Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kedoshim 5771

This week's parsha contains what Rabbi Akiva calls a "major principle" of Torah: "You should love your fellow as you love yourself." The fulfillment of this mitzvah is understood to be the basis of one's fulfillment of the entire Torah. Rabbi Hillel paraphrases the precept as "What is hateful to you, do not inflict upon others." According to Rabbi Hillel, "This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary."

Writes the Sefer HaChinuch, "A person who loves another as himself will not steal from him, commit adultery with his wife, cheat him of goods or oppress him with words, will not move his boundary [usurp his land], and will not harm him in any way...The root reason for the mitzvah is apparent: for as a person treats another, so will the other treat him; and with this there will be peace among human beings."

How is it possible to love another as one loves oneself?

The great Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, reminds us that we ourselves have many faults, but still love ourselves; so should we love others, despite their faults. Erich Fromm, the social psychologist, explains that we should love others because they are like us. We are all created in G-d's image. First, we must like and respect ourselves; then, we can come to have the same respect and consideration for others.

As parents, if we teach one principle to our children, this should be it. Imagine all of the childhood problems that would fade away if we took this principle to heart. There would be no more playground bullying, cyber-bullying, tattling, or cheating. There would only be empathetic children who consider the feelings of others before they speak or act. Imagine how much kinder and gentler childhood could be. It is our job as parents to make it so.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Chol HaMoed Pesach 5771

Jewish tradition teaches that Passover is so named because G-d passes over the houses of the Jews during the tenth and final plague. This disturbing image of G-d, hopping and skipping over the Jewish homes while causing the death of first-born Egyptians is also hinted at in the Song of Songs, which is read on Passover. "Behold the voice of my beloved comes skipping over mountains, hopping over valleys."

The oral tradition emphasizes that it was G-d himself who skips. The Jerusalem Talmud establishes that G-d personally comes to redeem Israel. He does not send an agent. A verse from Shemot (Exodus) reads: "I will perform judgment. I am G-d." (Here G-d calls Himself the unpronounceable tetragram YHVH.)

What is the significance of G-d's personal involvement in the Exodus?

The Jews in Egypt deteriorate to nearly the lowest level of spiritual impurity and moral decadence. Our Sages teach that G-d saves them just before they fall to the very lowest level of total impurity. Such impure Jews hardly seem worthy of liberation. But G-d frees them anyway.

Judaism teaches that the essential name of G-d is YHVH, and that the essential attribute of G-d is love and compassion. Another name for G-d is Elokim. It is the name for G-d that appears throughout the story of creation, and refers to G-d when He is revealed as Judge, committed to laws, order, justice, consequences, cause and effect. G-d as Elokim responds measure for measure to the choices and deeds of the people. But the name Elokim is only an aspect of the name YHVH. In other words, the divine attribute of justice is an aspect of the attribute of love, and subordinate to it.

Such is the way of parenthood. Because we love our children, we set rules and regulations. We create a world of law and order where choices incur consequences. We judge our children, reward them and discipline them, all for the sake of empowering them to take responsibility and reach their potential. However, because our judgment is due to our love, and therefore subordinate to it, there may be times when we are compassionate towards our children even though they do not deserve it. We will "pass over" our standards of judgment and be compassionate, in order to save our children. We will overrule our rules in the name of love.

On Passover, we remember that when G-d passes over the homes of the Jews, He passes over His attribute of judgment and justice in the name of love. On Passover, we remember that G-d's love is unconditional -- He loves us enough to redeem us even when we are not worthy.

(Excerpted from the writings of Rabbi David Aaron.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Acharei Mot 5771

This week's parsha is also read during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because it describes the duties of Aharon, the High Priest, on that day. "He should take the two male goats and place them before G-d at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Aharon should place lots upon the two goats; one lot "for G-d" and the other lot "for Azazel" (a high cliff.) Aharon should bring the male goat upon which the lot "for G-d" came up and designate it as a sin offering. The male goat upon which the lot "for Azazel" came up should be placed before G-d while it is still alive, to [confess on it] atoning [for the Jewish people before it is] sent away to the high cliff in the desert."

When Aharon enters the Inner Sanctuary, he is told to bring sin offerings for himself and his household, and for all the people of Israel. For himself, he is to bring a bull; for the people, two male goats. Standing at the entrance to the Sanctuary, he is to mark the goats. One of the goats will be "for G-d" and the other "for Azazel," as the scapegoat for the mistakes and errors the people have committed. When the ritual is completed, the male goat marked "for Azazel" is brought to Aharon. He places his hands on it and confesses all the wrongdoings of the people. The goat is then sent off into the wilderness. The Rambam (Maimonides) explains that the scapegoat is an allegory meant to make the sinner understand that sinning inevitably leads to a wasteland.

Toras Menachem explains: Every sin has a two-fold implication: its effect on the sinner (spiritual regression needing atonement); and the existence of the sin, an evil entity that adds to the collective evil in the world. According to Rambam, the scapegoat has the power to atone both for the sins themselves and for the effect on the sinner. Rambam also writes that now that the Holy Temple no longer exists, [and we cannot sacrifice scapegoats], only teshuva (repentance) can atone for sins. On Yom Kippur, we confess as a community and ask for atonement.

Many parents, it seems, have a phantom child named Not Me. "Who did this?" a parent asks. "Not Me," answers the child. Like the scapegoat for Azazel, "Not Me" takes the blame any time the children refuse to admit they have misbehaved. It is up to us as parents to teach our children to acknowledge when they have made a mistake, to take blame and responsibility for their actions, and to suffer the age-appropriate consequences. We must let them know that no matter what they have done, they do not have to be afraid to tell us, because we love them unconditionally. While we parents may be disappointed in our children's poor choices, we must be proud of our children's willingness to admit mistakes and to correct them.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Metzora 5771

This week's parsha introduces Taharat Hamishpacha (literally, family purity), a concept that is the cornerstone of the sanctity of Jewish family life. "If a woman has a [menstrual] discharge and her [uterus] discharges blood, she will remain in a state of nidah (physical separation from her husband) …When her discharge stops, she should count for herself seven days (devoid of any discharge) and after this, she can become ritually pure [by immersing in a mikvah (ritual bath.)]"

The function of mikvah is not to achieve physical cleanliness, but rather to achieve spiritual purity. Judaism teaches that the source of purity is life itself, and death brings impurity. Torah describes many types of ritual impurity; all are rooted in the absence of life or some hint of death.

Each month, the presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. With the onset of menses, this potential departs. Impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of spiritual impurity or, more specifically, nidah. Only immersion in the mikvah, following the requisite preparation, has the power to transform the status of the woman. After immersion, she may reunite with her husband in the ultimate holiness of marital intimacy.

Excerpted from Rivkah Slonin's introduction to Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology. Read the introduction in its entirety:

As parents, we may lose track of our individual identities, as well as our identities as husband and wife. We may even forget the reason for our union in the first place.
We may put our children's and our spouse's needs ahead of our own, and as a result, may feel as if we are being taken for granted. Taharat Hamishpacha is a monthly reminder of who we are as individuals and why we became a couple.

Nidah, the period of separation, of sexual abstinence, can be used to strengthen our marriages. Rather than distancing us, it helps to bring husband and wife closer together. Without the ability to rely on physical means to communicate love and affection, we cultivate the non-physical aspects of our relationship: companionship, conversation, understanding, consideration, friendship. When finally we are able to reunite physically, we do so with a renewed appreciation of one another, as individuals as well as partners.