Thursday, May 16, 2019

PARSHAS EMOR/ LAG BAOMER 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS EMOR/ LAG BAOMER 5779
“NO EXCUSES”[1]

During my late adolescence, I had to make an appearance in traffic court to fight a ticket. My father accompanied me for moral support. After I explained my case about what occurred, the judge asked me for my plea – ‘guilty with an explanation’ or ‘not guilty’. I had committed the infraction, but I felt I had a valid excuse for doing it. So, I naively replied ‘guilty with an excuse’. The judge looked almost apologetic when he replied that once I uttered the word ‘guilty’, even with a valid explanation, legally there had to be a fine and points. I understood that the judge was intimating that I should have pled ‘not guilty’, and then he could have mitigated the consequence, such as dismissing the points.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that traffic court in America is a game, and you gotta know the rules.
A few years ago, during my first trip through a certain town, I received a speeding ticket after being caught by a cop sitting at a speed trap[2]. When I went to court, the prosecutor allowed me to plead guilty to parking at a fire hydrant, which would result in my receiving a fine, but no points. I later realized that almost everyone in that court room was offered the same plea. It was a small village, and I’m not sure if there was more than one fire hydrant in the whole town. If an outsider was watching the proceedings, he probably would’ve wandered why everyone in that court had waited on line to park at the town’s only fire hydrant.  

          At the end of parshas Emor, the Torah relates the tragic story of the blasphemer: “The son of a Jewish mother went out in the midst of B’nai Yisroel; and they quarreled in the camp - the son of the Jewish woman and a Jewish man. The son of the Jewish woman uttered the Name of Hashem blasphemously, and the name of his mother was Shlomis bas Divri.”
          Although the Torah is vague about what occurred, the Medrash[3] relates two possibilities: One possibility is that the mekalel was mocking aspects of the Mishkan and another Jew started arguing with him for being disrespectful. His reaction was to curse Hashem. The other possibility is that the makalel was trying to pitch his tent in the tribe of Dan since that was his mother’s tribe. Some of the other members of the tribe argued that he had no right to pitch his tent on their land, since tribe is paternal, and his father was an Egyptian. When they presented their case before Moshe and Moshe ruled against him, he blasphemed Hashem.
          The father of the mekalel was the Egyptian that Moshe killed in Egypt, which resulted in Moshe’s having to flee Egypt for many decades[4]. The mother of this mekalel – Shlomis bas Divri - was a flirtatious woman[5]. An Egyptian taskmaster forced her husband out to the fields, and then slept with Shlomis. The Egyptian then went to kill the Jewish husband, but Moshe saw the encounter and killed the Egyptian first.
          The Kli Yakar suggests that it is likely that the mekalel harbored a grudge against Moshe for his whole life because Moshe had killed his father.
          It is clear that the mekalel had a difficult life, feeling like an outcast socially and physically. He was the product of the only act of immorality between a Jewish woman and an Egyptian, and he seemed to have no place among the Jewish nation.
          In our society, people often confuse an explanation with an excuse. In a world where people can be acquitted of crimes by pointing to a difficult childhood, or neglectful parents, the punishment of the mekalel seems misplaced. How could they have killed such a person? Shouldn’t they have been more understanding of his difficult upbringing and looked the other way? Doesn’t the Torah promote empathy and tolerance?
          The answer would seem to be that although the makalel’s actions can be understood in the context of his life, that remains an explanation, not an excuse. Cursing Hashem is inexcusable even when a person has a difficult past. Although one must deal compassionately with his fellow Jews and seek to understand them, there are limits that cannot be crossed. As Jews, our foremost responsibility is to Hashem and the ideals of His Torah, irrespective of any other personal challenges.
          Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes that there was a more insidious motivation for the mekalel’s actions. When the Torah calls the mekalel the son of an Egyptian man, more than just defining his father’s nationality, it contains the motivation behind his sin. He felt that the culture of Judaism was burdensome, and he wanted to define himself as the son of an ‘ish Mitzri’. He longed for the permissive Egyptian culture and its decadence. In that sense, he was the polar opposite of Moshe, who had initially been identified by Yitro’s daughters as an ‘ish Mitzri’, but had distanced himself, in the extreme, from the lifestyle of the Egyptians. This mekalel longed to return to such a lifestyle.
          Whether the makalel was venting pent up frustration, or if it was a calculated act; it was an inexcusable act. Even in the most difficult of circumstances we are expected to act responsibly and with foresight.[6]

This concept is important to teach our children as well.
In 2013, 15-year-old Ethan Couch, killed four people while driving under the influence. Shockingly, he received no prison time because, due to his family’s great wealth, he was said to suffer from “Affluenza”, an inability to understand that actions cause consequences.
“Affluenza is not about wealth. It is about a generation of parents who want to make their children so "happy" that they fail them miserably. Let's face it, it's so much easier to say yes and throw money at your kid than saying no and meting out consequences. But loving parenting also includes teaching your child this monumental rule of life: You make things happen. Whatever you do kiddo, there will be a reaction; story of our lives. The sooner we let our children in on this life principle, the healthier they'll be.”[7] 

One of the components necessary to be successful in any endeavor, is the ability to take responsibility, and to fess up to shortcomings and failures.
          Successful people recognize the critical difference between an explanation and an excuse. An explanation accepts full responsibility, while an excuse places blame, and minimizes liability, in order to avoid consequences. Explanations can be pivotal to reaching goals; excuses sabotage those efforts.
          Children often blame others in order to shift the blame away from themselves. The problem is that many people never mature from that juvenile approach, and spend their lives blaming everyone else for their problems and challenges. They are the greatest victims of their pedantic self-indignation.
          Shirking responsibility temporarily relieves feelings of shame, guilt, and fear. But in the long run, not recognizing where one could have better, robs a person of the ability to grow and improve.
          Conversely, all great accomplishments are the result of the efforts of individuals who are willing to take responsibility. This is true not only in society and the physical world, but in the world of spiritual accomplishment as well. In fact, the entire transmission of Torah is the result of the incredible tenacity, resilience, and acceptance of responsibility of Rabbi Akiva. After losing twenty-four thousand students in a short time period, Rabbi Akiva would have been justified in giving excuses why he could not go on. Rabbi Akiva understood however, that if he did not begin again the transmission of Torah would end. Rather than offer excuses, Rabbi Akiva told his new students an explanation:
          “Rabbi Akiva said: If you have disciplines in your youth, produce disciples in your old age, for you do not know which ones will endure, these or these… Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand students from Acco to Antifros, and they all died during one period. Why? Because their eyes were pained, these to these. In the end he produced seven students[8]…. He said to them: “My sons, the first ones died because their eyes were pained from one to the other. Pay attention that you do not act as they did.” They stood up and they filled all of Eretz Yisroel with Torah.”[9]
          The holiday of Lag Ba’Omer celebrates the eternity of Torah, a result of the unbroken chain of its transmission. At certain points in our history it seemed like that transmission was in danger, but during those times were always individuals who assumed responsibility and ensured that Torah would never be forgotten.
          Two of these great heroes were Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Both suffered tremendously during their lives and both could have offered excuses why they could not go on. The fact that they persevered and continue to feel responsible to teach Torah had a perpetually vital effect upon the Torah world.  
          Lag BaOmer reminds us that being part of an eternal chain comes with a heavy price tag. Building eternity does not have room for excuses, justifications, or exemptions.

          “The son of the Jewish woman uttered the Name blasphemously”
          “Pay attention that you do not act as they did.”

        
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor





[1] The following is the lecture I gave in Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos KodAlthoiugh tesh parshas Emor 5776
[2] Where the speed limit suddenly drops
[3] Vayikra Rabbah 22:3
[4] see Rashi Shemos 2:11
[5] Her name ‘Shlomis bas Divri’ alludes to the fact that she ‘made peace’ (shlomis) and was chatty (divri) with men
[6] This explanation was based on an essay by Rabbi Maury Grebenau
[7] “Affluenza” by M. Gary Neuman, Huffington Post
[8] One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
[9] Bereishis Rabbah 61:3

Thursday, May 9, 2019

PARSHAS KEDOSHIM 5779


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS KEDOSHIM 5779
“ABOVE AND BEYOND”

Rabbi Returns $98k He Found in Desk Bought on Craigslist
Nov. 12, 2013
A Connecticut rabbi who bought a used desk on Craigslist for $150 discovered that it wouldn't fit through the door into his study. As he took the desk apart to get it inside, a bag containing $98,000 fell out.
Noah Muroff's windfall did not last long. The next day, with his four kids along, he took the money back to the desk's original owner.
The woman "was totally speechless" when she got a call from Muroff at 11:30 p.m. that night to let her know what they had found.
"She was so shocked and touched that anyone would call," he said. "She said, 'You could have kept the money, and nobody would have ever known.'"
Muroff, of New Haven, Conn., bought a desk for his study on Craigslist for $150 and went with his wife to pick up the piece of furniture from the owner's house, he told ABCNews.com.
He loaded the desk into his minivan, but found it was too large to fit through the room's doorway. So the couple took the desk apart to get it inside.
When they removed the two filing cabinets from the desk, they found a plastic shopping bag between its drawers that appeared to have money inside, he said. Upon counting up the bills, the contents totaled $98,000.
"If we didn't take those drawers out, we never found have found it," he said.
Muroff, a rabbi who teaches ninth grade at Yeshiva of New Haven, said he and his wife immediately felt that they had an obligation to return the money to the desk's original owner.
"We both agreed that this is not our money," he said. "If God wants us to have $98,000, he'll make sure to give it to us in some other way."….
The next day, Muroff met with the desk's seller to bring her the missing fortune. He also brought his four young children along to teach them a lesson about "honesty and doing that which is right," he said.
Muroff said he and his wife agreed it was best not to take a reward for the good deed, but the woman presented them with a gift bag anyway.
Inside, she wrote a note and gave them back the original $150 they spent on the desk.
"I do not think there are too many people in this world that would have done what you did by calling me. I do like to believe that there are still good people left in this crazy world we live in. You certainly are one of them," the woman wrote. "I cannot thank you enough for your honesty and integrity."

The Torah commands us to be holy.[1] It relates to a Jew’s obligation to live his life in a manner that causes other people to love G-d.[2]
Being holy entails not only constantly striving to improve one’s connection with G-d, but also to be a person who thinks and cares about others, not to live selfishly, and to think about the perspective and plight of others.   
Ramban understands that the directive to be holy means that one should not be a repulsive or gluttonous person. One can keep all the laws of the Torah and yet be vulgar and crass. The mitzva of being holy obligates a person to be pleasant and dignified, an example of morality and sterling character.  

 “When you will sacrifice a Shelmamim (peace) offering to Hashem, sacrifice it so that it will be accepted. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it and the next day, but what is left over on the third day shall be burned in fire… And when you will reap the harvest of your land, do not reap all the corners of your field… to the poor and the convert you shall leave them, I am Hashem, your G-d.”[3]
What is the connection between the laws of separating the obligatory gifts for the poor and the previous discussion of the proper procedure to offer a korban? In fact, the Torah seems to stress the connection by introducing the laws of the obligatory gifts with the conjunctive “and” as if it’s connected with the previous laws?
Birchas Ish explains with a parable:
There was a world-class chef who had a reputation for his exquisite delicacies and magnificent culinary creations. People would travel great distances to taste his food, and the chef’s reputation spread far and wide.
One day the chef decided that he could do even better if he moved from his small village to the capital. However, the law of the land was that before one could move to the capital, he had to obtain permission from the king. The chef wrote a letter to the king requesting the honor of catering a royal banquet for the king in the palace. He reasoned that if he impressed the king with his talents, the king would be more than happy to allow him to move to the capital.
As soon as permission was granted, the chef diligently set to work in the palace kitchen. Delectable smells began wafting from the kitchen, and soon the feast was the talk of the palace. The king himself commented that he had never experienced such wonderful smells.
The day of the party arrived, and the elite members of the government and the king’s family filled the royal banquet hall. The tables were magnificently set, and everything looked perfect. The trumpet blared and the king himself entered the room and took his place at the head of the table. The chef emerged from the kitchen and personally brought out the first dish. As he removed the cover, the most wonderful smell filled the room, and everyone raised themselves up slightly to get a glimpse of the perfect and beautiful appetizer. But to the chef’s shock the king looked displeased. The king apologized and told the chef that he had lost his appetite. The chef smiled meekly and reassured his majesty that there would be plenty of other dishes that the king was sure to enjoy. But it was not to be. Despite the beauty and perfection of each dish, as each appetizer and entrée were brought before him the king looked paler. When he tried to sample a small amount of the food he began to gag. When the chef began to call for a doctor, the king waved him off.
The king turned to the chef and asked him if he knew of a certain individual from his hometown. The chef replied that he did. The king then continued, “You should know that that individual is my son. I was forced to send my son away from the palace so that he could learn the ways of the world and fend for himself. I sent him to a distant province where he would not be able to rely on me and would have to make it on his own. But things were very hard for him and he often went hungry. He would often write to me about how hard things were for him. He also told me that in his village there was a world-renowned chef from whom he would often ask for some scraps of food from his lavish feasts and ostentatious parties. But the chef paid no attention to him, and he and his family continued starving.”
The king continued, “Now I realize that you are the chef my son spoke of. Do you think I can enjoy the distinctive aromas and palatable dishes you prepared when I know how much pain they have caused my son, his wife, and my grandchildren? Can I enjoy foods from someone who had the ability to help my family but chose to turn a blind eye from his pain? If you really wish to serve and honor me, I would rather you take all the foods you have prepared and bring them to my son and his family so they can enjoy them.”
The Torah instructs the person offering his korbon that he ensures that it is being offered in a manner that will help him find favor in the eyes of Hashem. That includes that it be offered with proper intent and that he eats it within the allotted time. But then the Torah adds another point: If one wants his korban to find favor in the eyes of G-d, he should ensure that he is properly adhering to the laws of the gifts of the poor. If a person is not doing so, then G-d views it in the same manner as the king in the previous parable: “How can I enjoy the beautiful korban you have brought Me, when My children are starving and you aren’t caring for them?”
It is in order to impress this message that after stating the laws of offering a korban, the Torah continues “And when you reap the harvest”, reminding us to make sure to leave behind the gifts of the poor. What kind of korbon is it if the person bringing it didn’t care for those needy and less fortunate?!

When we think of holiness, perhaps our first thoughts turn to long prayers and engagement in Torah study. But to achieve holiness one also must elevate his interpersonal relationships. He must strive to live beyond himself, and to be a person who sanctifies G-d’s Name by the way he lives his life.

“And when you will reap the harvest of your land”
“Be holy”
        
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

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[1] Vayikra 19:2 “Speak to the whole assembly of B’nai Yisroel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy.”
[2] Yoma 86a
[3] Vayikra 19:5-10