SMS Torah

A project of Hillcrest Jewish Center

Parashat Shlach – Each Minyan, a Tikkun

Why do we need ten Jewish adults for a Minyan (quorum)? Why exactly ten? According to the rabbis (BT, Megillah 23b) the reason for selecting this number is found in our Torah portion. According to our scholars the idea of a quorum of ten is derived from the ten spies, who are called a congregation (Num. 14:27), who speak ill about the land of Israel. For these ten people and their lack of faith and lies, our people spent forty years in the wilderness and because of them, today for a wedding, for reading the Torah, for praying, for reciting the Kaddish, etc., we need a Minyan. 

And I ask myself, why this episode out of all them was chosen by the rabbis to become the source for a Minyan? Wouldn’t it be better to say that ten Jewish adults compose a Minyan in memory of the ten righteous people of which Abraham spoke regarding Sodom and Gomorrah? Or the ten people that were assembled in the gates of Bet-Lechem and who were witnesses in the case of Boaz in the book of Ruth? Why did the rabbis choose precisely this passage to emphasize that a congregation is formed with a minimum of ten people? 

I would like to suggest that the reason is because each Minyan is a Tikkun, each time that we get together to have a Minyan we are repairing the mistake made by these ten leaders. They didn’t trust in Hashem; we show our trust in Hashem each time we gather to pray to HaShem. They didn’t trust in the words of the Torah; we do, so we gather in a Minyan every time we read the Torah publicly. Gathering a Minyan for a community prayer, for a Bris, a wedding or a funeral is a way to repair the mistake of our forefathers. It is saying to ourselves, to God and to the rest of the Jewish community that we believe in God and in ourselves, that we are a people of believers, sons and daughters of believers. 

Each Minyan is a Tikkun, be part of a Minyan, be part of the repairing of our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Behalotecha: What leaders do (or should do.)

The Levites were chosen by God to work in the Tabernacle (later on in the Temple) replacing the original law that every first born of each family should be devoted to serve God. In our Torah portion we read:  For they are wholly given over to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of those that open the womb all the firstborn of Israel I have taken them for Myself” (Num. 8:16) The Hebrew for wholly given is Netunim Netunim.  Rashi, quoting a Midrash, says that the repetition of the word Netunim (given over for) means that the Levites were given over for two different works:  on the one hand singing and on the other hand carrying all the vessels and the equipment of the tabernacle from one place to the other.  

The Levites were held in high esteem by the Israelite society and by God himself. To be a Levi was to have a respected and honored position in the times of the Bible. They sang to God and to the people, beautifying the service, but they were also responsible for carrying, schlepping from one place to the other all the furniture and the structure of the Tabernacle. They were at the same time the Cantor and the janitor. A true leader, a person wholly devoted to God, to a goal, to his company or to his ideals should be willing to always do both the most elevated task and the most mundane task. With the same passion he employs in singing to God, he should be dismantling the bars of the tabernacle. The big things and the small things, what is shown in the scene and what is going on behind the scene, are both holy work. A true leader should never say “this work is not for me” or “this is too low for my status”. A true leader knows that every task is important and is holy and if he needs to pull up his sleeves to get the job done then he should do it. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Naso – Spirit of folly

In our Torah portion we find the laws of the Isha Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery. The term Sotah, comes from the verb Listot which means “go astray”. That is why this woman is called Sotah because she is suspected of “going astray”, deviating herself from the Torah and from the usual ways of modesty (Rashi, Num. 5:12). The Midrash points out that the verb Listot is connected with the word Shtut (folly or madness). Both words sound similar, and are written in a similar way, in Hebrew. This makes the rabbis state the following: “Adulterers do not commit adultery unless a spirit of folly (שְׁטוּת) enters them” (Tanhuma, Naso 5). According to this perspective when someone is unfaithful to his/her partner is not because they really “want to” is just because the spirit of stupidity and foolishness enter in them.

The Talmud extends this idea by saying, “A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly enters him.” (b. Sotah 3a). Not only adultery but the cause of any transgression is understood as a moment of foolishness. Understanding every transgression or sin with this view has the risk of being too lenient and of forgiving all mistakes simply because “he/she was seized by an attack of madness”. This has the risk of always blaming “the spirit of folly” and not assuming personal responsibility. But there is also some beauty in this idea; it give us the possibility to be more forgiving, to give second chances and to understand that many times (if not most) when a loved one commits a mistake, breaks a promise or does something wrong is not out of wickedness but just because for a moment they lost their way, they forgot, they became foolish, they were not thinking, etc. With this approach in mind we can see every human being as intrinsically good but as the Maharsha (1555-1631) said “we should learn from this that in every transgression there is a spirit that makes us go astray from the good path to the bad path” (Chidushei Agadot, Sotah 3a).

Repeat with me: “we are good people but sometimes we lose our way!” This idea is not only useful to reconnect with another when they have wronged us but it also is good for us when we have committed a transgression and we are excessively harsh with ourselves. Repeat after me: “I’m a good person but sometimes I lose my way”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Bemidbar & Shavuot: Making Sinai eternal 

The fourth book of the Torah starts with the following words, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 1:1).  According to some commentators, “Whenever divine communication occurred in the first year [following the exodus], before the erection of the Tabernacle, the text writes that it took place “at Mount Sinai.” But after the Tabernacle was erected…the text does not say “at Mount Sinai,” but rather “in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting.” (Rashbam, Num 1:1). 

There is a deep connection between the Sinai and the Tent of Meeting. Not only in the way that some communications between God and Moses appear in the Torah but also in the way the people arranged the camp. According to Nachmanides (in his introduction to the book of Numbers) the way the Torah describes that the people camped, each one with his own tribe, around and protecting the Tabernacle was the same way that people back then camped around Mount Sinai while they were waiting to receive the Torah. 

I would like to suggest, approaching Shavuot, that the Tent of Meeting became to the Jewish people not only a portable tabernacle but also a portable Sinai. Sinai and the revelation which occurred there was a “one time event” but our ancestors wanted to continue that revelation and preserve an eternal connection between Mount Sinai and the Tent of Meeting. Today the revelation continues when we as a people, in the same way that our ancestors put the revelation at Sinai and, later on, the Tent of Meeting in the center of their camps, we put the Torah in the center of our lives.

 Sinai – Tent of Meeting – Torah. That is the sequence of revelation. When we put the Torah, its study and its observance, in the center –physically and spiritually—of our lives we are able to make God´s revelation eternal. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Uri

Behar-Bechukotai: The Shofar and Yom Kippur

The beginning of the Jubilee year, every fifty years, was marked by the blowing of a Shofar all across the land of Israel (Lev. 25:9). The Shofar was sounded “as an expression of joy over the liberation of the slaves and the restoration of lands whose sale had been forced by economic necessity to its original owners or their heirs.” (Sforno ad. Loc). This shofar was called: “שופר חירותא – trumpet of liberty” (Targum Pseudo-Jonhathan ad. Loc.). But exactly when was the Shofar blown? [I changed word order in previous sentence to go the way English speakers say it.]Not the first day of the year, but the 10th day of the seventh month… on Yom Kippur!

Why was this day out of all other days chosen as the starting point of the Jubilee year? From a biblical and scholarly point of view I’m not sure but from a spiritual perspective for our own era I do. According to some rabbis this is the reason why we still blow the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur (Levush, Orach Chaim 623:5.). But I think there is something else. Even though the Jubilee year is not observed anymore,each Yom Kippur could be for us like a Jubilee year in miniature. Yom Kippur is a gift given by God to free and restore ourselves.

Yom Kippur is the moment each year that we are reminded we can become free again, that we shouldn’t be bound to the mistakes of the past,that we are now free again.

Yom Kippur is the moment each year that we have the possibility to restore ourselves, to go back to the basics, to return to the place that we once were.

Think about this when, in little more than four months, you hear the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Emor – Time & Action

Our Torah portion teaches us that when a Cohen (priest) becomes unclean, in order to eat his portion of the sacrifices he has to become pure again. How does he attain a state of purity again? By “immersing his flesh in water” (Lev. 22:6) and by waiting until the “sun sets” (Ibid. 7). After these two things occur “he becomes clean, and afterwards, he may eat of the holy things, for it is his food” (Ibid.). The same is true, I would like as to suggest, to almost all our “impurities” (all our problems, our mistakes and our sufferings). To overcome that state we always need two things:  Action & Time. One without the other rarely works. For example, if you are sick you need to take some medicine or undergo some treatment but the cure is not automatic, you need time to heal.  The same is true when you make a mistake by wronging someone, you first need to apologize and make amends for your mistake and then you need to give time to the other person to forgive you. For the Cohen who was in a state of impurity it wasn’t enough just to go to the Mikvah or to wait for the sun to set, he needed both to become ritually pure again. We also always need to take an action and to allow some time to return to a state of purity.

Acharei Mot/Kedoshim: About revenge and grudge 

Today I will like to share a very practical Dvar Torah. In one of the many moral and social commandments found in our Torah portion we read, “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people…” (Lev. 19:18). What does it mean in practical terms, not taking revenge or bearing a grudge? The Talmud (Yoma 23a) makes it explicit for us:

You shall neither take revenge: [For example:] He says to him, “Lend me your sickle,” and he [the latter] replies, “No!” The next day, he [the latter] says to him, “Lend me your ax.” [If] he says to him, “I will not lend it to you, just as you did not lend to me!” this constitutes revenge.

And what constitutes “bearing a grudge?” [For example:] he says to him, “Lend me your ax,” and he [the latter] replies, “No!” Then the next day, he [the latter] says to him, “Lend me your sickle.” [Now, if] he says to him, “Here it is for you; I am not like you, who did not lend me!” this constitutes “bearing a grudge,” for he keeps the hatred in his heart, even though he does not take revenge.

Lo Tikom veLo Titor, You shall neither take revenge upon nor bear a grudge, are the commandments in the Torah. They are part of what the biblical scholars call “The Code of Holiness”, a set of moral laws that go beyond the simple and basics laws for the wellbeing of society. The “Ten Commandments” (or at least the second half of them) are a basic group of laws that should be the foundation of our society. This Code of Holiness, or (part of) Parashat Kedoshim, should be what our societies should aspire to be. They are not the baseline, they are the goal. In this Code of Holiness we find maybe the most difficult commandments of the entire Torah like not taking revenge, not bearing grudges, and also the well-known “love your fellow as yourself”. Nobody says these are easy to do, but that is the challenge–to challenge ourselves to live a life of holiness. Holiness is not the starting point but the goal. This is our promised land too. Now you know what you have to do when somebody asks you for an ax!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Tazria-Metzora “Impure, impure!”

Our Torah portion deals mainly with laws about different skin diseases and how each should be evaluated and treated. When somebody is declared impure by the priest this should be the procedure, “And the person with tzara’ath (a skin disease, maybe leprosy), in whom there is the lesion, his garments shall be torn, his head shall be unshorn, he shall cover himself down to his mustache and call out, “impure! impure!” (13:45). According to the Torah when someone is diagnosed with this skin disease the person should go around declaring “impure! Impure!”. He should cry out that he has been afflicted with this spiritual state of impurity. Why? Why should he be exposing himself to the world declaring publicly that he is in a state of impurity?

The Talmud (b. Moed Katan 5a) brings two possible answers. According to Rabbi Abbahu he should shout in order to warn others of his state of impurity so others might “remove themselves” from his path so they do not became impure by touching him. This is the way that Rashi explains the verse: “He announces that he is unclean, so that everyone should stay away from him.” Why he chose that interpretation I don’t know but the Talmud offers another possible reading and understanding of the verse, “And he shall cry: Impure, impure”; this teaches that the leper must inform the public of his distress, and the public will pray for mercy on his behalf.” According to this reading the leper should shout twice “impure” for two reasons, so others would know of his suffering and so they can pray for his recovery.

I personally prefer the second interpretation. Shouting “impure! Impure!” is not meant to scare people away but rather to let them know how you are feeling, your pains and your worries. The Talmud is saying that when we are suffering instead of keeping everything to ourselves we need to share it with others; we need to share our pain so others can understand what we are going through and so they can help us (by praying? By listening to us? By giving us some advice?).

Don’t be afraid to open yourself to others; you don’t know from where the help will come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Shemini – “Shemona, Shemini, Shemena”

The name of our Torah portion is “Shemini” (In the eighth day). And this year we read in the diaspora this Torah portion (or parts of it) eight (Shemona) times. And in Hebrew fat is “Shemena”. The similar sound (and origin) of these words made some Polish Chasidics come up with a phrase: “Shemona, Shemini, Shemena, i.e.: A year when we read eight times Parashat Shemini is a fat [=plenteous] year”. According to some the years when this strange phenomenon occurs is an omen for a year of plenty and abundance. I’m not sure if I believe in this specific omen but I just love how much our people love the Torah and  use their creativity to share Torah and offer an uplifting message. Today I would like to add my personal touch and reading of this phrase. 

Rav iyya bar Ashi says that Rav says: a Torah scholar must have one-eighth of one-eighth of arrogance (BT, Sotah 5a)”. Arrogance is not good but the Talmud states that every Scholar should have one-eighth of one-eighth (Shemona Sheminit, you see where I’m going) of arrogance. No leader should be arrogant but he or she needs to have a minimum amount of arrogance in order to be able to lead, to teach and to express his opinion. Arrogance is like fat, a lot is not good but a small portion is healthy and adds flavor. The same is true about ambition, pride, desire, etc. Shemona, Shemini, Shemena, always (or almost always) everything that in big proportions is bad in small quantities (1/64th maybe) is good. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Uri 

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