Ki Tetze – Lost and Straying

One of the many Mitzvot appearing in Ki Tetze’s reading is the responsibility to return the lost property of another. The Torah instructs us also to pre-empt such a loss of another by being vigilant and thoughtful regarding any property that is in danger of becoming lost.

“If you see the ox of your brother or his sheep going astray you must not ignore them; you must return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then gather it inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it and you will return it to him.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-2)

The basic requirement apparent from the verses is to be observant of any item which might have gone missing from the possession of another. The Torah warns that we must not ignore it, and Rashi explains that one is forbidden from pretending one has not seen it in order to be free of responsibility for it. Rather, one must be proactive in assuming responsibility for it, even looking after a lost object for an extended period of time, until its owner is found.

While there are numerous details to the Mitzvah its basic gist is very clear: Returning a lost object is a sensible and logical obligation, a manifestation of property rights that others are obligated to uphold.

The commentaries apply this Mitzvah a bit further, taking it outside of the realm of our possessions. The Ohr Hachaim declares that the Mitzvah is equally applicable to people who are “lost.” If one perceives that another person has lost his or her way, and one can help steer one in the right direction, one has an obligation to do so and may not ignore the circumstances. This may even require a long term commitment, such as “gathering [him] into your home,” in order to help that person find his way back. More specifically, the Ohr Hachaim applies this to one who has lost his way spiritually. Another Jew, identifying that the other is straying from the path, has a duty to try and influence his return. Accordingly, the phrase ‘gather it inside your house,’ would refer to the house of study. It is incumbent upon each of us to help inspire our lost brethren to find their spiritual way home.

The Prophet Isaiah, in the section we read for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur, expresses our obligation to care for others as follows: “To the hungry you shall offer your bread, and the poverty stricken you shall bring home; when you see the naked you shall cover him; do not ignore the plight of your brethren.” (58:7)

Here too, we can read the verse as referring to the spiritual state of man. Our sages identify ‘bread” as Torah. In that context the hungry for bread are those who are spiritually malnourished. When the prophet delineates what the Lord wants from us, expressing sorrow over our failures, it is the disregard for the plight of our own brethren that strikes most poignantly. Not only what is physical lacking requires our care, but also the emotional needs and spiritual vacuum which we are in a position to help fill. The warm feeling of a full stomach, the security and comfort of a home, the protection and dignity afforded by a cloak – these are not exclusively physical, but equally applicable to the psychology of man. The warmth, security and dignity which we are admonished to provide to those lacking will not only fulfil the needs of those lacking but will also refine our own character into the person we are meant to be.

In a spiritual sense these elements are also necessary. Providing for another the warm feeling of belonging to a rich heritage, showing one the secure place he occupies in the home of our faith and cloaking him with the dignity of having purpose in life, those are key to the spiritual well-being of which the prophet is speaking. Since mankind is created by God and, endowed with a soul, begins life as a very spiritual being, bringing one back to a state of spiritual awareness fulfils the obligation of returning a lost item to its owner.


Shoftim – Extremely Moderate

A verse appears in this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim, which aptly describes Jewish tradition and religious authority as it has been transmitted through mainstream Jewish life for millennia. Most Jews who have remained loyal to that tradition will not find it peculiar in the least, but others might struggle with this concept in an age which gives unprecedented choice and independence to the individual.

“According to the instructions that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you act; you must not deviate from the matter that they tell you, right or left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11)

The Torah is addressing an instance where one has a doubt regarding the correct course of action, whether it relates to a ritual, a law, or a dispute with another Jew. One then ascends to the “place that the Lord, your God will choose,” and approach the “priests, and the judge who will be in those days” to clarify the matter under question. The following verse relates that one must heed the decision given by that judicial body or the authority and follow everything instructed. The verse then continues with the words cited above, warning that one must not deviate from those instructions, to the right or to the left.

It is not clear from the verses whether the matter dealt with, in which strict adherence to the religious authority is demanded, is confined to matters of halacha and religious import, or if they extend beyond that to any rulings issued by such authorities. In practice there is a spectrum of tradition, with some Jews following halachic guidance on every life matter and some who limit their interactions with religious authorities to matters of halacha.

Whatever the scope may be, the Torah demands no deviation from these instructions “to the right or the left.” Rashi cites the Midrash which interprets these words to mean that adherence is required even if the sages issue instructions that are empirically incorrect, even if they tell you that the right is left or that left is right!

A well known story occurred in Prague, during the time Rabbi Yechezkel Landau served as its rabbi. It was Passover and the rabbi received intelligence that some anti-Semitic bakers had devised a plan to harm the Jewish community. Knowing that immediately after Passover the Jews would flood the market to purchase bread, they planned to mix some poison into the dough to be sold on that day. The rabbi issued an edict that Passover must be observed for an additional day due to an error in the calendar. The entire Jewish community of Prague observed the restrictions of Passover for an additional day, averting the disaster of poisoned bread. Surely many Jews were scholars themselves and could very well have ignored the ruling of Rabbi Landau. Yet no one questioned his authority on this matter, which enabled the Jewish community to avoid the terrible effects of the bakers’ conspiracy.

There is another way to read this verse, to which I was enlightened by a colleague. Maimonides teaches that we must pursue a path of moderation in life, avoiding extremes in any direction. Maimonides calls this the golden path. He teaches that one must be measured in every area. Being extremely tight-fisted is inappropriate, for example, but excessive generosity can be equally harmful. This idea is expressed in our verse, demanding that we not veer to the right or the left. The Torah has no space for radicals on the right or the left. The Torah’s view is holistic, its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. There is always room for the “other” and we can ill afford to be driven by single-minded extremism in any direction.


Re’eh – Decisions by the Thousands

The opening words of Parshat Re’eh present the tension of life, the constant struggle we have in making correct and ethical choices. Research has shown that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions each day, the vast majority of those being instant and subconscious. The Torah here admonishes us and reminds us that there are good and bad choices, right and wrong, moral and immoral.

Rabbi A.J. Twerski, in his introduction to his commentary on The Path of the Just, cites the Talmudic statement in Eruvin 110b: Rabbi Yochanan teaches, had the Torah not been given, we still would have learned the value of modesty from the cat, the value of property rights from the ant, the value of fidelity from the dove, and appropriate sexual conduct from the rooster.

These animals have inherent traits from which we can glean lessons. Rashi explains that a cat retreats to a private place to relieve itself and it then covers the evidence. Ants store a great deal of food for the winter but the ants from one colony never take from the storehouse of another colony. Doves remain faithful and do not seek other mates, while roosters spread their wings as a way of coaxing and introducing their affection prior to mating.

Why, asks Rabbi Twerski, would we be drawn specifically to these animals to learn appropriate character traits? There are many other animals with opposite natures, animals with no regard for the food stores of another and no sense of fidelity or modesty. Might we just as well have learned to emulate those animals?

Rabbi Twerski explains, based on a verse in Ecclesiastes, that people have an innate sense of propriety, a Kantian notion of what is right and just, and we therefore would intuitively know which traits are appropriate to emulate and which are not. It would thus suffice to have just one creature which models a moral trait, and we would know to follow that example and not others.

While this seems to speak to the conscious decisions we make, the vast majority of our daily choices are not conscious. These choices are steered by ingrained habits and inculcated values as well as survival instincts. A person who puts greed and self-advancement first will, after a time, integrate those values to a point of self-definition. Myriad subconscious decisions automate from those values. Conversely, people who practice integrity and kindness, fostering habits of honesty and morality, will find their subconscious decisions guided by those characteristics and values.

At the end of the day, tens of thousands of daily decisions are formed and set into motion by our personal values and the habits we develop. Being conscious of that and taking action to define ourselves by moral positions and attitudes is nothing less than what the Torah demands from us. The true blessings and curses emanating from our choices are not the material benefits but the definition of self that they reflect.


Tisha B’Av – To Fast or Not to Fast

Although it is uncharacteristic for me I want to comment on a blog post published in the Times of Israel last week.

Elyse Goldstein, a Reform rabbi in Toronto, wrote that she will not be fasting this year on Tisha B’Av. She will be celebrating instead the religious democracy found today within the Jewish people as well as the sovereignty of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The latter effectively puts an end to the lament our exile, according to Goldstein, and the former marks the advancement of Judaism to a maturity reflected by multiple expressions of Jewish observance. She celebrates the cessation of sacrificial offerings and the end of a governance led by “corrupt” (and male) priests and rabbis, both rendered impotent at the end of the second Jewish commonwealth. She also laments that the priests of the Temple would have supported and enabled the tradition to continue its non-egalitarian format of prayer and worship. Her entire post can be read here.

Elyse’s convictions are sincere. She writes from the heart and without the abrasive hostility that sometimes pervades feminist rhetoric. I believe every Jew should hear her approach with an open mind and a willingness to accept some of her criticism. Antipathy toward the Orthodox did not rise in a vacuum. The Orthodox establishment has not been perfect or completely fair in dealings with the broader Jewish society. The office of the Chief Rabbinate has long been under fire for its inefficiency and draconian bureaucracy, even while the Chief Rabbinate has protected the halachic character of the most sensitive elements of Jewish life.

And yet, nothing compels a tradition-conscious Jew to to weep on Tisha B’Av more than the sad commentary expressed in such an editorial. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps millions, equally ignorant of the meaning and place of the Temple in Jerusalem, would blissfully concur with those thoughts is even more distressing. “Over these I weep, my eyes, my eyes flow with tears, for comfort is distant from me, far is the restoration of my spirit; my sons have become desolate, for the foe is overpowering.” (Lamentations 1:16)

My purpose here is not to refute all of her points. Such exercises just prolong quarrels and are counterproductive. The bottom line is that people are imperfect, only human. To toss out the baby along with soiled bathwater is to compound the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction. Life in the setting of Temple history would indeed seem unusual and possibly uncomfortable to all but those most steeped in the studies of those traditions. The willingness to turn one’s back on thousands of years of rich tradition, not to mention a God-given charter and mission, underscores the desperation of our generation’s misunderstanding.

To turn theology into a democracy is to turn theology into a straw man to be attacked and ultimately destroyed. The fact that the Sadducees – the first reformers – are no longer among us, is not a cause for joy but profound sorrow; they are lost to the Jewish people forever through assimilation. Other groups that have broken away from what Goldstein calls “unified” Jewish life have also joined the fate of the Sadducees, no longer known or identified as Jews. In the last year the Reform movement’s flagship Temple in New York celebrated its centennial. They could not find a single descendant of its founders who was still Jewish. I greatly fear that in a couple of generations we will mourn on Tisha B’Av not only for the destroyed Temples but also for the loss of millions of Jewish souls who looked for other ways to be Jewish and whose children could not see the merit or meaning of continuing to identify as Jewish when they could be just as humanistic without it.

We lost our way long before the Temple was laid to waste. The prophets of Israel were largely ignored, with the people favoring the pagan cultures around them which were less demanding and provided more short term satisfaction. Western society has evolved in many wonderful and progressive ways. Our faith has always been a rock to stabilize us and ensure our progression remains within the values and bounds of a God-given way of life. Thanks to our ancestors who have consistently, over the centuries, declined any departure from the Torah’s mandate we are still here today to talk about this. I sincerely hope and pray, that when Goldstein informs her grandchildren that she is not fasting on Tisha B’Av, they have some idea of what she is talking about, that they will have at least heard of the concept of Jewish mourning.


Matot / Massei – A Mitzvah Immersion

The war against Midian resulted with the nation of Israel achieving a complete victory. The Torah goes into great detail describing the division of the spoils, both human and material. Before that discussion, however, Elazar the High Priest relayed Moses’ instructions to the men returning from the battlefield. He explained the laws pertaining to the vessels and crockery which were taken from Midian as part of the spoils.

One’s instinct would be to utilize immediately any loot for which there is need. Assuming the crockery was clean by hygienic standards of that time, the utensils would be integrated into the kitchens and used for the cooking of manna according to the recipes developed and refined over the last 40 years. A deep dish pureed manna with a topping of crisp crumbled manna might have been a gourmet choice. But Elazar warned against using the pots before rendering them kosher.

The Torah lists six metals and then gives the key instructions pertaining to their kosher sterilization, which appear in the Talmud as the source for those laws. “Everything that comes into fire you shall pass through fire and it will be purified – but it must be purified with the sprinkling water – and everything that would not come through fire you shall pass through water.” (Numbers 31:23)

In a nutshell, the Torah dictates that a vessel can be sterilized in the same manner through which it became contaminated. A vessel that roasts meat directly on the fire, such as a spit, would require sterilization through heating the spit in fire. Having absorbed a non-kosher flavor directly through heat, that flavor can be removed from the metal only through direct heat. (This is just the general principle, specific applications would require instruction from someone with expertise in the area) Other utensils, which cook food using the medium of water, are rendered kosher through similar means, immersing the pot in boiling water. The metal exudes any contaminated flavors during this process and the utensil becomes neutral. It may now be used for kosher cooking.

There is a short phrase placed in the middle of the verse, which addresses a very different aspect of a kosher utensil, not a sterilization but a consecration of the vessel. “But, it must be purified with the sprinkling water.” The Torah is referring to waters of a mikveh, a ritual bath, whose waters are of natural origin not manipulated by human intervention and not gathered in a man-made vessel. A stream of water is suitable for this as well as the sea. The status of this requirement, whether it is counted as one of the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah, whether it is a separate law passed orally from Moses, or whether it is a rabbinical Mitzvah, is a matter discussed by many early scholars in their commentaries. All agree, however, that utensils manufactured from certain materials require such immersion before they are used.

In many Jewish neighborhoods there are tanks of water designed in such a way that they qualify as a ritual bath. These are made available to people wishing to fulfill this mitzvah of immersing their newly acquired utensils, consecrating them for use in a Jewish household. In other neighborhoods the local Mikveh is made available during specific hours for the immersion of such utensils.

A special blessing is recited before immersing those utensils requiring this consecration. This immersion is performed only once, when the vessels first come into the ownership of a Jew. The context of this Mitzvah is in the narrative following the conquest of Midian. The vessels taken from the Midianite camps required mechanical purging as well as consecration. When purchasing a new vessel, uncontaminated by possible non-kosher foods, only the consecration need be performed.

The Lechem Mishneh, in his commentary to Ramba”m, offers an insight explaining the purpose of such a consecration. We don’t typically perceive of the kitchen as sacred space. It is mainly functional, a space designed to prepare raw material into edible and delicious foods. Our eating is not animalistic and mundane, however. When done mindfully eating is a holy act, nourishing our bodies for continued life in the service of God. Therefore all dishes and cooking utensils which facilitate eating are instruments of holiness. As such they need to be consecrated for this purpose. We don’t simply incorporate new utensils into our drawers and cupboards without first designating them for the elite role of serving God in a Jewish household.

This Mitzvah is one of the most simple to perform. It does not require continuous effort – once it is done it is done. Yet, this Mitzvah gives such profound meaning to all our subsequent kitchen activities.


Pinchas – Carpe Diem

Pinchas, in a dramatic and uncharacteristic manner, brought a halt to the rising plague through a public act of violence. With a spear driven through the bodies of the prince of Shimon and the princess of Midian he earned God’s highest Medal of Honor, the covenant of peace. His actions have spawned long discussions among the commentaries, exploring how his action was justified and how this would translate to other circumstances. But one thing we cannot argue about. The Torah gives its full endorsement of his deed.

Rabbi Judah the Prince, in response to a story of dramatic repentance, stated that it is possible to acquire one’s place in the World to Come in a moment. (Talmud A”Z 17) In most cases it is the accumulation of a lifetime of ordeals, one’s reactions to them as well as one’s general choices in life which determine our place in the hereafter. However, there are occasions when the importance of a single moment can define a lifetime. While not all such moments can guarantee one’s place in eternity there are many defining moments, displaying conviction or leadership, which present themselves and in which our choices have wide repercussions. These moments may be infrequent, but anybody might find him/herself in such a position.

Rabbi Wein writes of such a moment early in his career, when an opportunity of leadership presented itself and he rose to the occasion. There were arguments in his synagogue regarding the appropriateness of charity collectors making rounds during weekday services. These collectors, many of whom were raising money for noble purposes, were very disruptive and even rude at times. Multiple collectors circulated in the synagogue at every service, disturbing the concentration of parishioners and sometimes creating an unpleasant atmosphere. Without consulting the rabbi, the board of the shul decided that they would no longer allow collectors to make their rounds in that shul without special permission. They hung a large sign at the entrance, barring charity collection during services. Early the next morning, upon entering the shul, Rabbi Wein quietly removed the sign. While he understood the reasons behind the ban, he felt it was nevertheless counter to basic values of Judaism and it was therefore worthwhile to endure the costs of the collectors and maintain the practice. Rabbi Wein also did not want to deprive his parishioners of the Mitzvah of giving charity during the prayer service.

Not surprisingly, collectors came in that morning as they usually did, and began making their rounds, noisily shaking the coins in their hands to attract notice of their intent. The president of the shul, angered by the violation of the ban, announced loudly that no permission had been given to these collectors and that all charity collectors must leave the shul. Rabbi Wein climbed the steps up to the Bimah and said with determination, “The Mitzvah of charity needs the sanction of no one.” In the ensuing silence the shul president evidently realized the repercussions of their reactionary decision. He stepped up to the Bimah and embraced the rabbi. That moment brought out the best of two great people: the rabbi with his leadership and vision, and the shul president with his courage and character to recognize and publicly acknowledge his error.

This opening ceremony of the Olympics this year are on Shabbat. Miri Regev, Israel’s minister for culture and sport, has announced that she will not be attending the opening ceremony because of its timing. While in her private life Miri Regev is not so particular about Shabbat observance, she recognizes that she represents a people, a nation whose task it is to reflect God’s presence in the world. There are so many reasons she has to ignore this calling, but she rose to the challenge, seeing the greater picture of her role in representing the Jewish state and the character it stands for. This was her moment.

We all remember the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. He was a secular Jew in his private life, but when he was preparing to embark on a space mission which would gain publicity and highlight the participation of Israel he recognized his moment. The Torah scroll that went up with him, never to return, brought far more inspiration to his generation than it could have brought had it remained on earth and been used in the usual manner. Ilan Ramon did not know at the time that this moment would define how he would be remembered. He only saw an opportunity for what it was.

The Midrash laments occasions where people in such roles failed to make the most of their moments. It states that if Reuven had only known that his actions would be recorded for eternity in the Torah he would not have merely saved Yosef from death at the hands of his siblings, he would have carried him aloft on his shoulders. Had Aaron known that the Torah would write of his greeting of Moses upon his return from the deserts of Midian he would have greeted him with great fanfare and music. Had Boaz known that the book of Ruth would record his providing of foo to Ruth while she was gleaning from the fields he would have served her a gourmet meal! While the Midrash is making a different point, these moments also speak to our point. Each character acted correctly in the moment, but not with the enthusiasm that the moment merited.

Pinchas similarly saw a moment which warranted an unusual response. Moses and Aaron were helpless at that moment, “…crying at the entrance of the tent of meeting.”(Numbers 25:6) The plague was ravishing the people and a ray of clarity and conviction spilled over Pinchas. It was his moment and he did not miss it. Carpe Diem.


Chukat – Faith and Action

The Rebbe of Slonim points out some issues that need clarification regarding the striking of the rock by Moses. The basic story is that when the nation of Israel complained for lack of water God instructed Moses to approach a particular rock and speak to it so that it will give forth water. Moses instead approached the rock and struck it with his staff – twice. Moses and Aaron were punished for deviating from God’s instructions, missing an opportunity to sanctify God’s name. They lost the privilege of entering the land.

Just a few of the questions posed by the Slonimer Rebbe follow:
Why did God give different instructions now from a similar instance more than 40 years earlier? When the Jews thirsted for water in the beginning of their sojourn Moses was instructed to strike the rock with his staff. Why was he now commanded to speak to it?
Further, why is it less miraculous to obtain water from the rock by striking it as opposed to speaking to it? One doesn’t seem likelier than the other to achieve results naturally.
Finally, why indeed to Moses deviate from God’s instruction, striking the rock not once but twice?

The Slonimer Rebbe offers an explanation with several facets, which clarifies all the issues. We will do our best just to present one facet with some embellishment.

The greater one’s faith, the less effort one must put in to achieve results. When Israel first emerged from Egypt, having just witnessed the miracles of the plagues and the wonders of the sea, they surely had great spiritual sensitivity and a deep faith in God. When they needed water God’s instructions were nevertheless to strike the rock – an effort more significant than speech. Now, nearly 40 years later, having gone through many challenges and falling numerous times, Moses felt that their level of faith had diminished from what it was immediately following the exodus. If striking the rock was necessary back then, he reasoned, surely at least that much effort – probably more – is required now. He therefore struck the rock twice.

Moses perceived an inverse relationship between one’s level of faith and the effort that needed to be expended. The stronger the faith the less effort is required to achieve an end, while a lower level of faith requires greater effort to compensate. This is true, but sometimes the reverse can be true as well.

The Midrash Yalkut Shim’oni on the book of Samuel refers to four kings who made demands of God in time of war. David said to God, “Let me pursue my enemies and overtake them.” Asa, a later king, declared that he was prepared to pursue his enemies, but requested that God destroy them on his behalf, since he did not have the strength to destroy them himself. King Yehoshafat claimed that he did not even have the strength to pursue his enemies, so he suggested that God Israel while he sang praises to God.

Finally King Hezekiah declared that he did not even possess the strength to sing praises, so he prayed for God to destroy the mighty army of Sancheriv while he slept. In each of these four cases God responded favorably. He allowed David to defeat his enemies, Asa chased and God destroyed, He vanquished the enemy while Yehoshafat recited praises, and He destroyed the camp of Ashur while Hezekiah slept.

The commentaries explain that David, having almost unparalleled faith, attributed all his victories to God’s Hand regardless of the efforts he put in. He was energized by the firm knowledge that God had his back, and his faith was not compromised by seeing his own hand take part in vanquishing his enemies. Asa was also a man of faith, but less than that of David. If his victories were to come entirely through his hands he was at risk of diminishing his attribution of the victory to God. H therefore pursued his enemies but it was God who finished them off without Asa’s direct involvement. Yehoshafat felt he could do afford to put out even less effort, lest he take credit for the victory. He remained home and recited Psalms. And Hezekiah would not even recite Psalms less he feel that some of the victory was his own success.

God’s instructions to strike the rock bore similar logic. The first time water was coaxed from a rock the Torah had not yet been given. The power of words was not known or appreciated. By this time, however, the Torah resided solidly with the people and they recognized the power of a concept, a law, a word. God wished for Moses to speak to the rock to underscore the power of words. Speaking to the rock was not a reflection of their level of faith, it was to be a lesson in faith, a builder of faith. Moses failed to grasp this intent and the opportunity for growth in faith was missed.