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Mattot-Masei: The Holiness of Our Words

This week’s combined Torah portion begins with laws regarding vows and oaths. The Torah states: “…he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.” (Num. 30:3). Rashi points out the wording in the original Hebrew text and interprets the text: “he shall not violate his word” to mean “he shall not profane his word.” The Midrash adds: “he shall not treat his word as being unholy” (Sifrei, Matot 8).

God created the world with words. Adam named the animals with words. We build up our relationships, create our dreams, recite blessings and pray with words. Words are holy and for that reason the Midrash teaches us that our words should not be profane or mundane.

Holiness is something that is separate from the ordinary. For example, Shabbat is holy because it is separate from the rest of the week. To keep something holy it shouldn’t be misused, holiness is something special. Our words should be special, as well. Let’s speak the words, “I love you,” only with the people we really love because if not it becomes common loses its value once we mean it. The same is true with words like, “friend”, “I’m sorry”, “forgive me,” etc. Let’s make our words holy and special again.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Uri

Parashat Pinchas – The Vav and the Yud

If you look closely at the first paragraph of this week’s Torah portion, you will see a tiny Yud in the name Pinchas and a broken Vavin the word Shalom. Pinchas is a descendant of Aharon HaKohen. In last week’s Torah portion Pinchas took justice into his own hands and killed two people who were sinning. At the beginning of this Torah portion, God honors Pinchas for his zeal and grants him the covenant of peace. For many centuries this idea disturbed our rabbis. How could our rabbis explain why God rewarded Pinchas the covenant of peace for killing someone even if the person might have been deserving of punishment? We cannot change the Torah but we can change the way we read the Torah.

The rabbis wrote the Yud in Pinchas’ name in a smaller size compared to the other letters in order to teach us that when we use violence the Yud of our Iahadut (Jewishness) and of the ineffable name of God (I-H-V-H) are diminished. Pinchas’ Jewishness, a religion of love and tolerance, were diminished when he killed in the name of God. Our sages, of blessed memory, wrote a broken Vav in the word Shalom to suggest that peace could not be possible when it comes as the result of violence or war. We may find a temporary peace through war but that peace will never be eternal.

Only by altering two letters, our rabbis were able to teach us a deeper meaning behind Parashat Pinchas. The story goes from one that praises zealots and fanaticism to a story that teaches us the risks of fanaticism and zealous behavior.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Parashat Bilam – Learning to trust

After a request from God, Bilam agrees to go with the emissaries of Balak. Bilam saddled his donkey (a female donkey to be exact) and started the journey. At one point the donkey stopped and refused to move forward. Without hesitation “Bilam beat the donkey to get it back onto the road”(Num. 22:23). The second time he beat it with a stick (ibid. 27). The Torah tells us the outcome of this story:

The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Bilam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” Bilam said to the she-donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The she-donkey said to Bilam, “Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?” He said, “No.” The Lord opened Bilam´s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face. (Num. 22:28-31)

The donkey complains about Bilam’s lack of trust. Bilam and his donkey shared hundreds of journeys together over the course of many years. When the donkey stopped, for no apparent reason, Bilam beat her instead of taking a few moments to try and understand what was happening. In the end Bilam recognizes that the donkey stopped because the angel of God was standing before them with a sword in his hand. How many times have we behaved like Bilam? How often do we forget years of kindness, loyalty, and friendship when we are in a tense moment or when we are caught in a moment of misunderstanding?

Bilam learns an important lesson that all of us must learn as well. We should trust those who have never disappointed us, even when we do not understand their actions. What we have to do, as the Torah emphasizes, is open our mouths and our eyes. We should open our mouths and explain the reasons for our actions, leaving no room for speculation or doubt. And we should open our eyes and not be guided by the first things we see or by the first emotions we feel.

This Shabbat let us learn from Bilam’s errors and from the wisdom of his donkey.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Uriel Romano

Behaalotecha – Prayers, long and short.

How long should the ideal service be? Sometimes they might seem too long and sometimes too short. Some may feel Yom Kippur is the best example of a service that seems to go on forever, and some may feel that a regular weekday Mincha is a prayer so short, that if we are a few minutes late to the Minyan, we might miss it. With these ideas in mind, let´s once again ask ourselves, what is the ideal length for a service? Our tradition has an answer to this everlasting theological (and practical) question.

In our Torah portion, after Miriam is afflicted with leprosy, we come across the shortest prayer found in the entire Bible: “Please, God, heal her, please” (Numbers 12:13). Based on this verse the Talmud brings the following story:

The Sages taught: There was an incident where one student descended to serve as prayer leader before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he was excessively prolonging his prayer. His students complained and said to him: How long-winded he is. He said to them: Is this student prolonging his prayer any more than Moses our teacher did? As about Moses it is written: “And I prostrated myself before the Lord for the forty days and forty nights that I prostrated myself” (Deuteronomy 9:25). There was again an incident where one student descended to serve as prayer leader before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he was excessively abbreviating his prayer. His students protested and said to him: How brief is his prayer. He said to them: Is he abbreviating his prayer any more than Moses our teacher did? As it is written with regard to the prayer Moses recited imploring God to cure Miriam of her leprosy: “And Moses cried out to the Lord, saying: ‘Please, God, heal her, please’” (Numbers 12:13). (BT, Berakhot 34a)
During times when Jewish prayers weren’t organized, like they are today, each person had the freedom to pray in their own way. In this Talmudic anecdote we have two students, one who prays for an especially long time and one who prays for an extremely short time. Rabbi Eliezer remarks that both styles of prayer are appropriate because we have examples from Moses, our teacher, where he had prayed for 40 days and where he had prayed a 5-word prayer.
This anecdote shows us that we have been asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t ask what the ideal length of a prayer should be, but we should ask, how can we make every prayer meaningful? Rabbi Eliezer says that both prayers were valid because the length of our prayers are not what matters in the eyes of Hashem. What matters is the intention and the devotion of the one who prays.
Let´s focus this Shabbat not on the length of our prayers but on our Kavanah (proper intention).
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Uriel Romano

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

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