Friday, May 27, 2016

It's Not Only What You Say, But What You Mean

In Parshat Behar (25:30) we find the phenomenon of Keri Uketiv, a word that is written one way and read a different way. The verse in English reads:

But if it is not redeemed by the end of a complete year, then that house which is in the city that has a wall, shall remain permanently [the property] of the one who purchased it throughout his generations. It will not leave [his possession] in the Jubilee. לוְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל עַד מְלֹאת לוֹ שָׁנָה תְמִימָה וְקָם הַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר אֲשֶׁר לוֹ (כתיב אשר לא)חֹמָה לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ לְדֹרֹתָיו לֹא יֵצֵא בַּיֹּבֵל:

The word Lo in the phrase Asher Lo Choma is written with the letter Aleph. Therefore according to the text it means “A city that is not walled.” However the tradition is that the word is read as if it was spelled with a vav instead of an Aleph and therefore actually means “a city with a wall.” The Talmud in Arachin (32a) explains that the Keri Uktiv phenomenon here teaches us that the determination as to whether a city is considered walled or unwalled depends on its status at the time of Joshua’s conquering of the Land of Israel. Our pasuk teaches us that if the city was walled at the time of Joshua it is to be considered walled for this law, even if it currently has no wall surrounding it.
Keri Uktiv is a phenomenon that occurs with some frequency in the Prophets, but is rare to find in the Chumash

Another unique aspect to this Keri Uketiv is that the two words are homonyms, they are pronounced exactly the same: “Lo”. And yet they mean completely opposite things.  The Halacha is that the person who is reading the Torah should have in mind “Lo” with a Vav even though he reads “Lo” with an aleph.
Perhaps there is an additional lesson we can learn from this unique Keri Uketiv. We can say the exact same words and they can mean completely different things depending on our tone and the circumstances. For example if I tell someone while playing softball “nice job!” it means one thing if the person just made a great play while something else completely if he just dropped the ball.

We must be careful not only with what we say, but how we say it and how the words will be perceived and taken by the listener.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Prepping for Finals and all of Life's Tests

Students go to school 9 months a year, but it is this time of year when they really think about how to grasp information, if for no other reason than to spit it back on final exams, standardized tests, achievement tests, etc. There are other reasons in life that we might need to gain information, or impart that information onto others. Not just for tests in school but for the tests that we come across in life: the right way to act, how to respond to injustice or mistakes- made by us or others. The very beginning of Parshat Emor gives us suggestions on how lessons can be learned:
And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people אוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו:
Emor--- veAmarata
On the most basic level, Hashem tells Moshe to convey these rules to the Kohanim- twice. Lessons are rarely learned on the first try, Learn it- and learn it again, and probably a few more times. Our Rabbis have said that to truly know a piece of Gemara you need to review it 4 times- or 100 times, and “the person who reviews it 101 times is even better.” As students of life we must be willing to accept that we won’t learn it the first time. As educators we can’t say that we’ve done our job by mentioning the lesson once, or even teaching it thoroughly once- we need to constantly review and reinforce.

Midrash: Emor- VeAmarta: Teaches us that angels with no yetzer hara can be told things once, while humans who have a yetzer hara need to hear things at least twice.
The Midrash is not discussing our ability to absorb information but rather our willingness / interest inundertaking a course of study. Before a person will learn something, s/he must be ready and willing to undertake the learning process. This can only be accomplished when students understand the importance of that lesson and therefore commit to learning it, such as: it’s important for my grade or if I learn it I will get an incentive. This step of appreciating the value of the lesson is critically important for those lessons that do not have a clear and immediate payoff- the lessons of modesty, honesty, faith in Hashem, commitment to Halacha- the lessons that don’t appear on one’s final grade (from school at least).

          Every student needs to make appreciate the value of the lesson and commit to it, as the step before any lesson can be learned. This is an often ignored but critically important role that a teacher fills. we can't just learn Hilchot shabbat or the Talmud in Baba Metziah; we must also explain why Shabbat and the holidays are so important to Jewish identity, and what an ox goring another ox has to do with 21st century Jewish living.
Let us commit to teaching and learning in the spirit and with the strategies that we learn from Emor - VeAmarta.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Adding Kedusha to What We've Done All Along

Parshat Kedoshim uses the term “Kadosh, “Holy” a number of times. 
At the beginning of the Parsha, Rashi suggests that Kedusha comes about by abstaining from those activities which are forbidden. The Ramban also suggests that Kedusha is primarily expressed through abstaining, but add that Kedusha can be found even in areas of life that are technically permissible (please see their comments inside for their full impact).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch takes the Ramban and expands even further our assumptions about Kedusha. He writes that no natural human tendency or power is inherently good or evil. The Torah gives all activities a positive aim and a negative limit. In the service of the purpose indicated by God, and within the limits set by Him, everything can be good and holy. Rabbi Hirsch notes that kedusha, holiness, is mentioned in connection with the prohibition of Pigul, not eating the Shlamim sacrifice after 2 days. Of all sacrifices, the shlamim is the sacrifice that is most eaten by people.

Shlamim are a path towards Kedusha, ie we must spiritualize and instill with morality and purpose even the enjoyment of our sense. As Rav Hirsch puts it, the goal of Kedoshim Tihyu finds fulfillment when our dinner table is transformed into an altar for Hashem, and we appreciate the religious value of even seemingly mundane acts like eating.  Outlets for Kedusha must inform the entirety of a Jew’s life. This is an idea that we find in the writings of Rav Soloveitchik. For instance, in this quote from Halachik Man:

“Halachik man does not chafe against existence, rather he reads with the simplicity and innocence that is typical of him the verse in Genesis, ‘And God saw everything that He had made and behold it was very good’ and accepts its verdict.”

Everything in this world and all of our actions have the potential to tap into that goodness identified by God. Even mundane activities must have the potential to be viewed as opportunities to express holiness.

Let us think about Kedusha, and our religious growth, not only in terms of “doing more”: accepting new mitzvoth, but also in terms of adding depth and meaning to those activities that we have been doing all along.