ מוֹת יוּמָת אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ קִלֵּל דָּמָיו בּוֹ:
“For any person who curses (insults) his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon himself” (Vayikra 20:9).

רמב"ן על ויקרא פרק כ פסוק ט וטעם כי איש איש אשר יקלל את אביו ואת אמו יחזור לראש הפרשה שאמר איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואמר כאן כי איש איש אשר לא ישמע (וכו') [בקולי] ומקלל אביו ואמו מות יומת ועל דרך האמת, בעבור שאמר (פסוק ז) והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים כי אני ה' אלהיכם, ואמר (בפסוק ח) אני ה' מקדשכם, כי השם הנכבד הוא המקדש אותנו, כי הוא אבינו וגואלנו מעולם הוא שמו, אם כן המקלל את המשתתפין ביצירה חייב מיתה...
The reason that anyone who cursed his father or his mother is liable for the death penalty is connected to the beginning of the parasha commanding us to fear our mother and his father.  It states here, that anyone who does not listen to My voice but curses his father or mother shall die. We can understand this in light of the statement, “You shall sanctify yourself and be holy for I am Hashem” (Vayikra 20:7), and “for I am Hashem who sanctifies you” (Ibid. 8). For the honorable Hashem sanctifies us, he is our father and redeemer, His Name is eternal. Therefore, the blasphemer of any of the partners in his own creation is liable for the death penalty (Ramban, Vayikra 20:9).

Speaking Respectfully to Our Parents
We need to work on controlling ourselves and learn to speak in a respectful manner to our parents, even when they press our buttons. In the cases when we are exempt from doing their will, we still must try our hardest to avoid a confrontation with our parents. Make an effort not to contradict their words, but rather express yourself in the positive way. Thus, instead of saying, “There is no way I will go to college…” you may say something like, “I really want to go to Yeshiva in Israel for now, but it is likely I will go to college at a future time.” We are indeed indebted to our parents for bringing us into this world and for the struggles they had along the way. Denying this debt transgresses the will of G-d. Once we learn to really respect our parents we can move on to recognizing Hashem’s greatness and all he has done for us, bringing us into the world and fulfilling all our needs. When we engage in active appreciation for our parents, we will eventually realize how much physical, emotional, and spiritual support they have given us throughout our lives. Thus, we must respect our parents where respect is deserved (Based on Sefer HaChinuch 33:4). 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Our Speech Builds Heaven and Earth

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Tazria-Metzora

Dear Rebbetzin,
We hear so much about the seriousness of the sin of lashon hara (evil speech). Is it true that through speaking lashon hara one may transgress 31 commandments: 14 positive and 17 negative?  I find it really hard to never speak badly about others, but afterwards I feel guilty about transgressing so many Torah prohibitions. Can you please share some Torah nuggets with me that will strengthen me in guarding my tongue? 
Devorah Harrington (name changed)

Dear Devorah,
Yom Atzmaut (Independence Day) Hike
It is very good that you seek chizuk (strengthening yourself) in guarding your tongue. This mitzvah is indeed central in the Torah. As you write, there are 31 Torah commandments regarding evil speech, and with just a few words, a person could easily transgress several of both ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s.’ The reason why speech is so important in the Torah is because it is the ability to speak that defines human beings. Through our speech, we distinguish ourselves from the animals. In the creation of Adam, it states, “The human being became a living spirit” (Bereishit 2:7). Targum Unkelos translates this phrase to Aramaic: “V’havet b’Adam l’Ruach Mamlela” which means, “and Adam became a speaking spirit.” King David extols, “Who is the man that desires life and loves his days to see good, guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” (Tehillim 34:13). Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, who revived the concern for guarding our tongue in modern times, received the nickname Chafetz Chaim (the title of his book on the topic) which means “Desirer of Life.” He explains that since speech is the tool of our craft with which we perfect ourselves, we need to pay special attention not to mess up our precious tools with which we express ourselves in Torah and Tefilah (prayer).

The Tool of Our Craft
Whereas Bilam’s tool was supposed to be his sword (Bamidbar 31:8), the distinctive tool of the Jewish people is our power of speech. Rashi explains that Bilam came against Israel exchanging his craft (the sword) for their craft (the mouth) – for Israel conquers only through prayer and petition… However, the craft of the gentiles is the sword, as it is states, “By your sword you shall live” (Bereishit 27:40), (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:23). The power of speech was given to the Jewish people, to encounter the awe-inspiring King of Kings through Torah and Tefilah to bless, thank, praise and glorify Him. Just as an artisan is unable to produce vessels worthy of the king without his special craftsman’s tools, or with broken and destroyed tools, likewise, we are unable to produce beautiful words of Torah and Tefilah with a mouth and tongue that has been defiled through evil speech. Only the artisan, whose tools are perfect and good, properly sharpened and shined, will be able to produce arts and crafts of the highest caliber. Through words of holiness, which we speak in this world before Hashem, we can create upper worlds as well as holy angels, who will afterwards become advocates for our souls. These higher worlds, created by means of Torah and Mitzvot, are dependent on the power of speech with which Hashem created the world. Hashem made us partners with Him in the continuous creation of the worlds through our power of speech. This is our great craftsman’s tool, through which we may can build heaven and earth, as it states, “I have put my words in your mouth, and I have covered you in the shadow of my hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth and say to Zion, you are my people” (Yesha’yahu 51:16). (The Chafetz Chaim, The Gate of Commemoration, Chapter 10, the greatness of Guarding the Tongue through which one sanctifies speech).

Rather than Judging Others, Find the Same Shortcoming in Yourself and Repent
In order to avoid evil speech we need to accustom ourselves to stop judging others unfavorably. Often when we notice misgivings in others, it is because we ourselves have a share in this same shortcoming. If it happened that we saw or heard about someone else’s sin, we need to realize that we may have a tinge of that sin ourselves. This should motivate us to rectify ourselves. Scripture states that the remedy for this is to “guard the tongue.” Although it is really hard to overcome the urge to speak lashon hara as it states in the Talmud, “We all fall prey to a tinge of lashon hara” (Baba Batra 165a). Still, we need work on ourselves, and rather than disparage the other person, realize that Hashem made us see and notice this sin in order to remove ourselves from the evil and rectify ourselves to become good. Through this repentance, also the sinner will repent, because through unifying with him, we can include him in our repentance, since we are all one person. Then we will cause him to be included in “and do good” that he will transform the evil to good and achieve the character trait of “seek peace and pursue it” (Tehillim 34:15); (Toldot Ya’acov Yosef, in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Parashat Lech Lecha). Even if we already began to speak lashon hara and we feel that everything is lost, just as when we begin to eat cookies, we may feel we that it is too late to stop. This is not so. For every single word that we could have added but avoided, a supernal light is created. This is even so if we already spoke 100 words of lashon hara, but overcame the urge to speak one more word.  The Vilna Gaon teaches, “Every single moment a person averts his mouth he merits the hidden light, which is so great that no angel or any creature can even imagine.” 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How Can I Keep Family Purity When the Closest Mikvah is 2000km Away?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parashat Shemini

Dear Rebbetzin,
I really want to keep the mitzvah of family purity, but where I live there is no ritual bath. The closest mikvah is 2000 km away, which would take about 25 hours to drive by car. What would be a solution? Perhaps I could use the ocean or a lake, as a mikvah since I don’t have a regular mikvah available. How would that work? Do you just dip in and say a blessing?
Maya Waternov (name changed)

Dear Maya,
It is wonderful that you are so dedicated to keep the laws of family purity in spite of the fact that you live far from a Jewish community with a proper mikvah. Throughout Jewish history, women have gone into great trouble in order to keep the mitzvah of family purity, sometimes even at the risk of their very lives. Using the Mikvah is so essential as it our primary connection with the Garden of Eden. All the water in the world ultimately has its root in the river that emerged from Eden (Bechorot 55a, Malbim, Bereishit 2:10). This river is the spiritual source of all water. After Adam was driven out of Eden, he repented by sitting by this river in order to maintain a link with the Garden (Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer 20). The word מִקְוֵה/Mikvah has the same letters asקוֹמָה  /Komah – the Hebrew word from rising or standing tall. Through the Mikvah we can rise from our fallen state, and reestablish a link with our perfected state in Eden. This explains why the Mikvah must be linked to a natural water source. The most primal forms of mikvaot are the natural bodies of water such as oceans, rivers, wells, and spring-fed lakes. They have the power to purify. However, these waters may be inaccessible or dangerous, not to mention the problems of rough weather and lack of privacy. Therefore, wherever a proper mikvah is available that is certainly preferred. But what can you do if there isn’t a proper mikvah in your neighborhood?

Safety Concerns for Using the Ocean as a Mikvah
ספר ויקרא פרק יא (לו) אַךְ מַעְיָן וּבוֹר מִקְוֵה מַיִם יִהְיֶה טָהוֹר וְנֹגֵעַ בְּנִבְלָתָם יִטְמָא:
“Nevertheless a spring or a cistern, in which water is collected shall be pure, but whoever touches such a carcass within it shall be impure (Vayikra 11:36).

The construction of a mikvah is very complex, and there is an entire tractate of the Mishnah called Mikvaot devoted to this topic. As we learn in Parashat Shemini, a mikvah must be connected to a natural spring, or a natural well, or be connected to a cistern of rainwater (Mikvaot 7:1). Oceans qualify for they are considered springs, as do rivers that do not originate from rainwater. If you’re using a river or spring that’s made up mainly of rainwater, you need to find a part of the water that is not moving. The water also needs to be deep enough for you to immerse your whole body at once. Immersing in the mikvah for family purity must ideally be done at night. Deep oceans with strong currents can be dangerous. If you can’t swim, an ocean mikvah is not for you. Make sure that whatever body of water you’re using is safe, and if necessary find out about the schedule of the tides so you won’t be suddenly caught at high tide. You also need to ensure the area is well lit and safe at night, at the very least you need to bring strong flashlights. If the area is not safe at night but is safe during the day, some rabbinic authorities allow for immersion during the day. This would be a good thing to ask your rabbi.

How to Overcome the Challenges of Using the Ocean as a Mikvah
There are several challenges when using the ocean as a mikvah:
1. There is no mikvah attendant to watch and check that you are completely immersed in the water for each dunk.
2. There is no adjacent room to bathe and remove everything separating you from the water.
3. You have to make sure no man will see you going naked into the ocean.
4. There is sometimes wind that may tangle the hair.

I highly recommend to bring a girlfriend (preferably someone married) who will act as your mikvah ‘lady’ at the ocean. This woman should be Jewish and over the age of 12 (the age that constitutes adulthood for women according to Jewish law). Some rabbinic authorities allow your husband to fill this role, if no woman is available. Prior to immersing, your mikvah attendant needs to check you as well as can be done with a flashlight, to ensure that there is nothing separating between you and the water, like fallen hair etc. She also needs to ensure that you are immersing deeply enough in the water so that your entire body including the top of your head and hair are covered when you dunk. This is especially vital if you have long hair, some of which may float above the water. You will need to go to a beach that is not populated and it needs to be dark. It may be permissible to dunk in the water with a very lose-fitting dress, if you cannot be sure that there won’t be any men on the beach who may see you. This again is a question for your rabbi.

Guidelines for Preparing Yourself for Ritual Immersion
On your mikvah night, prepare as you usually do. Soak in a luscious bath (not a shower) for at least half an hour to soften up any kind of dirt, and dead skin. Make sure to remove all jewelry, hair bands, elastics, pins, false teeth, eyelashes, temporary dental fillings, nail polish, contact lenses, and dry scab on old wounds. Wash your entire body and hair well with soap and shampoo. Do not use conditioner, as it will leave a coating on your hair. Clean your ears with a cue-tip. Brush and comb your hair until the comb passes through your hair easily to ensure there are no knots. Comb your pubic hair, the hair in your armpits and even your eyebrows. Cut your fingernails and toenails. After you cut your fingernails, they should not be visible above the tips of your fingers when you turn your hands towards your face. If long fingernails are part of your everyday look, make sure they are equally long and smooth. Clean your fingernails well. Brush your teeth and use dental floss. The time of preparation varies from person to person.  Usually it takes about one hour, but for some people it can take almost two hours.

Ocean Immersion
Using the ocean as a mikvah is not as romantic as it sounds. I recommend finding out where there is a safe and quiet area with calm water. Depending on the privacy of the area you’re using, you may want to wear a long robe to get into the water. Then, when you’ve gotten to a point where the water is deep enough you can take off your robe under water and hand it to your helper. Before you dunk, shake off any sand or mud that may have clung to the bottom of your feet (you may want to walk out in flip-flops and take them off just before you dunk). Remember to choose a spot that is light enough that your helper can see that you’ve completely immersed.

Go out into the water wearing your robe right before sunset. Swim around and get comfortable for a little while. Then right after the sun sets, take off your dress and dunk, while your friend is right by you to watch.  When your head emerges from the water say the following blessing with full intention:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל הַטְּבִילָה:
Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-heinu melech haolam asher kideshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al hatevila
Blessed are You O Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy with His commandments and commanded us to immerse.

Transformation through Water
Using a Mikvah is one of the main factors distinguishing a Jew from non-Jew. A Mikvah is actually more important than synagogue. A congregation that does not have its own Mikvah does not even have the halachic status of a community. The Mikvah represents womb. The world’s most primary state was water: “The spirit of G-d was hovering over the water” (Bereishit 1:2). Thus the water is the womb of creation. Emerging from a Mikvah is very much like a process of rebirth. “A convert who embraces Judaism is like a newborn child” (Yevamot 22a). The convert’s first step into Judaism involves immersing in a Mikvah. The consecration of Aaron and his sons to become Kohanim involved immersion in a Mikvah. Thus, the Mikvah facilitates a change of status – an elevation from one state to another. Water is the essence of impermanence, while ego is the essence of permanence. When dunking in the Mikvah, we place ourselves in the state of non-existence and non-life. Since breath is the essence of life, submerging in a Mikvah momentarily without being able to breath, makes us enter the realm of the non-living, to emerge like one reborn.  Mikvah can’t be a vessel or tub but must be built directly in the ground, for in a sense, the Mikvah also represents the grave. We immerse temporarily into a state of nonliving, so that we emerge resurrected with new status.  In Hebrew, the word קֶבֶר/Kever means both womb and grave.  Both are endpoints in the cycle of life. Our sages liken a person who immerses in the Mikvah to seeds planted in the ground. The seeds return to their source where they can once again begin the cycle of growth.

Hashem is Our Ultimate Mikvah
משנה מסכת יומא פרק ח משנה ט
מַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִין, וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם, אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, (יחזקאל לו) וְזָרַקְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַיִם טְהוֹרִים וּטְהַרְתֶּם. וְאוֹמֵר, (ירמיה יז) מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’, מַה מִּקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים, אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Rabbi Akiva said, “Happy are you, Israel. Before whom do you purify yourselves? Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven!” It is thus written, “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you shall be pure” (Yechezkiel 36:25).

It also states, “G-d, Hashem is the Mikvah of Israel” (Yirmeyahu 14:8). Just as the Mikvah purifies the impure, so does G-d purify Israel (Mishna Yoma 8:9). What does it mean that G-d is Israel’s Mikvah? The word מקוה/Mikvah is related to the word תקוה/tikvah – hope. The Mikvah gives us the ability to transcend the bonds of time and become reborn as a new person. Hashem is our Mikvah and hope for the perfected future. When we hope that a future event will happen, we free ourselves from the limitations of time. G-d is our ultimate Mikvah, which extends beyond time. His unity gathers past and future into the present moment. The word Mikvah literally means gathering. When we dunk into the cleansing waters of the Mikvah, let’s keep up our hope in Hashem, Who purifies us. Then we can truly become transformed and let all our past wrongdoings dissolve into the expiating waters of the Mikvah by our resolve to emerge pure and reborn.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why Does Preparing for Pesach have to be such Agonizing Slavery?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Chol HaMoed Pesach
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
Growing up in a yekkish (German Jewish) home I naturally became a ‘neat freak.’ Soon after Tu b’Shevat I start Pesach preparations as it takes me and my cleaning crew about two month to get my home together. For the past ten years, I have been following my plan to get each room ready by a certain date. The cabinets are reorganized, the walls, lamps and light switches scrubbed down until each room shines. The last week is reserved for the kitchen. That week requires the most intense cleaning eradicating any residue of chametz (leavened) by means of my weapons of dish soap, oven cleaner and bleach. This year the devoted chief of my cleaning crew deserted me, and I was at a complete loss, as she is totally irreplaceable. No one else did a satisfactory job and I was devastated. Why did Hashem do this to me? Why did I, who cared so much about cleaning my home to the dot, have to be left without my chief cleaner upon whom I relied so much all these years? Why did I have to go through this agonizing slavery almost alone in my kitchen for hours without end?
Nokia Weiss (name changed)

Dear Nokia,
I very much sympathize with you in your desire to make your home super kosher for Pesach. Although dust is not chametz and the woman of the home is not a Pesach sacrifice, I do believe that spring-cleaning is hidur (beautifying) the mitzvah of cleaning for Pesach, as long as we are able to do it with enthusiasm and happiness. It sounds like you experienced some major challenges and obstacles in your Pesach cleaning routine. I understand it is a great loss to lose your prior devoted chief of cleaners, and to feel overwhelmed with all the pressure of Pesach cleaning on your shoulders. I understand that you were very upset and questioning G-d why this happened to you. It is indeed a good question when realizing that everything G-d does is for our best, and all challenges are test that help us grow. So what lesson is it that Hashem wants to instill in you through this hardship?

Freedom from Being in Control
The holiday of Pesach is about gaining freedom. Freedom doesn’t necessarily mean to be free to do whatever you feel like. Such freedom is in fact slavery to the yetzer hara (negative impulse). True freedom is to let go of attachments. The matzah we eat on Pesach is simple; it needs nothing except flour and water. Freedom on Pesach is to become like the matzah – to free ourselves from relying on anyone or anything other than Hashem. True freedom is to accept that only Hashem is in control. It seems to me that the lesson Hashem wants to teach you is to let go on the attachment to be in control. You cannot control your chief of cleaners; you cannot make anyone do what you want them to do. You need to do what you can and rely on Hashem for the rest. You may have to accept that this year you weren’t able to do as much extra cleaning as in the past. As long as you got rid of the actual chametz that should suffice.

Receiving Divine Assistance When We Rely on Hashem Alone
I heard the following story in the name of the Rebbe of Biala about a Jew who was extra strict in his Pesach preparations. He was so concerned about not getting a single crumb of chametz in his water barrels that he made the gentile water carrier cut his hair and change his clothes before drawing water. When he visited Rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl zt”l for the last day of Pesach, the Rebbe told him that there was chametz in his water barrel. He returned home and indeed found bread floating in his water barrel. When he asked the Rebbe why this happened to him, he explained: “Other people are not so fanatic in their preparations for Pesach as you are. They know they are imperfect, and turn to Hashem for help in protecting them from inadvertently possessing or eating chametz. Therefore, Hashem protects them. Without Hashem’s help, it is impossible to rid ourselves from every last crumb of chametz. You, on the other hand, relied on your own resources and excessive stringencies. You were so sure of your own abilities to protect yourself that you did not turn to Hashem for help. Hashem would have preferred you to be less exacting and more humble. Therefore, He allowed this to happen to you.” When we rely on nothing but our own endeavors, we deprive ourselves of the assistance that Hashem offers those who rely on Him (Mevaser Tov, Ma’amar HaHoda’ah).

Emerging from Self-imposed Slavery
On Pesach, we change our routine and go with the flow, overcoming our attachments to getting things done in our usual way. We use different sets of dishes and kitchenware, and we do not eat the same kinds of foods as during the rest of the year. On Pesach, we went out of slavery. Every Pesach we need to emerge from our own self-imposed slavery.  Hashem didn’t tell Moshe to merely demand “Let My people go,” but rather “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” We need to free ourselves of the obsession with any extra work that is not serving Hashem, and therefore no longer serving us either. This gives us freedom to rest on the holiday of Pesach and enjoy what is, rather than craving what isn’t. May you truly emerge liberated this Pesach!