Archive for the ‘Torah’ Category

The King is Hanging

The Torah explains (Deut. 21:22-23) that if a person is found guilty of a capital offense and is executed, his corpse must be impaled on a stake but it may not remain there overnight. The body must be buried on the same day “for an impaled body is an affront to God.” Since Man is created in God’s image, even the corpse of one guilty of the most heinous crime may not be disgraced.

Rashi cites a midrash from Sanhedrin 46b that offers the following parable. Twin brothers lived in the same city. One became a king; the other became a criminal and was hanged. All who saw the hanging corpse would exclaim, “The king is hanging.” So similar is the human body to the divine image that we are concerned a passerby will mistake the former for the latter.

But is this really the Torah’s concern? One who sees the corpse probably won’t conclude that the King of Kings is hanging, but perhaps he should. If we recognize that each and every individual is created in the image of God and take that point seriously, then we may very well confuse the hanging corpse with God Himself, even if just for a moment.

Often, the Torah reflects the imperfect reality in which we find ourselves. An example of this is the eshet yefat to’ar, discussed earlier the same parashah. In such a case, the Torah teaches us how to respond when we find ourselves in a less than ideal situation. Here though, the Torah does the opposite. Burying the corpse on the same day as the execution prevents a passerby from mistaking the hanging body with the image of God. This mistake is reasonable, but only if we fully appreciate the relationship between the human being and the image of God. The two are, of course, not the same thing but are rather like twin brothers, (should be) easily confused with one another.


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Friday was the 18th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. As the last days of Passover approach, here is what the Rav writes, in Festival of Freedom (pp. 53-54), about the humanity’s search for God, the story we tell each other on the Seder night:

God reveals Himself to man if and when the latter searches for Him. If one does not inquire, if one expects God to reveal Himself without making an all-out effort to find Him, one will never meet God. “But from there you will seek the Lord and you shall find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut. 4:29).
. . .
On the first night of Pesah, we tell the story of a long search by man for God, of God responding to the inquisitive search, of God taking man, who longs for Him, into His embrace. At the Seder, we try to stimulate the naive curiosity of the children and thereby make them God-searchers. The quest for God, along with the acceptance of the commandments, is the true spiritual liberation.

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Professor Marc Shapiro, featured on the Seforim blog, defines “a Jewish teaching” as “a view that is taught in the observant community” (via Hirhurim). It doesn’t matter how old the belief is, whether it’s based on Jewish texts or Jewish culture. For Shapiro, “what makes a belief an acceptable one in Judaism is not whether it is new, and certainly not whether it is correct, but whether the rabbinic leaders tolerate it.”

To emphasize his point, Shapiro compares Jewish and Christian approaches to messianism:

Today it must be admitted that Judaism and Christianity share a belief in the Second Coming of the Messiah. While this is an obligatory belief for Christians, for Jews it is, like so many other notions, simply an option. The truth of my statement is seen in the fact that messianist Habad is part and parcel of traditional Judaism, and, scandal or not, most of the leading Torah authorities have been indifferent to this. That is, they see it as a mistaken belief, but not one that pushes its adherent out of the fold. In other words, it is like so many other false ideas in Judaism, all of which fall under the rubric “Jewish beliefs.” As long as these beliefs don’t cross any red lines, the adherents are regarded as part of the traditional Jewish community.

Although Shapiro makes some good points about tolerating a wide spectrum of religious belief, he fails to appreciate that Judaism is, at its core, a religion of divine revelation and the traditional transmission of that revelation. In this sense, a given belief is legitimately Jewish to the extent that it follows from Judaism’s traditional sources.

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An Inaudible God?

A Dvar Torah I wrote last week.  Apologies for the lack of translations, which made more sense given that audience.  I’m not completely convinced that the last paragraph is the full answer to the question, but I think it is the beginning of one.  Enjoy.

We read of keriyat yam suf this week, in Parshat Beshalach, and of the giving of the torah at Har Sinai next week, in Parshat Yitro. Reading about these open miracles and revelations emphasizes by contrast how different our current relationship to God is from that of bnei yisrael in the desert. God, who appeared to the generation leaving Egypt as a voice so powerful that they could not bear to listen, has become an inaudible whisper. While some of this change is due to the Exile, and is something we mourn every tisha b’av, that is not the whole story.

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Why Not The Angels?

At the time of the giving of the Torah, the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 88b-89a), the heavenly angels appeared before God and asked, regarding Moses: “What business has one born of woman among us?” God replied: he is here to receive the Torah. The angels were outraged. How can God’s greatest gift be given to mere flesh and blood; it should be given to the angels instead. Moses replied:

Sovereign of the Universe! The Torah which you give me, what is written in it? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” Said he to [the angels]: Did you go down to Egypt; were you enslaved to Pharaoh: why then should the Torah be yours? . . . “You shall have no other gods” – do you dwell among peoples that engage in idol worship? . . . “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” – do you then perform work, that you need to rest?. . . “Honor your father and thy mother” – have you fathers and mothers? . . . You shall not murder”, “You shall not commit adultery”, “You shall not steal” – is there jealousy among you? Is the Evil Tempter among you? [The angels] conceded to the Holy One, blessed be He.

What were the angels really asking for? Didn’t they know that, not having physical bodies, God’s commandments and prohibitions would simply not apply to them? When I was in Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky’s class at Yeshiva University, he suggested the following answer.

The angels asked to partake in the wisdom of the Torah even though they could not perform its specific mitzvot. Wanting to cleave to God through His greatest treasure, perhaps they believed that mere knowledge of Torah would suffice. Moses replied that the Torah’s wisdom is inextricably tied to the specific acts that must be observed here on earth. It is available only to those to live by its Law.

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In On Repentance, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik compares repentance and mourning. Both repentance and mourning, although associated with specific acts (e.g., confession, not wearing shoes), are ultimately fulfilled only by “attaining a certain degree of spiritual awareness” (p. 70).

The Torah describes mourning as a natural reaction to sin. Regarding the sin of the golden calf, the Torah states: “When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery” (Ex 33:4). Similarly, after the sin of the spies, the people mourned (Num 14:39). According to the Rav, these verses teach us that repentance stems from a deep-seated sense of loss (pp. 195-196).

Mourning is a reaction to a loss and it expresses itself in a strong sensation of nostalgia, of yearning, or of retrospective memories.
. . .
What does the sinner mourn? He mourns that which he has irretrievably lost. What has he lost? Everything. The sinner has lost his purity, his holiness, his integrity, his spiritual wealth, the joy of life, the spirit of sanctity in man – all that gives meaning to life and content to human existence. The mourner mourns the soul of the beloved one he has lost; the sinner mourns his own soul, which he has lost.

When the mourner cries out to God in despair, we say ha-makom irrachem (may God provide comfort). God invites the mourner to seek comfort in His embrace. When the sinner cries out in remorse, God extends a similar invitation. The process of repentance begins when the sinner chooses to allow God’s embrace to comfort him.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah.

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Sheva Brachot Speech

This is (approximately) the speech I gave at someone’s sheva brachot, minus some embellishments made on the spot to make it sound slightly more natural:

I wanted to talk a little bit about teshuva tonight, for two reasons.  First of all, it is Elul, when repentance is on all our minds, when we attempt to renew ourselves. Secondly, the parsha this week is parshat Nitzavim, which contains in it the famous parsha of teshuva.

The Mei Hashiloach, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, speaks of teshuva often.  One of the central pillars of his philosophy is teshuva, the repentance and redemption that comes after mistakes and sin.  He quotes the gemara that a person does not truly understand a piece of Torah unless he has first made a mistake in understanding it.  He applies this principle very broadly, to all of life – life is about falling and picking ourselves up again.  Perfection is not the goal, and is not even desirable.  The goal is to walk.  To walk, and to fall, and to pick ourselves up and learn from it.  The essence of life is movement, and so staying still, even in static perfection, is death.  Life is about moving, failing, building, making mistakes, building ourselves up.

He applies the same philosophy to our relationship with God. (more…)

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