Friday, June 27, 2008


Many theories have been offered as to The Thing which separates man from animals. Perhaps this is just an example that proves that what most makes us human is our ability to disagree. Animals may oppose what you want but it seems to be based on a pre-programmed instinct. Man is able to say, “I heard what you said, I realize you’re very bright and all…I’ve decided to go with a different approach” or,”Based on what I’ve been hearing and seeing I’m going to have to decline your advice...” Or there's a whole differet style one can adapt to convey disagreement.

The urge to say this is strong, so when there was no-one else to say it to, man and woman said this to G-d Himself. We’ve all heard the story as a kids’ story: “There’s one magic tree that’s going to make you like G-d if you eat from it.” Hmmm. They eat from it. Why? Because the snake told them to.

The Abarbanel makes a cogent argument for the idea that the snake did not speak. In this understanding, Chavah had an inkling, an urge, the urge to use her own judgement. She intellectualized G-d’s command, proudly theorized that it made sense for health reasons. Then she saw the snake rubbing up against the tree – and he didn’t die, his health wasn't hurt in any way, he didn’t even develop a rash. In her mind she dialogues with the snake; his actions are tantamount to his telling her that if he can touch it then it goes to show that the tree is safe. So it must be OK to eat. Makes sense, except that G-d said not to do it.

The prohibition of eating from the tree was not due to any power of the tree itself, but rooted in the power of disobedience. Once you disobey G-d based on your own opinion, then you start to think that you’re like G-d and that you can choose freely based on what you think. In the end Adam and Chava had to be reminded that mankind is unique in that we are given commands by G-d. The snake wasn’t punished, Adam and Chava were. And as part of what they needed, the snake was made to be more clearly different than man. (Note that in the list of what changes for the snake there is no mention of his not being able to speak in the future – a strong indication that he never spoke at all).

Since I learned this approach from Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky, I think about it a lot. It comes up all the time, that in subtle and not so subtle ways we ( I ) choose our (my) own judgement and suggest that we (I) know better thanG-d. Rabbi Twersky often applies this concept to later chapters in the Torah.

Breishit is not only the Torah’s beginning, but the Torah’s foundation. The Ramban suggests that the theme of Breishit is responsibility, thus there are several stories of getting a place in this world and then losing that place as a result of disobedience. In slightly different terminology from the Ramban, Rabbi Twersky suggests the theme which teaches us that if we know what’s good for us (literally) then we’ll listen to G-d. And that we must resist the temptation of our basic instincts that tell us that we know better.

When Korach and company challenge Moshe, Moshe replies that the proof that these men have rebelled against G-d will be that the earth will open its mouth and swallow them. The Medrash Lekach Tov comments that the earth will open it’s mouth “in the same way that it opened its mouth in the days of Kayin and Hevel.” These are the only two contexts in the Torah in which the phrase “patzta et piha” is used in regard to the “adama.” Both Kayin and Korach challenge the spiritual leadership role of another. In both stories jealousy leads to anger, then death. Also, in both cases (as is often so throughout Tanach) there is a tension between the one chosen as the bechor with seniority, and the one chosen by G-d.

The end of perek yud chet of Korach deals with the gifts allotted to the chosen kohanim. The words mincha, cheilev and bechor combine and form a motif. These three words constitute the bulk of the simple statement describing Hevel's action: VeHevel Heivi gam Hu MiBechorot Tzono UMeiChelbeihen, VaYisha Hashem El Hevel Ve'El Minchato. Hevel's was ahead of his time, foreshadowing the Mishkan and its Reiach Nichoach - ever pleasant scent - with his offering. Kayin destroyed Hevel's potential and promise.

The Mishkan was another chance at setting things right. Once again there is an attempt to block the opportunity: Korach threatens the make-up of the Jewish People with the Mishkan and the Kohein at its center. The Torah refers to Korach's group as Mishkan Kohein, because he had a plan to usurp not only Moshe, but the holiness of the Jewish People as exemplified by the Mishkan. Finally, it is made clear that Hevel's profound understanding of a korban is entrusted to the Aharon and his descendants.

May we all be blessed to trust G-d and to respect and embrace holiness.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Behaalotcha: Lashon Hara Lessons

There are four details about Lashon HaRa that, according to the Chafetz Chaim, we learn from the episode of Miriam’s words against Moshe.

First, she had saved Moshe’s life when he was a baby, so he owed his life to her. Nevertheless, she had no right to speak critically of him. Second, she said this only to her brother, who was also Moshe’s brother. Clearly Aharon was not going to spread this around; it was to stay between them. Despite the local nature of this infraction it was still inexcusable. Also, the Torah tells us at this point that Moshe was the most humble of men. Miriam was still wrong to criticize him. Finally, the Chafetz Chaim notes that Miriam didn't say anything completely negative, but only that even though Moshe was great, he was perhaps not on a high enough level of prophesy to act as he did. This was still Lashon HaRa.

I'd like to add a fifth point; if you are very close to someone, that does not give you free license to speak against him or her. Miriam was punished even though the Loshon HaRa she spoke was about her own beloved brother.

These lessons about Lashon Hara remain relevant. Often, we feel like we have a right to speak about others because they are under our charge. This applies to all of us at one time or another, whether as teachers, parents, coaches, siblings or friends. While others should appreciate the good we do for them, goodness does not buy us right to criticize, even if we saved their lives.

If you tell someone who won’t tell anyone else, you still spoke Loshon HaRa. There is an internal damage, which occurs when you say Loshon HaRa, regardless of whether the external harm is great or small. While it is true that there is a mitigated heter to speak to someone in confidence for therapeutic reasons, it behooves us to not jump to rely on that leniency in a careless, common way. You never know what is inside a person, and it is possible that self-effacing people who seem to mind least are hurt most of all by Loshon HaRa.

It is possible to rationalize Loshon HaRa by reframing it as constructive criticism. If we genuinely have to criticize someone we should ideally say it kindly, gently and face to face. Criticizing someone behind their back is Lashon HaRa.

We often think that Loshon Hara, or embarrassing people, doesn't apply to those with whom we are closest. The truth is that those we are closest to are often the most likely to be hurt by what we say. If we speak sharply about acquaintances (which we generally don’t do), it doesn’t sting strongly. But our brother, sister, friend cares what we say. It is the people we are closest to that we need to be most careful not to hurt.

I have been telling and writing this Dvar Torah for twenty five years plus, since I first read it in a borrowed copy of Love Your Neighbor in the summer of '80. And yet. It is so hard to internalize. So hard. When I posted it a few years ago on my personal blog someone commented critically and hit a raw nerve...

May we be blessed to be sensitive in how we speak of others and to learn from this parsha how careful we truly have to be.

Friday, June 6, 2008


"Le’mishpechotam le’beit avotam-according to their families, to their fathers’ households" is repeated many times in Parshat Nassa. The Mikdash Mordechai says it is by design that this portion contains the laws of Sotah, a woman whose actions destroy the family. The message is that the Jewish People are no stronger than their families. A situation like that of the Sotah can bring down the national family.

The Sifri presents an argument between Rabi Chanina Sgan HaKohanim and Rabi Nossan regarding which peace is the objective of Birchat Kohanim. One opinion is that shalom bayit - peace in the home is what is referred to. The other opinion is that the peace spoken of is political peace of malchut beit Dovid.

The Mikdash Mordechai reconciles these views. National peace can only be achieved if we have peace in our families. It is this dual bracha the kohanim wish to bestow upon us. This is the connection that places Sotah and Birchat Kohanim in the same portion.

Allen Wheelis, a psychotherapist wrote: "There is no such thing as individuals, there are only fragments of families." On a related note the Mikdash Mordechai tells us there is no such thing as community, there are only extensions of families.

Shabbat Shalom!