Friday, April 27, 2007

Where's the Jewish Violence?

There is a question that has been troubling many Americans of late, but it is particularly perplexing to us Jews. Our government’s efforts at rebuilding Iraq and instating a democracy have been stymied by horrific violence. That violence is directed at occupying troops is to be expected, but instead we have a civil war on our hands. Extremist Sunni and Shia Arabs who have lived side by side for years are now killing each other with abandon. With bombs and guns the murders are happening anywhere and everywhere, from private homes and mosques to the cafes, markets and even playgrounds. Ancient rivalries and religious differences have created a cycle of murder and revenge with no end in sight. This is the state of affairs today in Iraq.

The question is this: Yes, Shia and Sunni disagree over the line of succession from Mohammad and they disagree on certain issues of tradition and faith, but despite their differences, they have a lot in common. Both groups are religious, Islamic and believe that Mohammad was a prophet of G-d. Compared to the religious differences within the Jewish community, the distinctions between Shia and Sunni pale in comparison. But yet, the Jews get along quite well, beli ayin hara, while Muslim extremists are killing each other. Why the difference? What is the secret that keeps the peace among the Jews? The answer is to be found in this week’s parsha.

As its name indicates, our parsha is all about holiness. Unfortunately, “holiness” is a vague word that suffers from popular misconceptions. As the devout strive to “be holy,” it would help if they knew what it meant. The danger of misunderstanding holiness is clear and present, so we would do well to set the record straight.

The Torah bookmarks our parsha with calls for holiness (Vayikra 19:2; 20:26) and the eclectic collection of mitzvot found within provides the Jewish definition of the concept. The study of these mitzvot is therefore the logical starting point for the study of holiness. As we make our way through the parsha, reading mitzvah after mitzvah, things start coming into focus in an unexpected way.

“Ritualistic” mitzvot are to be expected and indeed, our parsha includes several such mitzvot (cf. 19:5-8,19,30). We also find prohibitions against pagan practices (19:4,26-28;20:2,6), drinking blood (19:26), adultery (20:10), incest (20:17), sexual deviance (20:13,15) and family purity (20:18). These mitzvot would fit well into anyone’s perception of holiness.

But there are other ingredients. We are told to respect parents and the elderly (19:3,32), save a portion of the harvest for the poor (19:9-10) and pursue justice (19:15). We find prohibitions against theft (19:11), dishonesty (19:11,12,35,36), gossip (19:16) and revenge (19:18). At first glance, these basic laws of morality might not appear to have anything to do with holiness, but the fact is, crimes against man undermine our potential for holiness no less than crimes against G-d.

However, it does not end there. The most famous mitzvah of all is also an essential element of holiness:

You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.


This comes as a surprise. What’s love got to do with it? How does love make you holy?

It seems that there is more to holiness than mere “holiness.” People tend to think of holiness as a higher form of spirituality in which man focuses exclusively on G-d. But our parsha informs us that striving to connect to G-d will fail to sanctify man as long as love for fellow Jews is lacking. In the end, our relationship with G-d is contingent on our relationship with our fellow Jew.

The Torah’s presentation of this fundamental mitzvah provides practical lessons for human relationships. Let’s take a closer look:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. I am G-d.


The mitzvah here is not simply love your neighbor, but to love your enemy! The Torah is saying don’t hate him, don’t take revenge, love him instead.

Easier said than done. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto describes the intense human need for revenge:

Revenge is sweeter than honey, for it is the only thing that will calm you down. If a man has the strength to abstain from that which human nature demands… he is indeed strong and powerful. It is easy only for the angels who lack these human characteristics… But it is the decree of the King… “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people.”

Path of the Just, chap. 11

Although the Torah forbids revenge, don’t think that the Torah expects us to “turn the other cheek.” Not at all. Being “righteous” and ignoring a personal attack is not holy; it is a dangerous approach that can lead to your own undoing.

The Torah prescribes the right way to deal with resentment, fix relationships and rebuild love:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor…


Rabbi David Fohrman explains that in place of revenge the Torah is prescribing rebuke. If you confront your brother and explain why you are upset with him, if you express your feelings and work it though together, then you won’t be left carrying a grudge. It may be uncomfortable to discuss the issue, but if you do not heed the Torah’s advice and choose instead to bottle up your feelings inside, don’t expect the resentment to go away. It will fester until it boils over one day in a fit of rage or an act of revenge.

The Torah demands nothing less than the complete repair of damaged relationships. G-d is not satisfied with half measures. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:

The negative traits [in man] disturb the heart and strive to preserve some impression or memory of the incident… Even if you agree to lend him that which he refused to lend you, you won’t give it with a smile. Or if you won’t do him harm, you won’t do him favors or help him out either. Or if you agree to help him out, you won’t do it together with him. Or if you forgave him and he is no longer your enemy, you are satisfied with that, but you won’t get back together and be friends again. Or even if you’ll be friends again, you won’t have the same degree of closeness as you once did…
The Torah therefore came out and stated plainly: “Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.” “As yourself” – without any differences, distinctions, games or tricks. Exactly as yourself.

Path of the Just, chap. 11

How can we accomplish such an incredible thing? Through open and honest communication. Admonish your neighbor and then you will love him. Communicating upsetness does not ruin a relationship; it’s the only way to save it. Old-fashioned rebuke and spirited debate is the great Jewish secret. This is the Torah’s formula for maintaining love and keeping the peace, and it’s a critical ingredient in the holiness recipe. Best of all, it really works!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Proper Care & Feeding of Souls

On these pages we have never been content with merely presenting a relevant message from the parsha. That would be easy – the divine timelessness of Torah is readily apparent to any serious student. Rather, we have set out to demonstrate that week after week, the parsha’s central theme sounds as if G-d composed it yesterday. This presents a bit of a challenge. The theme is invariably relevant, but identifying the theme is not always a simple matter.

Take, for example, this week’s two parshiot. The bulk of Tazria and Metzora deal with the laws of Tzara’at, a discoloration of skin, hair, clothes or even walls caused by certain sins. Tzara’at is a paranormal phenomenon occurring only in people of extraordinarily righteousness and spiritual sensitivity. Only a Jewish body or home exceedingly intolerant of sin will react with an outbreak of Tzara’at. (There has not been a known case for many centuries.)

Once diagnosed with Tzara’at, the afflicted is declared “tamei,” a mysterious state of being usually translated as ‘spiritually impure’ or ‘ritually unclean.’ A purification process, including a period of introspection outside the community and Temple offerings, will cure the Tzara’at and the impurity that it signifies. If Tzara’at was our only topic, a relevant theme would be near at hand. But no such luck; Tazriah begins with an altogether different issue. Childbirth.
When a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy, she shall be spiritually impure for seven days, just as she is impure during the time of separation when she has her period…
Vayikra 12:2
Now we’ve hit a wall. What is the unifying theme of the parsha? Not only do we have the difficult task of finding a common denominator between childbirth, the menstrual period and Tzara’at, we must also explain why this commonality would result in spiritual impurity. And then we’ll need to figure out how any of this could possibly be relevant today. No one ever said parsha study would be easy.

The road to an answer must begin with a better understanding of “Tumah.” While the Torah enumerates several different sources of spiritual impurity, the granddaddy of them all is a Jewish corpse. Nothing is more tamei and nothing transmits tumah more powerfully than a Jewish corpse. We might as well use the dead man as our guide.

Why is a dead man tamei? Why would a perfectly innocent Jew become ‘spiritually impure’ at the moment of death? Because nature abhors a vacuum.

When alive, the body is home to a holy Jewish soul. But when a person dies, the soul departs and leaves behind an empty vessel, a corpse. A body that once held a soul cannot bear to be nothing more than a used bag, so negative spiritual energy, a spirit of impurity, fills it. The same is true for a woman who gets her period or has a child. In either case a vacuum is created. A womb which previously held potential for life, or life itself, has become empty. Touched by the miracle of reproduction, the womb will not tolerate barrenness. The spiritual vacuum must be filled, so it fills with tumah.

This explains the tumah of childbirth, but what about Tzara’at? Why is Tzara’at a cause for tumah? What is Tzara’at anyway? The medieval kabbalist Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270) provides the answer:
“And when a garment is afflicted with Tzara’at…” (Vayikra 13:47). Such a thing is entirely unnatural and would never occur, nor would walls of a home ever turn colors. However, [the explanation is this:] When the Jewish people are whole [heartedly devoted] to G-d, the Shechina is constantly upon them, maintaining their bodies, clothes and homes with a good appearance. But when one of them happens to sin, an ugly mark appears on his flesh, clothes or home, signifying that G-d’s presence has departed from this individual.
It turns out that Tzara’at is an expansion of the idea introduced at the beginning of Tazria. Just as tumah is generated by a womb that has been abandoned by its holy fruit, tumah is also generated by a human being that has been abandoned by G-d. Spiritual emptiness is an unstable state, so whether the vacuum is a corpse, a womb or a man who has sinned, tumah steps right in. This is the theme of our parsha. (I am indebted to my good friend and chavrusah, Mr. Earl Hartman of Palo Alto, for this important insight.)

Just as there are laws of physics, there are laws of metaphysics. It is a law of nature that a spiritual vacuum cannot exist in our universe. If a vacuum isn’t quickly filled with something positive, then it will fill itself with something negative. The fact that the corpses and wombs are innocent of any wrongdoing is irrelevant. They become tamei by default.

This reality is very much within human experience. As Rabbi Ahron Kotler observed, the pursuit of materialism is driven by a soul starving for spirituality. Empty of mitzvot and sanctity, the soul strives to satiate its hunger in any way it can. Attend to the proper care and feeding of your soul, for if its spiritual needs are ignored, the soul itself will push man into tumah.

But here’s the rub. When a vessel experiences paradise, its hunger intensifies. A womb that never produced an egg is happy and pure; in its adolescent ignorance it is content with the status quo. But once the womb is touched by the promise of birth, it will never be the same. With the realization of its extraordinary potential comes a loneliness and a desperation that leads to tumah. (Some women seem to experience this tumah as post-partum depression, a curse placed on Eve back in Bereishit 3:16.) Similarly, it is only the people who have developed an intimate relationship with G-d that become tamei when their sins drive G-d’s presence away. A Jew who never shed a tear in prayer, never sang zemirot at a Shabbat table or was never moved to dance by the beauty of Torah and mitzvot does not suffer the agony of emptiness. Such a soul is a spiritual adolescent; unaware of the sublime pleasures, it sleeps in a cocoon of ignorance.

The more you feed your soul, the hungrier it gets. The more mitzvot you do and the higher you go, the more Torah and mitzvot your soul will need to stay healthy and content. This design forces man to either grow or fall. Unless you’ve hit rock bottom, there is no standing still.