Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tazria 5771

This week's parsha explains the laws of ritual purity. Much of the parsha is concerned with tzara'at, a spiritual ailment with physical manifestations that occurs as punishment for idle talk or gossip and renders the sufferer ritually impure. "If a person has on the skin of his body a white blotch, a creamy blotch or a bright spot, and it forms a [suspected] lesion of tzara'at on the skin of his body, he should be brought to Aharon the priest or to one of his sons, the priests [for examination.]"

What is so heinous about gossip and idle chatter that those guilty of it in Biblical times are afflicted by tzara'at?

It is very difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, to do teshuva (repent) for having spoken negatively about another person. The speaker must genuinely feel sorry, must decide never again to speak in this manner, and must apologize and ask for forgiveness from the person spoken about. Unfortunately, spoken words cannot be taken back so easily once they are heard by others. A person who speaks negatively causes bad feelings and strife and may even change the listener's opinion about the person being discussed.

As parents, it is particularly important to refrain from both speaking and listening to gossip with our children. We must remember that gossip, even if truthful, is demeaning and demoralizing. It attempts to bring down people in order to make ourselves feel better. Each time we speak badly about someone, we feel less inclined to improve ourselves.

Rabbi Stephen Baars, on warns, "A family that engages in gossip creates a real fear that any mistake will be looked at in a disparaging light. Children develop a fear of failure, knowing that their faults will be harshly examined, illuminated and even publicized in a demeaning manner. And, on top of that, they will be discussed behind their backs, with no form of defense or recourse."

The Hebrew expression for gossip and idle chatter is lashon hara, literally "evil tongue." To protect the tongue from misuse, G-d gives us two gates: our teeth and lips. Before we use our tongues, we should shut the gates and carefully consider whether or not we should speak. As the psalmist writes, "Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully." (Psalms 34:14)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shemini 5771

This week's parsha explains how to tell whether a particular animal, bird or fish is kosher. The parsha specifies the types that may be eaten and those that are prohibited. Land animals may be eaten only if they have split hooves and chew their cud, while fish must have fins and scales. There are no signs for kosher fowl, but rather a tradition affirming which species are not kosher.

The parsha includes an explanation as to why we must observe the laws of kashrut. "You should not make your souls abominable [by eating] any creeping creature that creeps. You should not defile yourselves with them…You should sanctify yourselves and be holy." In other words, what we eat affects our souls, not just our bodies: eating non-kosher foods can contaminate the soul. We know that our bodies need to be properly nourished, and that certain food products, especially if eaten in excess, can be harmful to our bodies. Torah teaches that our souls, too, need to be properly nourished.

Torah prohibits non-kosher foods to prevent us from assimilating the negative characteristics of these foods. What negative characteristics do non-kosher animals have that Torah warns us not to eat them?

Torah lists twenty species of birds that are not kosher. Any species of bird not mentioned in that list is considered kosher. Over time, the identity of some of the specified birds has become unclear. The Talmud (Chullin, 59A) teaches that predatory birds are contained within the non-kosher species mentioned. The Ramban explains that upon eating one of these birds, we will, to some degree, ingest their cruel nature as well.

Interestingly, there is one non-kosher bird, the chasidah, that does not seem to comport with the Ramban's rationale. Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Chullin 63A), identifies the chasidah as the stork. He explains the essence of its name, which literally means "kind," finding it appropriate because the stork manifests kindness to its friends by sharing its food. Kindness is a positive trait. Why would the chasidah be considered non-kosher?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger, founder of the Chassidic Ger Dynasty, finds that a close reading of the Talmud reveals that the chasidah's kindness is limited to its friends: it shares food with its own species, but not with other types of birds. This selective kindness is actually a form of cruelty, which goes against Torah's concept of kindness. Torah does not allow this type of discrimination. Kindness to one's fellow human being is required at all times, to all people.

As parents, we should consider the qualities we would like our children to develop. We should recognize the profound effect of food on our children's development and fill them with food that is spiritually nourishing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tzav 5771

This week's parsha is a continuation of the previous Torah portion. It expands the description of the sacrificial offerings. The parsha begins with the laws of the burnt offering. "[The priest] should shovel out the ashes that remain from the burnt offering which the fire consumed on the Altar and put them down next to the Altar. He should then…take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp."

Why does the same priest shovel the ashes on the Altar, a lofty task, as well as take out the ashes, a seemingly menial task?

It is human nature to embrace jobs that bring one glamour, honor and distinction; however, few run to perform necessary tasks that seem undistinguished and menial. Torah teaches that in the eyes of G-d, every job, and every mitzvah (commandment) is equal; none is more important or more revered than another. Every act can bring honor, respect and glory to G-d. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, explains in Likutei Sichos that we should be dedicated to serving G-d not only with lofty, honorable tasks, but should also delight in simple, physical chores that are needed to prepare for the observance of a mitzvah.

As parents, the tasks we are required to perform day after day hardly are glamorous. It takes a great deal of effort to keep a home running, managing and executing all of the essential details. If we are mindful that these lowly chores are also the service of G-d, we will become empowered and will be able to perform them zealously and enthusiastically. With the same attitude, we can encourage our children to rise to the occasion, not only for high-profile, distinguished jobs, but also for the often unrecognized but absolutely necessary, nitty-gritty tasks.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vayikra 5771

This week's parsha, the first portion of the third book of the Torah, is called Vayikra, which means "He called." It begins with G-d calling to Moshe. The word Vayikra is written in an interesting way in the Torah scroll: the last letter of the word, an aleph, is written smaller than the other letters.

What is the big meaning of the small aleph?

Moshe is well aware of his exceptional qualities as a great prophet through whom the Torah is communicated. Instead of causing his head to swell, this awareness makes Moshe humble. Moshe recognizes that his abilities are given to him as a gift from G-d. He does not feel conceited; instead, he feels a compelling sense of responsibility. Thus, when Moshe records in the Torah that G-d called to him, he writes the world Vayikra with a small aleph.

As parents, we know that self-esteem is important to our children's development. How can we avoid the negative effects – conceit, hubris, complacency – of praising our children's achievements?

The most empowering knowledge we can provide to our children to boost their self-esteem is that they are part of something much greater than themselves. They are a creation of G-d, Who has great expectations for them. It is not the talents that they are born with that matter, but what they make of them. As Chana Weisberg writes on, "True humility and a productive self-image do not come from denying one's talents, but rather from acknowledging that they are merely a bequest from Above, providing a channel through which to exert the greatest effort in accomplishing His will."

According to Mrs. Weisberg, the lesson of the small aleph is: Teach your children their greatness. Point out their unlimited potential, great talents and unique, individual capabilities. But at the same time, emphasize to your children that these are gifts given to them by G-d, Who wants them to use their talents to better our world – in their own, unique way. Help your children experience their largeness, but at the same time, let them feel their smallness. When they realize their responsibility and the significance of their personal attributes, they will strive to reach even greater heights.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pekudei 5771

The name of this week's parsha, Pekudei, means accounts. It is an accounting of the materials, labor and finished product that comprise the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its furnishings and the priestly garments. "The silver census money from the community was 100 kikar…used for casting the sockets of the Holy [Tabernacle]… One hundred sockets were made from one hundred kikar, one kikar for each socket."

What is the significance of the number one hundred, the amount of sockets supporting the planks of the Mishkan's walls

Our Sages tell us that from the hundred sockets, we learn that we must say 100 blessings a day. They note that the Hebrew word for socket is adon, which also means "master." Traditional blessings begin with the phrase Baruch Atah Adonai, in which we address G-d as Adonai, "my Master." When we say a blessing, we affirm that G-d is Master of our lives – He runs our lives and the rest of the universe. Just as the sockets form the foundation of the Mishkan, acknowledging that G-d is our Master creates a foundation for our lives. 

We must teach our children to appreciate that everything we have comes from G-d; we can take nothing for granted. The best way to do this is to encourage them to recite blessings. You would be surprised by how many opportunities a day there are to make a blessing – before and after three meals, several snacks and several drinks a day; after using the restroom. When eating a fruit, for example, parents and children should think of Who created the fruit and the tree it comes from. You can find a comprehensive list of blessings for food and special occasions on And of course, consult your prayer book for the blessings found in the daily prayers.

Rabbi Moshe Goldberger writes in his book, One Hundred Brachos, "Imagine the benefits we would gain if every day, 100 times a day, we recited all our blessings with feeling and authentically focused on Hashem's (G-d's) kindness! We could not help but feel exuberant and enjoy life more by being conscious and appreciative of all that we are blessed with."

As the psalmist writes, "Give thanks to Him, bless His name, for Adonai is good; His kindness endures forever." (Psalm 100)