Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bikur Cholim: An Important and Meaningful Mitzvah

Bikur Cholim: An Important and Meaningful Mitzvah

At the beginning of Parshat Vayerah, we read that Hashem appeared to Avraham. Rashi explains that G-d was performing the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), as Avraham was recuperating from his recent circumcision. When we visit the sick, we are not only doing kindness for our fellow human being. We are emulating Hashem. 

One of the main purposes of Bikur Cholim is to pray for the sick person; it is like giving him life. Accordingly, one could visit a total stranger, or someone who is unaware of the visit. The same is true for visiting a young baby. In addition, one should see to it that the sick person has all his/her needs taken care of and make sure he has all the necessary medical supplies. This might include shopping for the person. Making the sick person happy is also included in the mitzvah. Hashem visited Avraham after his circumcision, but we do not find that He said anything to him. Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l shows from here that one does not have to say anything to the sick person. Just one’s presence can be sufficient.
According to our Sages, illness is a time of increased Divine Providence. This status has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, such Providence may include an extra degree of scrutiny of the ill person’s merits. As the Talmud (Shabbat 32b) states, “A person should always pray that he should not get sick; for if he does, he is told ‘Bring a merit and free yourself.”  On the other hand, Hashem’s enhanced scrutiny of an ill person can be viewed as a privilege. Earlier in Masechet Shabbat (12b) it states that the Divine Presence supports ill people and resides over their beds. This fact is reflected in the Halacha, mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, that when visiting a sick person one should not sit higher than the patient, because that is the height-level of the Divine Presence as well.
The Talmud states that one who performs the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim merits four blessing: s/he is saved from the Yetzer Harah, and from suffering; s/he will be honored, and blessed with faithful friends. The Maharal explains that these blessings are chosen because they correspond to the experience of a sick person. Ill people are generally not bothered by the Evil Inclination. And as a direct result of a visit, a person’s suffering is alleviated. Patients will feel honored by a visitor, and be comforted by the thought that there are people who are thinking of them.
This explanation of the Maharal emphasizes one of the unique characteristics of Chesed activities in general, and Bikur Cholim in particular. The more we give of ourselves, the more we are enriched and gain from the experience.
Bikur cholim is one of the mitzvot which merits a reward in this world and retains the main reward for Olam Habah (Artscroll Siddur pg. 16). I urge all of us to find ways to be involved in this incredibly important and fulfilling mitzvah.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Feeling Good About Judaism

“Bind them as a sign upon your arm”

We recite this verse daily as part of the Shema. We generally assume that this means that men wearing tefillin on their arms serves as a sign of committing one’s actions to serving God. Now it might also mean that wearing tefillin is a sign of improved cardiac health.

        A pilot study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that regular users of tefillin, or phylacteries, may receive cardiovascular health benefits though remote ischemic preconditioning — that is, briefly restricting blood flow and oxygen to the heart and then restoring it. The results of the study were published last month online in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

        The study involved 20 Jewish men from the Greater Cincinnati area including nine who wore tefillin daily and 11 who did not. A leather strap is wrapped tightly around either the right or left arm for about half an hour during morning prayers six days a week, often tight enough to leave grooves in the skin for a few minutes after they are removed. They are not worn on Shabbat.

        The researchers measured participants’ vital signs, drew blood for analysis of circulating cytokines and monocyte function and also measured blood flow in the dominant arm which is not wrapped with the tefillin. Blood flow was higher for men who wore tefillin daily and improved in all participants after wearing it just once as part of the study.

        Here again we have evidence that religion can be good for the body, as well as the soul. But what do we do with statements in our tradition that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (Kiddushin 39b)?

        “Feel good religion” is a term used disparagingly to refer to religion that emphasizes its benefits to adherents, over the commitments and responsibilities contained therein. If there are observable physical, emotional, social and psychological benefits to Judaism, does that make us a “feel good religion”? I believe that “feel good religion” is a problem if the focus is exclusively on the ego, and feeling good is viewed as the ultimate goal of the religion. It’s a problem when religion is used to validate one’s lifestyle, regardless of one’s contributions and efforts at personal improvement and bettering the world. When the message one takes from religion is “everything you’re doing is fine” or “you don’t need to change a thing” – then that person is practicing a dangerous form of “feel good religion”; one that will not lead to goodness, let alone greatness.

        However we are allowed- even encouraged- to feel good when we are pushing ourselves to do mitzvot. We are allowed to feel proud when we have extended ourselves beyond our comfort zone to learn and to grow. It makes sense that a man who is motivated to put on tefillin daily could glean heart healthy benefits from this effort. This is especially true when it comes to Torah study. Rabbi Yosef Rosen (The Rogatchover Gaon) points out that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is only fully realized when the one who studies benefits from the experience- not just intellectually but on a social-emotional level as well. This is reflected in Tehillim Chapter 19 (Artscroll Siddur pg 374) “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul……The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.”

        This is how I understand Rashi’s first comment on Parshat Lech Lecha (12:1):
Go forth: לֶךְ לְךָ, go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation”

        Avram would have answered God’s call to leave his homeland purely out of obedience. The Torah here is telling Avram, and us, that we are allowed to derive benefit and pleasure as a result of the effort expended on Mitzvot.  In the World to Come we will benefit from reward/ pleasure that is absent any feelings of motivation and concern for what else needs to be done. But this world is for work, and through the effort we can, should, and will derive both spiritual and material benefits.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Urge to Destroy, The Urge To Create

(Washington Post October 6, 2018) Anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy has pulled off another stunt that seized the attention of the art world — this time at the expense of his own work.

On Friday, a Banksy painting titled “Girl with Red Balloon” was being auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. The spray-painted and acrylic piece depicted a little girl extending her arm out for a heart-shaped balloon, floating far beyond reach.

            The bidding climbed to $1.4 million, an amount that tied the artist’s own auction record from 2008. Finally, a hammer pounded to signify the end of the auction.

Right then, the painting’s canvas began scrolling downward, seeming to pass through its elaborate gilded frame — and reappearing below in neat, vertical strips. Later, Sotheby’s would explain that a shredder was hidden inside the frame.

The crowd began murmuring as they realized what was happening: The painting was “self-destructing” before their very eyes.

            "It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik said in a statement that described the incident as “the first time in auction history that a work of art automatically shredded itself after coming under the hammer.” 

Banksy on Saturday posted a video to Instagram that showed footage of a shredding mechanism being built into a frame for, presumably, “Girl with Red Balloon.”

“A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” he stated in the video text, “in case it was ever put up for auction ...”

The video then jumped to clips of Friday’s auction at Sotheby’s, indicating that Banksy — or someone who works with him — was there when it happened.

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” Banksy captioned the Instagram post.

            My favorite part of this story is that according to the Evening Standard, the partially shredded artwork has doubled in value. The painting’s iconic place in art history may see the price only increase further in the coming months.

            Although the above quote is attributed to a 19th century Russian anarchist and atheist, I think Judaism agrees that the urge to destroy can be a creative urge. This finds expression in the Halachot of the 39 Melachot (categories of forbidden activity on Shabbat). One of the requirements for an activity to be forbidden is that it must be “constructive”. For instance, carrying a 50 pound sack of potatoes around your house may work up a sweat and be tiring, but it is not a Melacha because you have not transformed or acted constructively towards the potatoes. Two categories of Melacha seem to break this rule: Korei’ah, tearing and Soteir, demolishing. Our tradition explains that these activities are only Biblically prohibited if they are done with the intent to subsequently mend or rebuild. Here we see in Halacha examples of destruction being a creative urge.

            We also find this idea in Parshat Noach. We read how God brings a flood to destroy the world. Yet He also saves Noach and his family. The lesson is clear: God destroys the world in order to create a world that is less corrupt. This destruction was a type of creative urge. (This may also help explain the Midrash that says that God created and destroyed many worlds before the creation of our world. The lesson there too might be that destruction can at times be a creative expression.)

            There is a lesson here for us as well. Sometimes we need to alter our plans. Sometimes we need to adjust our perspective, our goals, or our expectations. And sometimes we need to destroy them; start from scratch and rethink the entire matter. As scary as this may be, we should remember at those moments that the urge to destroy can also be a creative urge, and a harbinger of great things ahead.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

V'Chol Asher Yikra Lo HaAdam Nefesh Chaya Hu Shimo" (Bereishit 2:19).

The Midrash says that the angels complained about the creation of man. Hashem, to prove man's greatness, brought all the animals before the angels and asked them what they are each called. The angels were unable to name them. Then He brought them to Adam who named each animal.
The simple understanding is that Adam correctly understood each animal's characteristic and its purpose in this world and gave them a name that captured their essence. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, however, says that what transpired was actually much deeper than merely a test of Adam HaRishonim's wisdom. It was proof of man's greatness and mastery over the entire creation. By naming the animal, Adam declared what the animal would be. Because Adam called it a certain name that became its destiny and its future for all time.

The Midrash is reminding us that human beings are unique among creatures in that we are not bound by fate and the laws of nature. Through God-given abilities like free will we can overcome the natural course of events to do better and be better.

Furthermore, continues the Midrash, Hashem asked Adam what Hashem's name should be and Adam said the Shem of Adnut, i.e. Master, for Hashem is our Master and the Master of the Universe. It is man who determines even Hashem's role in this world. Hashem acts with us in accordance with the way we relate to Him, with the name we give Him. If we relate to Hashem as our Omnipotent Merciful Father, that is how He will treat us. If we don't relate to Hashem as the all-powerful ruler of every detail in our lives but choose to relate to the laws of nature, then Hashem will leave us to the whims of the world and allow nature to run its course.

We generally assume that the name Adam comes from the fact that man was created from the earth, Adamah. However, says Rav Yehonoson Eibushitz, the name Adam is actually related to the phrase "Adameh L'Elyon", I am compared to the Elevated (i.e. God)”.  A person is created B'Tzelem Elokim and is compared to Hashem Himself. Even our comparison to Adama, the earth, can be understood with a positive spin.  Just like the earth never disintegrates and remains forever, similarly a person's neshama, soul, is eternal. The Maharal offers another positive spin on the name Adam:

“However, man’s character is especially comparable to the earth since the earth’s special characteristic is that of potential; through it, all that comes from it springs into reality, such as plants, trees, and everything else. Earth has the potential for all this. This, too, is the characteristic of man. He is a potential whose perfection [exists only when that potential] comes into reality. Therefore his name is fitting for him as he is a partner to the earth whose uniqueness is to transform potentiality to reality…”

As we read about the creation of humankind, let us wear the title of “Adam” with pride, and live up to its potential.