SMS Torah

A project of Hillcrest Jewish Center

Emor – What do we sacrifice?

Our Torah portion deals, once again, with the different laws about the sacrifices. One of the laws is: And its libation [shall be] a quarter of a hin of wine.” (Lev. 23:13). Together, with the animal sacrifice, wine was spilled over the altar. Maimonides says that this law is strange because wine libation is one of the most well-known idolatry practices. If this is the case, then why does the Torah command us to do the same in our “monotheistic sacrifices”? Maimonides hints at a possible answer: “A man should offer to God those things that are most beloved to him. Since a person loves to take pleasure from eating meat, drinking wine and listening to melodious instruments, his sacrifice is also accompanied by meat, wine and musical instruments”. (Guide for the Perplex 3:46)

God commanded us to add wine to the sacrifices because, according to Jewish tradition, wine is something that we love and enjoy. According to the rabbis: there is no joy unless there is meat and wine” (base on BT, Pesachim 109a). We should offer the best of what we have, not only to God, but to others, too. However, there is a difference between offering meat, or wine, or music. Many times when we give something, it means we will have less for ourselves. If we give, like in the case of an offering of meat or wine, we will have less meat or wine to eat or drink for ourselves. There is another way of giving, where we don’t lose anything, at all. This way of giving can be compared to fire, and specifically in this case, the music in the Temple. When we share fire, usually from one candle to another, we are able to add light without losing any light from the first candle. The same can be said about the music shared in the Temple. When we share music with others, we are not losing anything, or left with less music for ourselves. Instead, we are able to spread it for the enjoyment of everyone.

There are sacrifices in life that demand us to give something. There are others that demand us to share and spread. A sacrifice is a combination of giving what we love and sharing what we know.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Tazria-Metzora – No taboos in the Torah!

Our combined Torah portions talk a lot about issues that we generally do not speak about in public: skin diseases, menstruation, childbirth bleeding, infections, seminal discharge, etc. Our sense of aesthetics, modesty, and privacy often does not allow us to speak about these issues openly. Our western civilization sometimes seems to regard these kinds of topics as “ugly”, “inappropriate” and “taboo”. But the Torah is different. Hashem, through His Torah, wants us to talk about these sensitive issues, and for Him, these readings are pleasant ones.

According to the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 19:3), these sordid and black passages in our weekly Torah portion are pleasant to God, just like any offering. But the question is, why? Why is it important for us to read these 3000-year-old laws of purity aloud, in public? Why are these issues pleasant to Hashem? Maybe the answer to these questions can be found in the name of the upcoming month, Iyar. According to our Sages, Iyar is an acronym for the verse “Ani Hashem Rofecha” (Exodus15:26) which means, “I am God your Healer”.

The only way that Hashem can help us, and heal our bodies, and especially our souls, is when we open ourselves up. Hashem can help us when we speak about our concerns, the physical, emotional, and physiological concerns. In order to address these kinds of issues, we must speak about them. Skin diseases, menstruation, childbirth bleeding, infections, seminal discharge, as well as cancer, drug addictions, depression, or any other natural process of our bodies, should not be topics which are avoided or taboo but rather topics to be taught and spoken about. By openly teaching about them we may help enable people that might be going through some of these issues and help them feel free to talk about their experiences. We may also help those in search of help from friends, doctors, and from the warmth of Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Shemini – How do you comfort a mourner?

Parashat Shemini opens with the instructions for celebrating the beginning of priesthood services in the Tabernacle. It should have been a day of joy and celebration but tragedy struck shortly after the celebration began. According to Leviticus (10:1), Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, “brought before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them [to bring].” Because of this, they were killed by a fire that came from heaven. The exact opposite of the verse, which we recite in our weekly liturgy, occurred: “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11). All of the joy turned into sorrow.

Immediately after Nadab and Abihu died, Moses tried to comfort his brother, Aaron: “Moses here said to Aaron: “My brother, Aaron! I knew that this House was to be sanctified by those who are beloved of the Omnipresent God and I thought it would be either through me or through you; now I see that these (thy sons who have died) are greater than me and than you!” (Rashi to Lev. 10:3). Moses tried to comfort his brother by telling him that his sons did not die in vain. Moses told Aaron that his sons were so beloved by God that He decided to take them into His midst. Moses acted in a way that many of us might act when confronted with a tragic situation.

Moses used words to try to console Aaron, but Aaron, chose to mourn in a different way: “And Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10:3). Some scholars believe his silence was a way of saying that he did not mourn or cry over the death of his children, but instead, he continued his service in the tabernacle, as usual (see for example Rashbam, Chizkuni or Sforno ad. loc). I believe there is another way to interpret his silence. I believe he was silent because he did not have the words to describe what had happened. He could not understand how the greatest day of his life, the day celebrating his achievements, had suddenly become one of the most tragic days of all. The death of his sons was very hard to understand (the rabbis make a point of this by offering more than 12 ways to explain what their sins might have been). His silence was his way to mourn. Instead of explaining what had occurred, he chose to be silent. And for his silence, he was rewarded (BT, Zevachim 115b).

Moses used words, while Aaron preferred silence. Moses’ actions are very similar to ours when find ourselves in the home of a mourner or in the chapel after someone has passed. We often feel that only through our words may we provide comfort to friends or family members who have lost a loved one. We may not realize it but sometimes the words we use may do more harm than good. Words that are well-intended could sometimes be received the wrong way and instead of comforting someone, they could make a situation worse. A story is shared in the Talmud (Ketuvot 12a) where a poet used beautiful and clever words to try to comfort a father after the loss of his son but the only thing the poet succeeded in doing was upsetting the father even more.

We can learn from Aaron and his choice to be silent. When we visit a mourner, we do not have to talk. The Halakah actually recommends that we not begin a conversation with the mourner, not until they have to decided to talk to us first. Many times the only thing that a mourner needs is one’s presence, they need someone to be with them, listening to them. This is, I believe, what Rav Papa tried to teach us by saying: “The reward for the mourner’s house is in the silence.”  (BT, Berakhot 6b).

To conclude, I’d like to share an old Arabic proverb, which says: “If what you have to say is not more beautiful than silence, be still”. What a mourner needs is our presence, not our words.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Tzav – The holiness of cleaning

In some ways, we can see that our Torah portion this week, just a few days before Pesach, is connected with the upcoming holiday. During this time of year we are cleaning our house and getting rid of the Chametz that we own. Cleaning is also the first commandment that appears in Parashat Tzav: “… and he shall take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.” (Lev. 6:4) The first task every day for the Kohanim (priests) in the Beit HaMikdash was to clean the ashes (Deshen) of the Altar from the sacrifices that burnt there through the night. We clean for Passover and the Kohanim used to clean the ashes every morning to restart the Service in the Temple.

Usually, cleaning is not an exciting or favorite activity of ours. But in the Talmud, we find stories about Kohanim that fought between each other to have the “honor” to clean the altar. There is something special in cleaning; there is holiness in cleaning. We are often unappreciative of the heavenly importance of cleaning, but Parashat Tzav and Pesach, and the cleaning they involve, is a reminder of the holy act which cleaning may become.

Pinchas ben Yair use to say: …Study leads to precision, precision leads to zeal, zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to restraint, restraint leads to purity, purity leads to holiness…(BT, Avodah Zarah 20b). Cleanliness is on the way to holiness. Rashi (ad. Loc.) understands this cleanliness as being “free from sin”. Only when we are clean inside, can we then became holy. But also there is holiness in being physically clean, in talking showers, in wearing clean clothing, and in having clean homes. Our level of cleanliness says a lot about ourselves. 

The cleaning of the Deshen (the ashes) of the Temple enabled the Kohanim to restart the service each day. The cleaning of the Chametz enable us to fully receive and be prepared for the upcoming holiday of Passover. Cleaning is not just a mundane and ordinary activity, with the right purpose, and with the right Kavanah (intention) it could became a holy task.  And the same is true with every activity and task we perform on a daily basis. Every action could become holy and could connect us more with Hashem if we understand its true and eternal meaning.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Vaykra – Calling others by name

The third book of the Torah, the first one studied by Jewish children when they enter school, starts with a call: “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying…” (Lev. 1:1). God calls Moses and starts teaching him all the laws in regards to the Korbanot (the sacrifices) that were offered at the tabernacle. Rashi offers a particular and very interesting remark on this seemingly ordinary verse: “All oral communications of the Lord to Moses whether they are introduced by Daver or by Omer or by Tzav were preceded by a call to prepare him for the forthcoming address. It is a way of expressing affection…”. Each time that God speaks to Moses, He addresses him by calling his name: “And God’s spoke to Moses”, “And God said to Moses”, and “God commanded Moses”, etc. These kinds of verses appear all over the Torah in almost every chapter (and in each chapter they sometimes appear more than once) from the middle section of Exodus until the last verses of Deuteronomy.
Rashi explains that this how God expressed affection towards Moses. God knows how nice a person can feel when their name is recalled. The famous American lecturer, Dale Carnegie, once said: “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  We love being acknowledged by our own name, it can make us feel loved and important. When someone addresses us by name, it helps us realize that we are not just any other person. Being called by name helps us realize that someone is thinking of us in particular.
I learned this very lesson from Rabbi Kogan just a few years ago. Since then, I’ve started working on the practice of calling each person that I meet by name. I practice this at the beginning and at the end of the conversations that I have with others. I learned to those that I work and interact with for their name and I practice remembering their name by repeating it during our first conversations. From waiters to cashiers, from employers to employees… everybody deserves (and appreciates) to be called by his or her own name.
You can make someone feel special by saying one simple word: their name. This Shabbat, let’s start working on this simple but important act of chesed which can change our lives and the lives of those that we meet daily.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Uriel Romano

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Fire in our dwelling places

At the beginning of this combined Torah portion we are taught about one of the most well known Melakhot (forbidden labors) of Shabbat: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3). According to the rabbis there are 39 forbidden labors that we should avoid during the holy day of Shabbat but one of the only labors explicated in the Torah is one prohibiting the kindling of fire.

According to many Hasidic rabbis, the fire that the Torah is talking about is not only the “physical fire” we use to cook, to melt, or to burn something but rather the fire “of anger, envy, hate, etc.” The fire that dwells in each of us and consumes our lives and relationships. Besides avoiding turning on the combustion of our cars, the oven in our kitchens, or a bonfire in our backyard, our Hasidic masters teach us that during the 25 hours of Shabbat, we should avoid kindling any kind of internal fire that may dwell in our hearts.

In English, we have the expression add fuel to the fire”, which means to make a situation even worse than it was before. The fuel adds more flames, making the fire, or the problem itself, even greater than before. And this, too, is the fire that we should avoid during Shabbat. Shabbat should be a day of rest. The world should rest from the work of our hands and our souls should rest from the problems, frustrations, envies, angers, etc., that we accumulate during the week. During the resting of Shabbat we do not start any new fires neither do we add more fuel to any preexisting fire.

The last fire we kindle before Shabbat should be the only fire present in our dwelling, the fire from the lighting of the Shabbat candles. The candles of Shalom Bait, the light of the “peace of the home”.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Ki Tisa – Descending and Ascending

When God realizes that the people of Israel have sinned and made a golden calf, He immediately says to Moses, Go, descend (Lech Red) for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.” (Ex. 32:7) Moses was up on Mount Sinai studying the Torah with God, while the people of Israel were at the bottom of Mount Sinai, praying to other gods.

According to the Talmud (Berachot 32a) God´s order wasn’t only, as the Or Hachaym points out, a physical descent from the mountain but a spiritual one, too. These are the words of the Talmud, “Moses, descend from your greatness.”  Moses was a leader, God affirms, only for the sake of the people of Israel. When the people of Israel sinned he could no longer consider himself a great leader anymore. The leader is as good as the followers that he is leading.

As soon as Moses takes control of the situation, and punishes the people responsible for the golden calf, God resumes His conversation with the renewed leader, telling him, “Go, ascend (Lech Aleh) from here, you and the people you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…” (Ex. 33:1). Rashi (ad. loc.) is the one who points out the similarity between the two verses; “Go, descend”, as opposed to “Go, ascend”.

Once again, Moses is able to ascend with his people to the promise land. Moses suffered a problem that many leaders face; Moses became detached from his people’s needs. Moses was happy during the 40 days that he spent, at the top of the mountain, having his one-on-one conversation with God. Like many leaders today, that are often elevated in big offices, attending big conferences, carrying on in private conversations, etc., Moses too forgot that leadership is not about oneself but about the people being served.

This Torah portion teaches us that a leader ascends and descends at the same rhythm as his or her followers. The greatness of a leader is not shown by his own specific character but rather by the characteristics instilled in his or her own followers. Do not judge a leader by his own personal attributions (his charisma, his speech, etc…) but rather how that charisma and that speech change the lives of his followers. Judge a leader, we can learn from this Torah portion, by his followers.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Tetzave – “Eternity” does not mean forever and “always” does not mean for all time.

At the beginning of this Torah portion God tells Moses to command the people of Israel to donate pure olive oil “to cause a lamp to burn always” in the Tabernacle (Exodus 27:20). However, this Ner Tamid (eternal light) is a paradox. It was a light that was supposed to be kindled at night and last until the next morning but it did not burn pass the morning, into the next day. One may ask, why is it called Tamid (eternal) if it only burned at night? There were some rabbis (Nahmanides for example) that quote the Midrash as saying that indeed the lights were always burning; that it was an eternal light, illuminating at night and during the day. But the vast majority of our sages reject this idea because it contradicts a literal verse of the Torah, that says, “to burn from evening to morning before the Lord” (Exodus 27:21).

So if the lamp was not always burning why does the Torah use the word Tamid? The old Aramaic translation of the Bible changes the word Tamid for Tedirah, instead of eternal or “continually” (Targum Onkelos). Rashi, instead of changing the word, offers another meaning for the word Tamid. He says the meaning here is “continually” like in other cases of the Bible, “… just as you speak of (Numbers 27:6) “The continual (Tamid) burnt-offering”, although this was sacrificed only from day to day. So, too, in the case of the meal-offering made in a flat pan it is said, (Leviticus 6:13) that it should be brought continually (Tamid) and yet it was only brought thus: “Half of it in the morning, and half of it at evening”. Ibn Ezra offers one more example of this usage as well. From these cases we learn that Tamid does not necessarily mean “always” but instead, it means, “continually” or “perpetually.”

In a similar passage, two weeks ago we read about a Jewish slave who, if he rejected his freedom after serving his masters for six years, “…shall serve him forever (Leolam)” (Exodus 21:6). But the Talmud points out that forever does not really mean forever but rather “until the next Jubilee” (Kidushin 15a).

So always is not always but “continually” and forever is not forever but “until a specific period of time” (which may come sooner or later). This new understanding of these common words in our lexicon should shed light on the way we use them. When we say, for example, that we should always study we do not mean that we should study twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It means we should devote some time every day to learn more. Or when one is angry and says, “I won’t be able to forgive you forever,” they mean that until a specific (long or short) period of time goes by they will not offer their forgiveness.

The same is true, I believe, in regards to the famous quote from Rabbi Nachman of Braslav: “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always (Tamid)!”  We cannot be happy always, all the time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. What we should do is find moments each day to be happy, to be joyful, to smile, and to laugh. This is the great commandment and is specifically the commandment on the weekend where, besides for celebrating Shabbat, we celebrate Purim, too.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!

Trumah – Thinking Ahead

Among the many things that the Children of Israel donated towards the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness were pieces of acacia-wood (Exodus 25:5). A question one might ask is, “where did they get trees in the desert?” Ibn Ezra suggests that “there was a field of acacia trees nearby Mount Sinai.” He goes on to suggest that it is from there that the Children of Israel took the necessary wood to build their cabins and also to donate some for the construction of the Mishkan. The Bechor Shor, from a more logical perspective, suggests that all the wood was taken from one of the stops in the desert called Shitim (lit. Acacia) because it had a big field full of this type of tree (see Numbers 25:1). Both rabbis provide us with a logical answer for an excellent question. 

But logic is not all there is to life. Sometimes there are answers that might sound a little farfetched but the idea they share is far more powerful than a simple logical solution. Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Tanchuma, 9) says, “Rabbi Tanchuma explained that our father Yaakov foresaw with the holy spirit that the Israelites were destined to build a Mishkan in the desert, so he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them. He commanded his sons to take them with them when they left Egypt.” So the wood wasn’t already in the desert, it was brought from Egypt when our forefathers were freed. This is an example of vision and leadership. Yaakov could have prepared something only for the harsh years of enslavement but he goes one step further by giving the Israelites the opportunity and the path to celebrate freedom. Usually good leaders prepare themselves, and their people, for the worst. They prepare for the dark times and often they forget to prepare themselves for the good times too, for the moment where the sun rises again.

Do not prepare yourself only for the bad moments in life, be ready to celebrate the good times, as well. This is the legacy of Yaakov Avinu. So the obvious question now is, which are the trees that we are planting for the generations to come? In particular today we may ask ourselves, “what are the trees that we are planting today so our grandchildren could celebrate the freedom of Shabbat”? 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Romano

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