Messages from 2019

Shavuot 5779-2019: Torah – the Greatest of All Gifts

Jews get uncomfortable when hearing concepts like loving G-d. Somehow, it seems like something one would expect to hear in Church, but never in a synagogue. On the other hand, Jews seem quite comfortable uttering remarks linking G-d to cruelty. “How could a loving G-d allow a Holocaust? Where was He when my sister got cancer? […]

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) The Tide is High but I’m Holding On

If your last name is Cohen or Katz, chances are you are a decedent of Aaron, brother of Moses. Twenty years ago, Dr. Karl Skorecki, a nephrologist and researcher in molecular genetics at University of Toronto, conducted a study using a genetic marker to see if people who claimed to be Kohanim(Cohen; decedent of Aaron) are descended from the same person. His results became public and quoted in science journals at the time. About 98 percent of the subjects-people from Ashkenazic and Sephardic backgrounds-were genetically proven to have been descended from the same person. This priestly tribe has taken pride in its lineage; they alone were permitted to conduct the service in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. As such, they have certain restrictions placed on them in order to retain and maintain a certain level of purity. One of these restrictions is that they are not permitted to come in contact with a dead body, unless it is immediate family. The Parsha begins with this decree, but it’s done in a peculiar way.
And G-d said to Moses, Say to the Kohanim [priests], the sons of Aaron, and say to them: no one may contaminate himself to a dead person…(21:1)
Moses was told, “say to the Kohanim” and then “say to them.” Why the redundancy (why the second “say”)? The Talmud comments that although elder Kohanim (Cohens) are forbidden to contaminate themselves with a dead body, it doesn’t stop there; they must also ensure that the younger Kohanim do not defile themselves. The same way parents instruct their children to stay away from harmful things, so too the Kohanim are told to instruct their children to stay away from corpses and anything that might contaminate them.
If we asked parents, ‘who educates your child,’ they would most likely answer that they as well as the children’s teachers educate their children. But there is another, often overlooked, educator. Every child is influenced by two major factors, (1) adults (parents and teachers), and (2) the “street,” the outside environment-friends, acquaintances, peers, social media and the media in general. Sensible parents raise their children in a community that is in sync with their value system. Whatever values they instill at home will be consistent to what they hear in school. In addition, parents will be careful to monitor their child’s friends. If a friend is violent, speaks with chutzpah, steals, or shows signs of other significant character defects, the parents will not allow that friendship to continue. Such parents will not have to say the same things over and over again, because the outside environment will support their value system and code of conduct.
We don’t live in a vacuum. The most valiant and well-intended efforts to give our children a good education- one that consists of studying science, math, language, and literature, should also realize that acquiring fine character traits and a refined personality, as well as pride and a commitment to being Jewish and supporting Israel, can be completely undermined if the child is not surrounded by peers who share the same viewpoint. You might assume that because your son or daughter has attended your Passover Seder since childhood, that it’s a no-brainer that it will always be the case. But what happens if (s)he goes to a school where most the students go out and party on the night of the Seder because they don’t have the same Jewish values as your child does? Another example, one we’ve seen too often, is when a child who was reared in a home committed to Israel comes home after a semester or two in college, and calls Israel an apartheid state run by racists, who stole land from an indigenous population and cast them off to be refugees forever. We teach our children the importance of so many things dear to us, values that our own education and life experience has shown us are real and genuine. Therefore, we should be careful to send them to places and institutions where those values are highly regarded.
This is not to say that one who grows up in a flawed environment is sure to veer from the path set forth in his or her home, nor does it mean that one in a good school and social environment is guaranteed that to follow in the right path. There are no assurances, but the odds are obviously more in your favor if your child’s friends and environment support your own value system than one foreign to it. One would be naïve to ignore this.
Thousands of years ago, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it must have been a challenge to raise a young Kohen to be careful with regard to bodily purity; it was a daily concern. The laws regulating it are complex and at home, the young Kohen would be taught to exercise caution when getting close to a cemetery or even touching foods or other behaviors that are permitted for all other (non-Kohen) Jews. The challenge was their non-Kohen friends and the other kids they met at the playground, who had no regard for these laws because they weren’t applicable to them. Imagine how difficult it must have been to train the Kohen children not to contaminate themselves, “But Dad, all the other kids don’t have to worry about this stuff, why do I have to?” The adult Kohanim had no choice but to stress over and over again to their children not to become impure, because they couldn’t rely on any help from the outside environment. And this is why the caution regarding the contamination of the Kohanim’s children was stated as “say and say to them.”
If parents want to raise children to be concerned committed Jews to their community and Israel, they need to place them in the right environment. Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish education (i.e. after Bar/Bat Mitzvah) are important steps to take, but what if one isn’t in the ideal situation? How do you do to counteract the natural tendency of a child to be influenced by his or her peers? You warn them again and again and again – until you’re absolutely sure they understand your message loud-and- clear. If there are kids in 6th grade smoking cigarettes, parents need to give a clear message and state it over and over. “Megan, don’t ever let me ever catch you with a cigarette; there will be consequences if you do.” “In this house, we don’t smoke; smoking is dangerous.” Whatever your message is, it needs to be stated time and time again and that is why, specifically with regard to the Kohanim, the Torah uses repetitiousness in order to teach its warning regarding the youth. When going against the tide, you have to regularly review the message. When the tide is high, you need to give them something to hold on to.
(Source: Rashi, Vayikra 21:1; Oznayim l’Torah)

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Interested in a one-on-one study? Got a Jewish question you want answered? Is there a specific topic you would like to hear more about? Please contact info@charlottetorahcenter.com and we will make that happen.
Good Shabbos

 

Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Metzora: (Leviticus 14-15)-Shabbos HaGadol Who Are Your Friends?

There’s a unique spiritual illness mentioned in last week’s Parsha as well as this week’s. It has physical manifestations similar to leprosy. Back in Biblical times, a person got it when speaking senseless gossip or unconstructive derogatory speech about another person-even if it was true. The Torah requires a person stricken by it to dwell outside of the Jewish camp; the stones of his house are scraped away and disposed of outside the city.
Why does the house need to be destroyed; it it is an inanimate object, what did it do wrong?
In Jewish consciousness there’s an idea that a person’s actions have influence upon his or her surroundings.  If a person is honest, kind, trustworthy, and other positive traits, his or her environs are uplifted, but if (s)he deceives people, causes rifts in friendships, or does other negative things, those surroundings are negatively affected.  This idea has another aspect too. People are influenced by their environments. Noah’s generation became so wicked that they corrupted the entire world, leaving G-d with no choice but to destroy it and begin again anew.
In the case of the house, its owner so grossly misused his power of speech that it permeated the very walls and foundation of the home, rendering it impure to its core.  It is, so to speak, as if the house has become transformed into a place with the potential to corrupt even pure and innocent people who enter its doors.  As a result, just as in the times of Noah, there is no choice but to seal it off to prevent any further damage from occurring.
Each of us is responsible for making sure we place ourselves in a good environment and that we also continuously work to maintain it. Maimonides (1135-1204) actually codifies this idea in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah:
It is the inherent nature of a person (lit., ‘it is the way of a person’s creation’) to be drawn, both in one’s attitudes and deeds, after his or her friends and associates, and to act in the manner of the inhabitants of their country. Therefore, a person is obligated to befriend the righteous and to constantly be in the presence of the wise in order that he learn from their acts. One should [likewise] distance oneself from the wicked who go in darkness in order that (s)he not learn from their ways. As Solomon stated, ‘[One who] walks with the wise will become wise, and one who befriends fools will suffer harm’ (Proverbs 13:20). It also states, ‘Fortunate is the person who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, [and in the way of sins (s)he did not stand, and in the sessions of the scorners (s)he did not sit]’ (Psalms 1:1).
One of the verses (used above that) Rambam uses to buttress his point is from Proverbs. “One who walks with the wise will become wise, and one who befriends fools will suffer harm.” When speaking about connecting to wise people, the verb used is “walks,” because one must be humble around one from whom (s)he can learn and walk with or even behind them. However, when it comes to fools, the verb used is “befriends,” because one can immediately be the equal and friend of a fool, whereas befriending a wise person is a privilege and must be earned. Wisdom is hard to attain but it’s easy to become a fool.
The Midrash uses the metaphor of a perfumery. One who associates with wise people is like one who enters a perfumery. Even if (s)he doesn’t buy anything, a pleasant scent will cling to their clothes when they go outside. So, too, one who hangs around wise people will hear valuable insights that might change his or her life. Even if you can’t participate in the conversation, the mere associating with wise people will make you a wiser person. Not everyone can be wise but all of us can stand to be wiser than we are now.
Where do you get your wisdom? We spend time doing recreational activities such as watching sports, listening to music, working out, hiking, and other enjoyable pastimes. They help us relax and jump off the treadmill of life but is it a source of wisdom for us? Most people understand the importance of taking time off to relax but few understand the need to take time out to get wise and find answers to questions like, “what truly beings happiness to my life?” “Am I able to put aside the smaller pleasure for a bigger pleasure?” “Have I identified wise people in my life? How often do I associate with them?” “How have I changed for the good in the last ten years?”
These are important questions to ask ourselves. In addition, we need to become friendly with people who ask similar questions. We all have potential but it is those rare few who actualize it. The best way to do so is to be wise and surround yourself with wise people.
Good Shabbos
(Sources: Beis HaLevi; Rambam De’ot 6:1; Yalkut Shimoni quoted in Artscroll Tanach Series Mishlei v. 1 p. 240)

Our Standing Offer 
 
Interested in a one-on-one study? Got a Jewish question you want answered? Is there a specific topic you would like to hear more about? Please contact info@charlottetorahcenter.com and we will make that happen.
Good Shabbos

 

Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Parshat HaChodesh Free at Last?

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Parshat HaChodesh Free at Last? This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month) and Parshat HaChodesh.  In the Passover Haggadah we ask, “Perhaps we should start telling about the miracles of leaving Egypt on the first day of (the Hebrew month of) Nissan?  It seems that the month of Nissan is […]

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Shmini (Leviticus 9-11) A Birdseye View

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Shmini (Leviticus 9-11) When enumerating the non-kosher birds, the Torah mentions a bird called da’ah. The Talmud points out that, later on (Deuteronomy 14:12), when the Torah repeats the list of kosher birds, it refers to it as a ra’ah. The Talmud takes note of the Etymological significance of “ra’ah” because […]

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-9:35) What Does It Take?

The Parsha begins with the Almighty telling Moses that He is the same G-d Who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that He has heard the cries of His persecuted nation and is aware of His covenant with them.
Therefore say to the Children of Israel, “I am G-d, and I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I will rescue you from their service and redeem you…(Exodus 6:2-6)
Moses did as he was commanded but the Jews did not accept his message of impending redemption due to the tremendous stress and burden they suffered (they were impatient). The narrative continues with G-d commanding Moses to go directly to Pharaoh and tell him to “let the children of Israel go out of his land.” (v. 7:2). The reader feels the tension building for all participating parties (the Jewish people, Moses, and Pharaoh) but, then suddenly, the story strays in an anticlimactic way. There’s a pause in the action seemingly unrelated to previous or subsequent events. The next twelve verses are a mundane record of the genealogy of Jacob and Leah’s first three children, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi. Levi’s lineage is spelled out in greater detail than the other tribes (Moses and Aaron are from Levi). We know everything about Moses and Aaron, their uncles and extended family. Until now, the story is tense, laden with emotion and conflict and after this anticlimactic genealogical break, the excitement resumes. Why does the Torah suddenly drop the action for no apparent reason? What is the significance of placing so many genealogical details at this time?
Rav Shimon Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt, 1808-1888) sees this as an exposé of a central tenet of Jewish theology. Until now, each attempt made by Moses and Aaron to persuade Pharaoh to release the Jews had been frustrating but from this point onwards, they begin to achieve their goal. They are embarking on a mission which had never been done before or after. The idea of an All Powerful Being coming to the rescue of an afflicted nation wasn’t even fiction in the ancient world. Moses and Aaron would be the emissaries to herald in this event and people might mistakenly attribute divine characteristics to them because no ordinary human would have been able to accomplish the task of leading the delegation against the most power person in the world at the time. In addition, Moses would be the one to bring his people out of the impenetrable Egyptian fortress. It needed to be documented for all time that these emissaries were ordinary human beings, born of a father and mother, and that is why it was so important at this particular time to tell their genealogy.
Right from the earliest times it has occurred that men who have shown themselves quite strikingly to be benefactors to their people on account of their ‘godlike” deeds, have been invested after their passing away from this world with a “godly” origin. We know well enough how, later times, a Jew whose geological table was not available, and because it was not available, and he because he brought the world a few sparks of light borrowed from the man Moses, became to be considered by nations as begotten of G-d, and to doubt his divinity became a capital crime. Our Moses was a man, remained a man and is to remain a man…Moses, the greatest man of all time, was just a man, nothing but an ordinary human being. (Hirsch Chumash 6:13-14)
Judaism’s greatest gift to humanity was monotheism, which doesn’t just mean a Higher Power, more importantly it means a loving G-d, One Who wants to bestow goodness on humans. Some people say they can’t believe in G-d because there’s so much evil in the world. That means they associate G-d with being kind, and all the evil ‘proves’ He doesn’t exist. But where did they get that idea (that He is kind) from? Was is from the Greeks or Romans, whose gods fought, were immoral and had the same vices as humans? According to Greek mythology, Prometheus gave the human race the gift of fire and the skill of metalwork. Zeus punished him by having an eagle eat the liver of Prometheus as he was helplessly chained to a rock. If Zeus is one’s god, it’s no contradiction that there’s evil in the world. The Jews brought the idea of an all-powerful G-d who fights for a persecuted people. It’s the all powerful yet kind, loving G-d that has been such a challenge for people to believe in when they see all the unnecessary suffering and oppression in the world.
Moses and Aaron’s mission was to introduce this “new” G-d to the world but it needed to be done in a way that would be clear that these two were just humans, albeit great humans, like anyone else. G-d placed his trust in humanity but wanted to make sure that people would not deify them and this explains why Moses and Aaron’s genealogy is mentioned here. However, it would have sufficed to tell us who Moses and Aaron’s parents were; why do we also need to have the family of the tribes of Reuven and Shimon, and why do we need to have an elaborate family tree of the tribe of Levi, which tells us who Moses’ cousins were?
Although it has been established that Moses was just a mortal human, another erroneous notion might also be believed. One might think that Moses was just an ordinary guy chosen to lead and given the gift of prophecy.
A man could be known as a complete idiot today, and tomorrow proclaim the word of G-d. The spirit of G-d could suddenly descend upon an ignorant, uneducated person…[this] phenomenon is not without alleged instance in imaginary or pretended prophets in other circles; and then, the more ignorant, the more uneducated the prophet of today was yesterday, the greater the proof of the divinity of the Call that worked this change. [ibid.]
One religion even goes to far as to take pride in the illiteracy of its prophet; the transformation of this person into the transmitter of a work of elegant expression is claimed to be the greatest of all miracles. The Torah lists the genealogy of accomplished people to show that although Moses and Aaron were just humans, they were chosen for the task more than the other tribes and more than the people in their own tribe because they were special; i.e. they had made themselves distinctive. A person must make something of himself or herself before attaining the gift of leadership and prophecy. Only a fully developed mind can understand the word of G-d and transmit it to others.
The take home lesson here is clear: G-d wants humans with all their limitations to help their fellows-and no human is G-d. We are tasked with making the most of ourselves and don’t expect G-d to thrust wisdom our way if we haven’t acquired a great deal of it already. Moses’ job was to free the Jewish people from bondage, ours it to free ourselves from the bondage of self. Sometimes it manifests itself by having us feeling insecure and needing others to validate us and our lifestyle, other times it comes to us in the form of arrogance and not caring for the people in our lives. Whatever the case may be, we can’t expect G-d to make something of us before we make something of ourselves. Yet, we have a loving G-d who places His trust in us (humans) and is there to help us-our job is to do what we can and ask for the rest.
Good Shabbos

Our Standing Offer 
 
Interested in a one-on-one study? Got a Jewish question you want answered? Is there a specific topic you would like to hear more about? Please contact info@charlottetorahcenter.com and we will make that happen.
Good Shabbos

 

Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center