Guard Your Speech

holy scribbles: parashas Matos Massei 5782

“When a man voweth a vow unto the L-RD, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” – Numbers 30:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

Although the specific kinds of vows and oaths, referenced in the above-mentioned commandment apply to certain situations, within the context of Judaic law, the general principle is encapsulated, “he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” Therefore, the premise may be applied to more commonly found issues, regarding the integrity or lack of integrity of speech.

In our own lives, there are many stipulations that could be identified in terms of the words that we speak.  For example, oftentimes what is said in anger is not to be taken seriously.  It is better to acknowledge what may have been said out of anger as inappropriate, making amends for the emotional harm done.  This requires the counterpart of forgiveness by the recipient. 

Any commitments we make to ourselves or others should be kept or not made at all.  The Sages were very skeptical about making vows of any sort, saying that it is better to not vow at all.  The L-RD appreciates a sincere effort in all that we do for His sake; it is better not to boast about our intentions. Bragging will only lead towards a negative consequence, akin to the adage, pride before a fall.

Additionally, all of our words should be chosen carefully, in accordance with humility. Idle chatter will be scrutinized by the heavenly court at the judgment. We will be subject to the consequences of every idle word spoken. Ill-spoken words will also be taken into account, as well as words of judgment against others. Taking all of this into consideration, it is better to remain silent, than to speak without thinking. Let us guard our speech from now on.

“Set a guard, O L-RD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips.”

– Psalm 141:3, JPS 1917 Tanach

parasha Shelach 5782

“My servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and hath followed Me fully, him will I bring into the land whereinto he went; and his seed shall possess it.” – Numbers 14:24, JPS 1917 Tanach

When the Torah records that Caleb “had another spirit,” one view holds that he had two spirits, the one that he outwardly professed, while in the company of the ten spies, and the one that he held within his heart. According to Rashi, “in his heart he had the intention to tell the truth” (Rashi; Midrash Tanchuma, Sh’lach 10; sefaria.org).

This dual reality, of adherence to one’s inward voice, while making a pretense for the sake of self-preservation is not, on the part of Caleb, disingenuous, because of his intent to speak his mind, once he returned from the mission with his compatriot Joshua, who was also like-minded, in regard to encouraging the people with a positive report of the land. In other words, Caleb, spoke the truth in his heart, and he waited until the appropriate time to reveal that truth.

In our own lives, if we are clear on what we personally believe, then despite circumstances that might attempt to compel us in a different direction, we may remain steadfast and true within ourselves. One dramatic historical example concerns the anusim, who were forced to convert under duress to Catholicism, yet, secretly maintained their Judaism. Many anusim today, are returning to their Judaism in a prolific manner.

Currently, in modern society, there is pressure from many sides, “to toe the line,” in regard to the pseudo-morality of Wokism, and it Leftist agenda. While some have openly challenged this movement, others, concerned for their reputation or livelihood, have remained silent; the threat of intimidation, or being cancelled is real.

Yet, eventually, a line may need to be drawn, in the sand, so to speak, for each person, dependent on our willingness to remain true to our belief and practice. Thus, like both Caleb and Joshua, we may feel compelled to speak our truths, irrespective of the consequences (see Numbers 14:6-10).

parasha Behaalotecha 5782

B”H

“And the mixt multitude that was among them felt a craving: and the children of Israel wept, and said, if only we had meat to eat.”

–  Numbers 11:4

A perfect example of how a smaller component of a population, can influence, in this case, not for the good, the greater whole. The erev rab (mixed multitude) that accompanied B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt, instigated a general complaint. According to Chizkuni, this occurred within the first three days after they had travelled out from Mt. Sinai, as if already, the kedushah (holiness) that they had acquired there began to wear off.

Rashi asks, how can it be that they did not have any meat? He references the pasuk (verse), “And, also a mixed multitude went up with them, with flocks and herds” (Exodus 12:38). Since, in all likelihood, they still had “flocks and herds,” then, according to Rashi their complaint was only offered as a pretext. “A pretext to abandon the L-RD” (Sifrei Bamidbar 86).

From here, it can be deducted that the instigators attempted to compel B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) to abandon the L-RD. This is evidenced by their lament, “if only we had meat… we remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (11:4-5, JPS). Did they eat better as slaves, and, in their hearts, prefer to return to Egypt?

How could gashmiyos (material concerns) be more important to them than the spiritual path they were upon? When G-d’s people are unduly influenced by those who do not recognize the same values instilled in us by His wisdom, then we must seek to renew our faith in Him. G-d granted the request of the people, sending quails to feed them for a month; however, He also struck them with a plague. Let us learn from this lesson, and guard ourselves against undue influences.

parasha Emor

“It is a Shabbat for H’Shem, in all your dwelling places.” – Leviticus 23:3

Why does the Torah specify, “In all your dwelling places?” Ibn Ezra comments, “In your country and outside of your country, at home and on the way” (sefaria.org). Sforno writes, that the specification “indicates that the commencement and conclusion of the Sabbath depends on the local times of day and night, not on a central location” (sefaria.org). And, Chizkuni notes that “The Sabbath laws apply regardless of whether you are in the Holy Land or in exile” (sefaria.org). Within the framework of this line of reasoning,  the Sabbath, as Abraham Heschel points out, is a time designation, regardless of place.

Therefore, whereas the moadim are mentioned in the previous verse, some significance can be understood, in regard to the Sabbath. Perhaps, it is as if to imply, that on the moadim, when you travel to Jerusalem, to observe the shalosh regalim, three holidays in Jerusalem, these are considered Sabbaths, and must also be observed as Shabbat, outside of Jerusalem, as well, for all who are unable to make the journey to Jerusalem.

This would have relevancy, in particular, to the Jews living outside of Israel, after the dispersions, beginning with the Babylonian exile, as well as the Roman exile. Furthermore, this has primary relevance for us today, as well. For, only in Jerusalem, do the moadim become holidays observed in both time and place, according to Torah. Even though we observe, for the most part, these holidays in the synagogue today, this was not the original intention, and is only a modern substitute, in lieu of all of the Yehudim being gathered back into Israel. Yet, when Moshiach reigns from Jerusalem, we may all observe the holidays in time and place.

parashas Metzora 5782

“This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: he shall be brought unto the priest [kohein].” – Leviticus 14:2, JPS

In each case, whether a person’s home, clothing, or body is stricken with a nega (plague), he is brought to the kohein (priest). The kohein determines not only the status of the suspected nega; he also is qualified on a spiritual level to gain insight on the state of the person’s soul. This concept is in line with the understanding of tzarras as a spiritual malaise that manifests as a skin disease.

Tzarras is one type of nega, the other two in question, here, are those that show up on a person’s clothes or the walls of his home. In all cases, as already mentioned above, the kohein is the sole individual, who uses his discernment to ascertain the specific sin that was the root cause of the blemish on a person’s soul, that manifested as a nega (literally, “plague”).

What can we learn from this connection? Because H’Shem is merciful, He is not interested in only chastising us for our sins. Rather, He will send an early warning signal to serve as a “wake up call,” specifically designated for us, so that we may scrutinize our own selves, in search for our misdeeds, character defects, and deficiencies.

The isolation of the metzora is akin to our sheltering in place, amidst the restrictions that began, in an attempt to counter the proliferation of the modern-day plague, the Corona Virus. Like the Biblical leper who is sent outside of the camp, where he is in isolation, for the purpose of reviewing his thoughts, speech, and action, so that he may rectify his ways, we, too, in like manner, may continue spend our time wisely.

In acknowledgment of the fragility of life, and the need to maintain our level of kedusha (holiness) every day, we should examine our conscience, and rectify our faults. Many of us have already had plenty of time to do so, by searching our hearts, and carrying out what is referred to in Hebrew as heshbon hanefesh, literally, an “accounting of the soul.” H’Shem may very well be affecting a judgment upon the world, for the purpose of bringing us to this awareness through a major wake up call.

Modern-day Lepers

“This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: he shall be brought unto the priest [kohein].” – Leviticus 14:2, JPS

In each case, whether a person’s home, clothing, or body is stricken with a nega (plague), he is brought to the kohein. The kohein determines not only the status of the suspected nega; he also is qualified on a spiritual level to gain insight on the state of the person’s soul. This concept is in line with the understanding of tzarras as a spiritual malaise that manifests as a skin disease.

Tzarras is one type of nega, the other two in question, here, are those that show up on a person’s clothes or the walls of a home. In all cases, as already mentioned above, the kohein is the sole individual, who uses his discernment to ascertain the specific sin that was the root cause of the blemish on a person’s soul, that manifested as a nega (literally, “plague”).

What can we learn from this connection? H’Shem is merciful; He causes afflictions such as negaim (plagues), for the sake of our chastisement, to lead us to teshuvah (repentance). He will send “an early warning signal” as a “wake up call,” specifically designated for us, so that we may scrutinize our own selves, in search for our misdeeds, character defects, and deficiencies. With the help of the light, shining from Above, we may gain insight into our inner selves.

To some degree, we may have all gotten a very real idea of the nature of isolation, while sheltering in place. Yet, sin itself distances us from G-d; and, an even greater sense of isolation may result, until our relationship with G-d is reconciled through teshuvah (repentance). Additionally, even more recent phenomenon of society, is creating outcasts, cancelled out for their views, akin to the Biblical leper who is sent outside of the camp. These are times for all of us to review our thoughts, speech, and action, in order to know where we stand in regard to our own values. And, not to fear being cast out by man; rather, to fear being cast out by G-d.

The Power of Forgiveness

parasha Shemini 5782

“For today the L-RD will appear to you.” – Leviticus 9:4

Upon the culmination of the inauguration of the mishkan and the kohein into the kehunah, certain offerings were brought. These included an offering to atone for Aaron’s role in the golden calf incident. Commentary notes that the offerings were prepared; however, the fire had not yet descended from the sky; so, Aaron grew concerned. His guilt in the sin of the golden calf compelled him to think that the delay was a sign that he had not been completely forgiven. At this point, Moses and Aaron entered the sanctuary.

While no reason is given in the actual passage found in Torah, commentary offers several explanations. One reason mentioned is that Aaron confided in Moses, concerning his shame about his role in the golden calf incident. He felt that, perhaps, H’Shem was still angry with him. Thus, the two of them entered the sanctuary, in order to pray to the H’Shem to forgive Aaron. When they walked out of the sanctuary after praying, the fire descended upon the mizbeach, consuming the offerings.

The power of forgiveness is such that feelings of resentment may linger until a person forgives another for their trespass. Then, all is washed clean, and renewed in that relationship. H’Shem is a righteous Judge; He does not harbor resentment or grudges against us when we sin; only, inasmuch that He calls us towards teshuvah (repentance) does He wait to bestow His compassion upon us, forgiving us completely for our transgressions. Yet, as human beings, we may harden our hearts towards others, even for perceived slights to our honor, status, or ego. We do ourselves an injustice, by closing ourselves off from others, whom we think have wronged us is some way. Only the cleansing waters of forgiveness that refresh the soul, may bring a restoration to our lives, opening the way to increased camaraderie.

Searching the Heart

parashas Tzav 5782

“Fire shall be kept burning u[on the altar continually; it shall not go out.”

– Leviticus 6:6, JPS 1917 Tanach

To connect with the L’RD (deveykus) on a continual basis, we need to engage every facet of ourselves – our thought, speech, and behavior – in an effort to enhance the light within us. This is denoted in the manner that many Jewish people pray while standing, swaying back and forth. Symbolically, this may also be understood to represent the ner tamid – eternal flame that was kept burning on the mizbeach (altar). Thus, we should also keep the fire of devotion lit in our hearts for H’Shem both day and night.

The ner tamid (eternal light), represented by the light above the ark in a synagogue, brings us even closer to an understanding of what H’Shem desires of us. In the Zohar, the “everlasting fire,” that is to be kept continually burning on the mizbeach (altar), alludes to the divine light of the soul (Tikkunei Zohar 74a). As expressed elsewhere, “The spirit [neshama] of man is the lamp of the L-RD” (Proverbs 20:27).

In like manner that a candle may be used to lighten a dark room, when searching for some lost object, man’s spirit is enlightened by H’Shem, in order to search all the inner nature of man, to bring to light faults, and negative character traits, as well as sins that might otherwise go unnoticed. This is of paramount importance, especially in consideration of negative thoughts that may often go unchecked. Akin to the olah offering that could be brought to atone for sinful thoughts, and was kept burning on the mizbeach, we may benefit from a continual focus on guarding our thoughts, subjecting them to the light of truth.

“Above all that thou guardest keep thy heart; for out of it are the issues of life.”

– Proverbs 4:23 JPS 1917 Tanach

Shabbos Zachor: Ki Tisa 5782

“The L-RD said to Moses: Take for yourself – spices – stacte, onycha, and galbanum – spices and pure frankincense.”  – Exodus 30:34

The incense was offered every day in the morning, and in the afternoon.  The incense fragrance connotes the understanding that we are to serve G-d in a pleasing manner; inasmuch that we are His servants, it is our responsibility to serve Him.  Yet, He would like us to develop the inward desire to serve Him.  This is reflected in the two ways of obeying His commandments – out of fear, and out of love.

To observe His commandments out of fear, requires acknowledgment of H’Shem as “the L-rd thy G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2).  Accepting the sovereignty of H’Shem is primary; once we accept His authority, then the commandments follow as divine decrees (Baal Halachos Gedolos).  

Lifting up our hearts to Him will help us to develop ahavah (love) for Him. In serving Him out of love, we are commanded to love him with an undivided heart (Sifrei), as is written, “thou shalt love H’Shem thy G-d with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).  Moreover, Maimonides writes, “Once a person loves G-d appropriately, he will fulfill the commandments out of love” (Hilchut Teshuva 10:2).

Yet, both love and fear are necessary, like the wings of an eagle; for without fear (awe, reverence, respect), there is not the proper attitude conveyed towards Him.  Without love, we may not be able to fly towards Him, higher and higher on our journey; yet, we continue climbing, as it is, for we will reach Him with dveykus: constant clinging to His Essence.

This Shabbos we also read parashas Zachor, concerning Amalek. We flounder on the path at times, perhaps, symbolically, because of Amalek (representative of doubt), letting our avodah (service) to H’Shem cool down. Yet, we are reminded to persevere despite the challenges in our lives. Soon we will celebrate Purim and recall the hidden miracle: our deliverance from Haman, a descendent of Agag, an Amelekite; our victory over the enemy who rose up against us within the 127 provinces of King Ahasueros.

Around this time, we are especially called upon to recognize the miracles in our own lives.  The potential for us to experience shefa (everflowing grace) from H’Shem is always offered to us when we look towards Him in our struggles. We should be thankful to Him for the blessings that we receive every day. Additionally, we should praise Him every day, for He has given us the breath of life; each and every day is an opportunity to lift our voices to Him in appreciation, thanking Him for all that He has given us. 

Carry On

parashas Tetzaveh 5782

“And thou shalt make staves of acacia-wood, and overlay them with gold. And thou shalt put the staves into the rings on the sides of the ark, wherewith to bear the ark. The staves shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.” – Exodus 25:13-15, JPS 1917 Tanach

On the commandment, “they shall not be removed from it” (Exodus 25:15), R’ Hirsch comments that because the poles that were placed in rings on the sides of the Ark of the Covenant were to always remain there, to carry the Ark, symbolically, this represents that the Torah itself is not bound to any one place; rather, wherever one goes, the teachings are meant to accompany him or her. Thus, G-d’s words are meant to be our companions, so to speak, even as we look towards His presence to guide us.

I would proffer, that the same idea holds true, chronologically, that the veracity of Torah carries its own weight, and holds true across the ages. Thus G-d’s commandments should be no less compelling today, then they were on the day that they were given at Sinai. Yet, even so, many forces in society tug at the heartstrings of the average human being, attempting to lure one’s understanding away from the truth. We are challenged to remain steadfast, by not going along with the zeitgeist; rather, that we remain loyal to G-d, even though many people may view the commandments as passé, a relic of the past.

G-d’s words through Moses and the prophets, as well as all throughout all of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) are a moral compass, especially in times of tumult and confusion. Without the express knowledge of the pure unadulterated truth, how can mankind even know left from right, up from down, or good from evil? In general, we would not even know what direction we are headed, unless we have the “divine blueprint of life” to guide us along the way. So, let us not stray from the path, nor err in our judgment, as we encounter various elements in society that are not in accord with the truth. For, truth is not relative; rather, truth is an essential constant, like a compass always pointing in one direction.

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