Thursday, May 31, 2012

Naso 5772

This week’s parsha is the longest in Torah. Its length is due to an account of each of the twelve tribal chieftains bringing their offerings to dedicate the Mishkan (Holy Tabernacle). While each chieftain gives exactly the same gift of 35 items, Torah repeats each chieftain’s identical offering. “The one who offered his offering on the first day was Nachshon the son of Aminadav, of the tribe of Yehudah. And his offering was one silver dish weighing 130 shekels, one silver bowl of 70 shekels…On the second day offered Nethanel the son of Tzuar of the tribe of Issachar. And his offering was one silver dish weighing 130 shekels, one silver bowl of 70 shekels…

Why does Torah spend 72 verses repeating the offerings of each individual chieftain when each of them offers exactly the same gift?

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 13, 14) explains that although each chieftain gives identical gifts, each one experiences the dedication of the Mishkan differently. The items might be the same, but each item holds a symbolism unique to the tribe that offers it. Items are symbolically linked with a personality or event in Jewish history or a concept in Jewish faith or practice that carries special meaning for an individual tribe and reflects the distinctive essence of the tribe.  In this way, each chieftain has his own intention when he makes his tribe’s contribution.  From this, we understand that it is not the gift, but the spiritual intention behind the gift that is significant.

Although the gifts are identical, the Ramban explains that each is uniquely precious to G-d. For that reason, G-d orders that the gifts be given on 12 successive days. He wants to give equal honor to each chieftain.

As parents, we must recognize that each achievement a child makes is unique to that child.  Although big brother may also have won the spelling bee when he was little sister’s age, the children each accomplished this feat in a different manner. Each approached the goal differently, and each experienced different challenges along the way.

When one child presents her parents with a challah cover she has made, and her older sibling made and presented a challah cover the previous year, we parents must remember not to compare one gift to the other, and should make as big a deal about the second challah cover as the first.

Likewise, as parents, we should teach our children the proper and gracious way to acknowledge the gifts they receive. No matter how they perceive the gift -- big or small, appropriate or inappropriate, wanted or not -- we should teach them to appreciate the intention of the giver and the spirit in which the gift was given.   

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bamidbar 5772

This week’s parsha opens the fourth book of Torah, Bamidbar (in the wilderness). Its English name is Numbers, relating to G-d’s request to conduct a census before He gives the Jewish people the Torah. In the third chapter, the Levites are counted: “These are the descendants of Moshe and Aharon… Nadav and Avihu died before the L-rd when they brought alien fire before the L-rd in the Sinai Desert, and they had no children.”

Why does Torah emphasize that Nadav and Avihu died childless?

Nadav and Avihu died supernatural and mysterious deaths. Torah tells in Vayikra/Leviticus (10:1) and repeats here, that they brought “alien fire” into the Holy Tabernacle. The Sages offer many explanations, most pointing to a lack of respect. Some say the brothers were intoxicated and violated the sanctity of a holy place; others say that they issued a legal ruling without consulting Moshe, the authority they should have respected.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand considers how one can measure the level of one’s own respectfulness. He answers: “By his children. If his children are disrespectful to him, he can be sure that he is not sufficiently respectful to others.”

Rabbi Frand cites Rav Wolbe’s Alei Shur, in which the Rav applies this concept to all areas of character development. “There is no greater factor in improving one’s midos [character traits] than having children.” Writes Rabbi Frand: “People have a tendency not to see their own flaws, but they see the flaws of their children all too well. And if they are intelligent, thinking people, they will realize they do not have to seek too far for the source of their children’s flaws, and they will make every effort to correct the situation.”

Rabbi Frand surmises that if Nadav and Avihu had children, they would have noticed if their children acted disrespectfully. They would have realized that as fathers, they themselves were to blame for their children’s poor behavior. Having children would have given them the opportunity to improve their own level of respectfulness.

This parsha always is read before Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah. (This year the holiday will be observed in the Diaspora on Saturday evening, May 26 and ends Monday evening, May 28.) The Midrash says that when G-d offers the Torah to the Jewish people He asks us to provide a guarantor, and we offer our children. In other words, we promise to faithfully study Torah and teach it to our children. As parents, this serves as our commitment to constantly seek out and eradicate our own character flaws, lest we inadvertently transmit them to our children.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Behar-Bechukotai 5772

This week’s double parsha begins with the mitzvah of shemitah (sabbatical year), the commandment to leave fields fallow for an entire year, every seven years. This is a tremendous test of the farmer’s faith in G-d that there will be enough food to sustain him and his family during the seventh and eighth years of the agricultural cycle.

Torah interrupts its discussion of shemitah to introduce the prohibition of onaah, wrongdoing. “When you sell to your fellow or buy from your fellow, do not wrong each other…And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow, and you shall fear your G-d, for I am the L-rd, your G-d.”

Why does Torah introduce the prohibition of onaah in the midst of laws about shemitah? If the first prohibition refers to behavior during sales and purchases, what form of onaah does the second address?

Rabbi Yissocher Frand cites the Beis Av who explains that the point of shemitah is to remind us that what we have, and how much we have of it, comes from G-d.  By extension, there can be no point of cheating. Writes Rabbi Frand: “A person may think that he can beat the game. He may think that his underhanded methods will bring him additional money that he would not have otherwise. But if he honestly believes that everything comes from G-d, he certainly cannot expect to outsmart Him…In the end, the bottom line will be what G-d wants it to be.”

The commentators interpret the second verse as referring to the prohibition of onaat devarim, doing harm with one’s words. Why does this injunction appear in the midst of laws about shemitah? Rabbi Frand makes this connection: “The motivation behind snide remarks is really a lack of satisfaction with one’s own portion in life. It reflects an insufficient trust and faith in G-d.”  When we speak badly about a person, it is just as if we have cheated him in a business transaction – we have diminished him in order to enrich ourselves.  The verse concludes with “I am the L-rd, your G-d” in order to remind us that only G-d has the ultimate say on one’s portion in life.

Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) provides examples of onaat devarim. One is not permitted to remind a penitent of past transgressions. To a person who has rectified his behavior, such a reminder can be painful and embarrassing. As parents, we should keep this in mind when speaking to our children, or when sharing humorous stories about them. No child is comfortable recalling how difficult he was as a toddler; no young adult wants herself or others to hear about the trouble she got into as a teen. Once children have matured and moved beyond old behaviors there is no need to embarrass them with outdated stories.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Emor 5772

This week’s parsha begins: “And the L-rd said to Moshe: Speak (emor) to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon , and say to them (v’amarta)…

Many times when G-d tells Moshe to speak, Torah uses the Hebrew verb daber. Why does this verse twice use forms of the Hebrew verb omer?

Rashi writes: “[This double use comes] to warn (l’hazhir) the adults concerning the children.” At the literal level, the verse points to the responsibility of the adult Kohanim (Priests) to educate their children about the priestly duty to remain ritually pure. In a wider interpretation, the verse serves as an admonishment to all parents concerning our children’s education.

HaRav Elyakim Schlesinger contends that the words are repeated to advise the adult to teach the child two ways, through words and also through actions. While words sometimes fall on deaf ears, actions often speak louder than words. Therefore, the most effective means for a parent to educate a child is by setting a personal example. 

Rashi’s use of the word l‘hazhir offers insight about the nature of education. The Lubavitcher Rebbe derives meaning from an alternative translation for l’hazhir, “to illuminate.”  It shares a root with zohar, which means “shining” or “splendor”.  The Rebbe infers that while educating our children, our own souls shine in splendor.

The Rebbe teaches that to make an impression on our children, the qualities and character traits that we want to impart must shine within our own personalities.  As we instill them in our children, our positive traits become brighter and stronger.  Writes the Rebbe: “Education is not only an elder teaching a youngster; it is also an illumination for the educator.”

It is no coincidence that we read this parsha during the Hebrew month Iyar (a cognate for or, light) and that the parsha contains the mitzvah (commandment) of sefirat haOmer, to count the days of the Omer for 49 days between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot.  (Shavuot is the festival that celebrates the giving of Torah. This year, in the Diaspora, the holiday will be observed on May 27 and 28.)  During these seven weeks, we work daily and systematically on refining and polishing various aspects of our personality, until they shine.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772

Most of this week's double parsha is part of the "Holiness Code". It contains the ritual and ethical practices for living a sacred and holy Jewish life. Among the more than 50 laws given is one of the most difficult to perform properly: "You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account."

What is the proper way to give rebuke?

Rashi answers this question by making a connection between the two parts of the mitzvah – rebuke without sinning. Explains Rashi: [In the course of rebuking your fellow,] do not embarrass him in public." In other words, if you embarrass the person you are rebuking, you commit a sin.

Rav Gedaliah Schorr notes an alternate translation of this passage that provides additional meaning. It can be read as "Do not raise the sin over him." In other words, do not make a big deal over the person's wrongdoing, metaphorically holding the misdeed over his head, because this will only make him feel belittled and unworthy.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin suggests a better alternative: raise the person over the sin. He writes: "Better to place the emphasis on the person and say, 'How could a person such as you do such a thing?' Better to…show him that to do such a thing is beneath him, that he is too great to do such a thing."

Continues Rabbi Pliskin: "When someone tries to criticize or rebuke another person, it is obligatory for those words to come from the depths of his heart. The Sages have said that only those words that come from the heart will enter the heart of the other person. Therefore, if your words of correction are not an expression of your inner feelings of care and concern for the welfare of the other person, they will not have a positive influence on the person you are speaking to."

A well known story is told about the Chofetz Chaim and how he rebuked a student who was caught smoking on Shabbat. (Torah prohibits lighting a fire, and by extension, smoking, on the Sabbath.) The rebuke lasted for exactly two minutes, and afterwards, the boy observed Shabbat scrupulously. The Chofetz Chaim simply wept and softly cried, "Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos." There were no put-downs, no berating. There was only a gentle but powerful reminder of the importance of Shabbat.

As parents, when we rebuke our children, we should do so out of love and concern and with genuine kindness to ensure a lasting effect.