Friday, March 28, 2014

Our Response To Knowing The Misfortune of Others

Parshat Tazria begins the description of the laws of the Metzorah. The Torah states that a person declared to be a metzorah must tear his clothes, let his hair grow out, wraps his head and “he shall call out ‘Contaminated! Contaminated!”

The Midrash (Sifra), as quoted by Rashi, explains that the Metzorah must call out his impure status so that other people know to stay away from him. A person who comes into physical contact with the Metzora would also become impure.

The Talmud (Shabbat 67) offers a different understanding. According to the Talmud, the Metzorah calls out “Tamei, Tamei” so that people are aware of his/her status and they can then pray on the Metzorah’s behalf.

I think that the two interpretations are very relevant to us in our interpersonal relationships. When we hear troubling or disturbing news- what are we supposed to do with it? For instance: a person tells me that he got into a car accident at a busy intersection and is now under medical treatment. What is my response? Do I ask him what intersection it was, so that I can be more careful when I am driving there? Do I ask him how his treatment is going so that I know whether to go to those doctors, or recommend them to my friends?
Or do I engage the person in conversation for his sake, not my own? Do I ask him if there is anything I can help him with? Do I ask him if he’d like his name added to the Mi Sheberach list?

There are definitely instances in which the information we hear about others needs to be used primarily for the benefit and protection of ourselves and our loved ones. I believe that is the message Rashi is conveying from the Sifra. However the Talmud in Shabbat reminds us that we must always ask ourselves if there are ways to utilize our knowledge of the misfortune of others to not only make our lives better- but their lives as well.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Purim Thought: Duress Comes in Many Forms

Towards the beginning of Megillat Esther, we read how King Achashverosh threw a big party. At that party we are told (1:8) The drinking was according to the law, without coercion.” I’d like to share a two brief commentaries on this verse. Feel free to utilize/ expand them at your Purim Seudah:

1)      Some commentators note that the word “coercion” (Ones) is written without the letter Vav. They see this as a hint to the fact that the party was not completely without coercion. Rather at the party an announcement went out: “The King desires that you eat of his food and drink of his wine…but you can do whatever you like.” The king’s wishes were made clear, even if it was also expressed that people had a choice. It’s like when a spouse or parent says, “I really want you do to X, but you can do whatever you want.”

2)      Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz claims that indeed the party was lacking any coercion whatsoever. And this was exactly the challenge. Freedom and liberty are a challenge for us Jews. History has shown that Judaism has experienced tremendous growth and strengthening in countries where we have been given freedom. At the same time, freedom and liberty has also contributed to unprecedented assimilation. When Napoleon was conquering Europe, there was a dispute among the rabbis in Russia whether to support Napoleon or the Czar. Some felt that the Czar was a tyrant and dictator, and the Jews could only fare better under Napoleon. Others were afraid that if Napoleon was victorious, Jews would be granted freedom; and included in that freedom was the freedom to assimilate and turn one’s back on Torah and Mitzvot.

Achashverosh appreciated the challenge of freedom and hoped that the Jews would be spiritually caught in its trap. What was true in the times of Achashverosh and Napoleon, remains true today.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Let Things Happen - Or MAKE Things Happen?

The third book of the Torah begins with the word Vayikra. The word is written with a small letter aleph

The word Vayikra means that “Hashem called to Moshe.” Without an aleph at the end it is also a meaningful word, Vayikar, which would mean that “Hashem happened upon Moshe.” Rashi explains that whereas G-d happens upon wicked prophets such as Bilaam, He lovingly seeks and calls out to righteous prophets such as Moshe. There are many interpretations as to why the letter aleph is written small. For example the Baal Haturim explains that the small letter is meant to highlight Moshe’s humility.

            I think that the difference between the words Vayikra and Vayikar, affords us the opportunity to note the difference that exists between “having a calling” (Vayikra) and “letting things happen to you.” (Vayikar) We all have a calling in life and we hope to hear that calling and live it. But as Ferris Bueller (the movie celebrating its 25th anniversary this year) so eloquently put it: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

If we are not listening carefully we can end up not only missing our calling, but allowing life to just happen to us, instead of making things happen.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the little aleph. It’s a fine line between Vayikar and Vayikra, and we must be vigilant to pay attention and ask for help from the One Above in order to be successful in finding and fulfilling our calling.