Friday, September 26, 2008

NITZAVIM: DON'T LOOK BACK

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin HaKohen Melman

Nitzavim is always read prior to Rosh Hashana. It is a plaintive plea, nay warning, by Moses to the Jewish People, that they have before them a choice in life, between life and death, before good and evil, and that they should choose life.

The later Moses, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka the Rambam, teaches that we should see ourselves, and the world, as hanging equidistant on the scales of justice, as being suspended evenly between the twin poles of evil and righteousness. Just one meritorious deed, or mitzvah, on our part, can mean the difference between personal salvation and world redemption, on the one hand, and personal ignominy and a world swept away in chaos, on the other.

Maimonides discusses repentence:

"What constitutes complete repentance? He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and he is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of his passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent" (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Teshuva," 2:1).

Of course, to attain such a degree of mastery of one's self requires a certain amount of reflection and intense introspection. It requires us to, in a sense, "look back," at the evil we had committed.
Looking back and reflecting on our past deeds is part and parcel of the process of Teshuvah, and
yet, there is an earlier biblical precedent very much related to our parsha, which seems to suggest just the opposite!

In Genesis, parashat Vayera, Lot and his family are rescued by the archangel Raphael from the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah . They are warned specifically not to look back when fleeing from the evil cities (Gen19:17). In Genesis 19:26, we are informed that Lot's wife did indeed look back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt ("vatehi NETZIV melach"). This hidden reference in the first verse of our parsha to the previous flight from sin is joined by a quite explicit reference to the same story just 13 verses later in Deut19:22, where our fate would be joined to that of the overthrown cities, should we not forsake our evil ways.

This usage of the same word netziv in Genesis as well as in the opening verse of this week's portion ("you are standing here this day") seems to suggest that as they are collectively standing at the portal to the promised land, they are figuratively looking back at all the evil they had confronted and overcome in their journey up to this point. Janus-faced, they are facing imminent
redemption awaiting them in the land even as they are seemingly mired by their dwelling upon the past. The text seems to be suggesting that it will take a renewal of the Covenant for them to finally point themselves forward, and not be immobilized by wallowing in their past.

This also begs the question. Should we therefore not look back at the evil we are trying to leave behind, following the lesson of Lot's wife? That would seem to contradict Maimonides' definition of teshuvah, of avoiding he same deeds while in the same conditions, advice which is seemingly only achieved through a process of self-reflection on one's past misdeeds.

A resolution of this seeming contradiction can perhaps be found in the same Genesis narrative,
where Lot exclaims (Gen 19:19), " ...(and I cannot escape to the mountain), lest evil overtake me and I die.

"...pen tiDBaKani haRa'ah veMati."

The word in the Hebrew for "overtake me" is tiDBaKani, literally meaning "stick to me," as the word DeVeK in Hebrew means "glue."It is related to the term, devekut, which in Hasidic philosophy connotes the idea of clinging, or attaching oneself to G*d. But here the reference alludes to sticking not to G*d, but quite oppositely, to evil itself! Hasidic thought revolutionized Jewish thought by using the very weapons of the forces of evil instead for good. In other words,
the forces of evil cause depression in the soul by causing one to immerse oneself in the mire of one's old ways. Your evil, sordid past clings to you like mental glue, seemingly preventing any chance of escape, of liberation.

By making the effort to consciously cling to G*d we can thus free ourselves from the muck and mire of the evil forces that strive to drag us down into a soul depression. G*d is throwing us a life line. "Cling to me instead," He is saying.

Resolving the seeming contradiction, whether to engage in reflection on one's past as a necessary step to moving forward to Teshuvah, or not to look back, so as to avoid the fate of Lot's wife, entails this use of devekut. Just as G*d created Torah as the antidote to evil, so too we should cling to G*d as our "teflon" lifeline even as evil is trying its utmost to cling to us. But know that with G*d you will always prevail against evil, as long as you hold on and cleave to Him. We cleave to G*d through prayer, through Torah study, and through the conscious performance of mitzvoth.

So the idea is that we should look back, but only just enough to be temporarily and momentarily saddened by the idea that we sinned and went off the right path, so as to effectuate a true Teshuvah. But to allow oneself to be mired in sadness over one's past by dwelling on the past only prevents one from making that connection with G*d that has the power to lift one up from depression. We are told again and again that the path to G*d is only through joy, that sadness only blocks one from attaining that bliss which only comes from knowing and feeling close to G*d.

In just last week's parsha, Ki Tavo, we are warned that our lives will become cursed only because we did not serve G*d with happiness (Deut 29:47).

"...tachat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokecha b'SIMCHA."

It seems rather obvious, but sadness leads to sorrow, and sorrow leads to depression, and depression robs a person of the will to live. One becomes one of the walking dead.

As a practical suggestion for moving forward into Teshuvah, let us especially not dwell on others' past mistakes. Although perhaps well-meaning, it is often counter-productive, and causes feelings of depression which make it even harder for that person to break free of his old patterns because he then begins to lose hope. In losing hope, he loses joy, and thus again falls victim to his old ways.

I always used to chafe at the requirement to rise in the morning prayers upon reciting Psalm 100, beginning with the words, Mizmor LeTodah. After all, it is very short, but a paragraph in all, and by the time one has stood up one already has to sit back down again! But as short as it is, it is also the most powerful, and most deserving of respect, for it carries within the secret to life itself: "Ivdu et Hashem b'Simcha!"

"Serve the Lord with Joy/Happiness!"

To paraphrase the sage Hillel, "all the rest is commentary."

Shabbat Shalom!

Good Shabbos!

Shanah Tovah!

A Goot Yor!

© 1999-2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me.

http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
Dedications are available.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

MY DINNER WITH STEVEN: A DIALOGUE

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Editor's note: I have a friend who, while Jewish, did not grow up in the bosom of the faith. Lately he has come to me with questions about the religion, and I hereby present excerpts from our recent dinner.

Steven: In economics and in other fields, emphasis is often placed on the idea of "systems." In other words, above and beyond what individuals do or don't do, they often seem powerless in the face of these larger forces. So having said that, do you see any merit in Judaism's placing a large responsibility on individual morality?

In Judaism, the path to G*d, the halakha, comes to the door of every individual. Though cloaked in community, the individual alone faces his maker for his accounting. Judaism allows for no human mediators. Every individual is responsible for his moral behavior. There is no passing the buck. Judaism posits that man has free choice. It demands taking a moral stand. If we don't take moral stands - simply, what is right and what is wrong - on the "picayune" realm of the personal day to day, how then do we ingrain a moral bias for taking stands on the larger social issues? In fact, what are the larger social issues, if not the sum total of all the individual issues? As in chaos theory, the proverbial flapping wings of the butterfly has an effect on the weather on the other side of the world. In that sense, we are all butterflies. But besides the individual's call to morality, we also have the individual's obligation to celebrate. On all the Jewish holy days - from the High Holy Days to the pilgrimage festivals to every Sabbath and to every single day, the Jew is commanded to reflect on life, and to celebrate life.
And just as morality to be global must expand to include community, so too, the idea of the celebration of life should expand to include community in order to be truly joyous through sharing with others.

Steven: What do you think about in your quieter moments?

In many a quiet moment I've given pause to ponder and to observe. I've watched with detached fascination the impulsive freneticisms of atomized man. I have felt loss at the self neglect in many who waste their lives - both present and potential. They wander through life aimlessly. There is no point, they think, in an endeavor which to them is ultimately absurd. But let them imagine that it wasn't absurd, that life did have meaning. People could at long last raze their castles of apathy and loneliness. In a vision of a world uniting to mend itself, despair and cynicism could finally find a haven to rest in places other than in men's souls. Imagine people "checking in" at regular intervals to take stock at the state of many things: their private goals, their relationships, their work, the cosmos. And in juxtaposition to their human shortcomings, imagine that they could simultaneously believe in an idea of a reachable condition of perfection. Imagine the resultant earnestness and comradeship that would naturally flow from this process.

Steven: What is your gut feeling about utopian ideologies? I mean, be on the level, okay?

Okay, so you have this utopian image with which man can align himself, an image which holds out a potential for harmony and of bliss for mankind. Frankly, I'm a little tired of talking about "humanity." What appeal can these notions have if they don't address me, a single human being? Nothing bears out this self-deceit more than the sorry spectacle of those humanity lovers who have nothing of value to show in their own lives, in their own spheres of relating.

Steven: How do you come to terms with the existential problem of drudgery?

There is a side to people that begs to transcend day to day repetitious mundanity. The Sabbath Day, imbued with a dimension of Divine holiness, is to some, a mechanism of release. In this I find meaning. But I do not regard my every day existence as a drudgery. In fact, I believe that the accent of the Jewish religion is one that actually emphasizes the day to day. How we function in the here and now - in "realty," is the yardstick by which we measure true religious success.

Steven: Tell me, do you imbue the Sabbath with any specifically metaphorical meaning?

The Sabbath, to me, is an eternal metaphor for human interaction, presenting a paradigm of relating on realms both Divine and human. Let us briefly look at the beginnings of the relationship between Israel and G*d, according to traditional and personal intuitions. First, there was a discovery by Abraham of G*d. Then came a period of reciprocal learning and awareness. G*d came to know the heights of Abraham's devotion, in the near sacrifice of his cherished son, Isaac. In turn, Abraham came to know the limits, and the degrees, of G*d's decrees. Justice and compassion were weighed. Abraham challenged G*d to define and to be faithful to His own standards of morality. Witness the intercession, however fruitless in the end in terms of immediate results, on behalf of Sodom and Gemorrah. Thus having come to know each other as each "operated" in reality, G*d finally initiated the formal bonding of their relationship, through both him and his seed. The naturalness of the developing relationship was reconfirmed at Sinai. How much and for how long could they mutually endure without defining the terms of their fealty, and celebrating the worth of their bond? That event, in Judaism, is eternally contemporaneous to every Jew.

Steven: What is the enduring testimony to that bond?

What is the enduring testimony to that bond? Israel's observance of the Sabbath: the Sabbath of "yetzirah" - of formation - that harkens back to a prepolitical celebration of G*d's unfolding creation. One is reminded, through observance of the Sabbath, that in living, one is called upon to interelate on terms of mutual benefit and growth. We remind ourselves of the command to come out of ourselves, for in unity and community there is strength. But for what purpose is this strength? To what end? We must always hold a vision before us of the perfect ideal world, the vaunted messianic state. The Jewish tradition asks us to always compare this vision to current reality. In this sense man is considered to be a co-partner in creation, in that his task is to finish creation. The Sabbath reminds us of our bond to the covenant which demands of us this task, and it celebrates the creation even though it is still yet incomplete. The Exodus from Egypt is recalled in the idea of the Sabbath of "yetziah"- the "going out" - which is an enduring metaphor for the eternal imperative of liberation - both personal and global.

Steven: What about cosmic thoughts? Cosmology versus cosmogeny.

The individual, so to speak, confronts his cosmic beginnings, and beholds his transformation through concentric realms of being. On one plane of consciousness, he identifies with the polity of Israel contemporaneously standing before the ongoing revelation. On another plane, he transcends history and space, imbibing once more of the protological serenity of Eden, that prefiguration of the messianic world where once again all will be united under the Divine principle. Along these lines run certain mystical strains in the Jewish tradition. Concepts of logos and genus merely tend to obfuscate the obvious.

Steven: I see. And what about G*d, the so-called "deity?"

How can G*d be really relevant to you, you wonder? I believe that if one looked at the world with his or her eyes fully opened, he would glimpse the vast multitude of deities that many worship - even today. If they don't worship "large case" G*d, they worship some other "small case" god. Upon that to which he directs his desires, beyond all proportion or degree thought necessary or appropriate, that is his god. Many worship power, domination, submission to authority, their country or even themselves. They become locked into a vicious and alienating circle from which it is even harder to emerge. Man is measured by that which he values. So it's not a question of choosing to serve G*d, but of choosing which god to serve. All people expend energy serving their particular god. In prayer, a person likewise serves G*d. He arranges his values in order, in their appropriate context. One reasserts control over one's life, and reminds himself in prayer that his choice is ultimately worth his while. Reward in the next world, olam haba - after life? So it is taught. But just as important is the reward of satisfaction in the attainment of self-mastery, in reaping the spiritual benefits of this world inherently earned in the journey of self discovery. Without this struggle and the self-knowledge derived from this struggle, there would possibly be no point to ever being born.

Steven: You mention struggling. Where does suffering figure in all this talk of halacha?

Prayer and halacha - Jewish law, literally "the way," have an additional extrinsic worth, beyond the intrinsic. In embracing the symbolic structures of a particular religious system, which by definition imposes meaning on the problems of existence, man places suffering within a cosmic framework. He can thus define his emotions to suffering in a meaningful way. As a means for dealing with the evils of the world as opposed to facing a chaos, an awesome terror of the unknown, the halacha charts an ethos, marking boundaries so that one can function as anxiety free as possible within the world. Like struggling, suffering leads to growth. A mighty oak tree is only born in the pain of the acorn's disintegration.

Steven: This Judaism. It's so vast. I'm frankly a little intimidated by its scope, vastness and depth. Is it really worth the effort to master?

Standing in direct counterpoint to the modern dogma of false spontaneity, a kind of compulsive reactivity to sensory input, is the principle within Jewish observance of kavanah, or "intention." It posits that the value of an action is markedly enhanced when it is couched in an aura of ready anticipation. Thus an act takes on an organic nature all its own, drawing its first breath in the seed of one's prior intention. While halacha admittedly limits my physical freedom, it more than compensates by widening my scope of perception. Every action is imbued with a more profound and higher significance. My horizons become sensitized to ever deeper levels of concern, and ultimately - to action. It gives a rhythm and continuity to my life, providing a steady anchor in an unstable world. As the Torah teaches (Leviticus 19:18): "Love your neighbor as yourself." And as Rabbi Hillel added, so succinctly: "That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary." There you have it, phrased both in the positive and the negative. All bases covered.

Steven: So apart from me, does a person like you have many friends?

I grant you that my orientation and socialization within the world of Jewish observance was a natural one. What you most ably could identify with, would be my independent discovery and personal interpretation of the age-old system. In the main prayer, the amidah, we say elokeinu v'elokei avoteinu, "our G*d and the G*d of our fathers." We each have the task of not only learning from tradition, but of making personal sense of it all. I can receive what it meant for my fathers before me, but what does it mean to me? That only comes from study of the Torah and reflection. It says knei lecha Rav. "Acquire for yourself a rabbi." Push your comfort zone in order to grow. Little by little. That's the only way. Entering this age old system from an external vantage point, without guidance, would, I am sure, seem like a scary proposition. I might add, however, that with study, your fresh perspective would probably afford you a unique understanding. Should you wish to learn and be open to suggestion, I will share with you what I found to be the best way to enter the tradition: simply do it. Begin from where you are. Performing a mitzvah, a "G*d connector," teaches you more than any amount of study can. The experiential element is central to acquiring knowledge of "the way." I found that slow is best. I would slowly take one mitzvah at a time and make it "mine." Then I would take another, and so on. Coming back to it again would be like a reunion with an old friend. Right now, to answer your question, I have quite a few friends!

copyright 1999 - 2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

SHABBOS IS PARADISE

by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Shabbos is back to Paradise. Paradise is a place where everything is good, everything holy everything is beautiful. Paradise is a place where suddenly it's so clear to me the I can fix all my mistakes. And even more so, everything I thought was a mistake. Every street I thought was a wrong street, was the only way to get there.

Shabbos has two faces -- there is the keeping Shabbos holy, the 39 laws of Shabbos, the withdrawing from the world, a non-power kind of life. But then there is the bliss of Shabbos, the inside of Shabbos, which is a gift from Heaven.

The bliss of Shabbos is even deeper than Paradise. It's a secret between me and G-d, between me and the people I love so much. Shabbos is peace because peace is secrets, secrets of the depths, of the deepest depths. Secrets are the deepest of G-d's revelation. A true Shabbos person walks the streets of the world and every human being they see, they seem to have a secret with. But with those they love, it's the secret of all secrets.

Connections Magazine----Reb Shlomo

Friday, September 19, 2008

KI TAVO: JUDAISM, THE YEASTERN RELIGION

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

B'nai Yisrael
, the Children of Israel, in our parsha, Ki Tavo, and also in other parshayoth, is called an AM SEGULA. This is often translated as "treasured nation." Sometimes even as "chosen nation." To be a treasured nation is admittedly very nice, as is also the status of being a chosen nation, although that carries some heavy baggage when it is interpreted by some as evidence of haughtiness and superiority.

Using these terms on some level does violence to the sense of Israel being a nation that interfaces between the particular and the general, between the national and the universal. We are also said to be a MAMLECHET KOHANIM, or a nation of priests. Indeed, just as the kohein in the Temple traditionally served as the intermediary between Israel and G*d, so too, as a mamlechet kohanim, or a "nation of priests," does the nation of Israel then serve as the intermediary between G*d and the other nations of the world.

This status does not inhere automatically to Israel. Rather it applies only insofar as Israel is cognizant of its role via its consciousness of fealty to the idea of mitzvah, that G*d's blessings pour down over an Israel that is consciously connected to its relationship with the Divine, and that we have the kavannah, or intention, that the performance of a mitzvah reverberates with positive energy not only for ourselves but for the benefit of humanity at large.

Note that in Deut. 26:19, the verse reads,

"ULETITCHA ELYON AL KAWL HAGOYIM...,

to give you height over all the other nations.."

This is not the height of arrogance. Rather, this is the height of service. As Israel is a mamlechet kohanim, a nation of priests, Israel is a kohein, or holy servant, to the other nations on Earth.
This does not mean supremacy! Rather, the Torah is teaching us that in order for Hashem's blessings for Israel to also reach and bring blessing to all the other nations of the world, Israel must position herself high through her allegiance to Torah. Through her becoming spiritually elevated and raised up through living by the ways of the Torah, subsequently the"spillage" from this pouring down of the heavenly blessings will affect everyone.

However, a self-debased Israel would be a proverbial pit, soaking up the blessing all to herself and hoarding it and thereby choking on it. Being in her self-created pit caused by her own sins, the blessings could not then spread out. Israel would then suffocate on her surfeit of blessing, turning the blessing into a curse via her own behavior. Israel's mission is to bring blessing upon all the earth through her lofty role of service to the One G*d.

Israel's self-debasement comes from two sources. The first source stems from a lack of Torah, that in the absence of the knowledge of how to serve G*d through the study of the Torah and living by the mitzvoth found therein we remove ourselves from the source of blessing. The second source stems from not a lack, but oppositely from a surfeit of Torah, where the kavannah, or intention, is not the elevation of humanity via our attachment to Torah, but regrettably, where the kavannah is the supremacy of Israel, "to hell with the whole world, they all want to kill us anyway." The point of Torah is in our sharing of our blessings with the world, that it should be a source of blessing for the world, precisely because of our fealty to Torah.

Why is the Dead Sea dead? Because it only receives. It never gives out life sustaining waters. Thus the salts accumulate to toxic levels. Sea salt gives life, but only in very small quantities.
The Golan, by contrast, is bursting with life and vibrancy year round. Its fresh, living waters sustain and replenish Yam Kineret, the Sea of Galilee, whose waters sustain all Israel. And the Torah emanating from Yerushalayim and Tzfat, and indeed from all the heights of Torah, water and give spiritual nourishment to all Israel and to the world at large.

Rabbeinu (the Rashban, aka Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, aka Reb Shlomo) always taught that "the world so much NEEDS the Jews to be good yidden." In other words, there is NO dichotomy between being a good Jew and being a good human being. Just the opposite! We are better human beings, doing our part for all humanity, by becoming the best Jews possible! So now the folk and the cosmologic senses of the word "segula" align themselves in a neat symmetry.

Israel now has the opportunity, our parsha is telling us, of being a catalyst for blessing for all the nations of the world. Indeed, this is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic blessing that "all the nations will be blessed through you." Israel, in a sense, now becomes the yeast for the whole world. As yeast is the catalyst in baking, so too is Israel that transforming agent of change which has the awesome capability of uplifting all of humanity. Just as yeast is among the least of the ingredients, so too is Israel the least populous of the nations. Just as yeast is less than tasty when eaten as a meal in itself, so too does Israel shine less when consumed solely in a self-absorbed disinterest with the fate of humanity.

Now we understand on the deepest level why we totally eradicate any presence of chametz on Passover, the holiday marking our new status finally as a nation among the other nations of the world. The special zero-tolerance status for yeast on Passover now makes sense. The very energy expended in our total obsession with its eradication is only meant to underline and call attention to the "yeast" status of the Jewish people vis a vis its relationship to humanity. By calling attention to yeast/leaven so explicitly, the Torah wants us to understand on our national birthday (Passover) our special "yeast role" in the universe.

In all other areas of kashruth a miniscule amount of a forbidden substance is"tolerated" if it exists in a certain miniscule percentage in relation to the permitted ingredients (usually a 1/60 ratio). Not so with yeast on Passover. It has the status of "assur bemashehoo," i.e., it is forbidden "in any amount" (shulchan aruch: siman taf mem zayin, se'eef dalet). Israel, in its status as exemplar of liberation from Egyptian oppression, bondage and servitude, becomes on a symbolic level at least, the inspiration for all humanity to aspire to freedom from every type of oppression. Our Exodus is the model for all future exodi. Our salvation is the model for all future salvations, as is likewise our redemption in the land of Israel a precursor and model for ultimate world redemption- if only we and our leaders believe it ourselves and if only the world were to lift its veil of hatred and open its eyes.

By the special status and attention which the Torah pays to actual, real, live yeast in the Exodus narrative and to its accompanying rites of memory and reenactment, so too should we therefore be cognizant of the people of Israel's symbolic and yet very real status as yeast/catalysts in the rising pungent ferment that is humanity. The more we consciously incorporate Judaism into our lives, the sooner we help elevate all humanity, including ourselves, to achieve the end stage of glorious redemption and peace, and thereby fulfill our true destiny as an "am segula," as a Catalyst Nation.

Ignorance of the true meaning of the term segula has resulted in tragedy in both directions: misplaced haughtiness and arrogance on the part of some Jews who in righteous tribal anger circle the proverbial wagons to shut out the outside modern world, and has tragically provided ammunition to antisemites who claim that our so-called claim to a chosen status implies a claim of superiority which somehow justifies a negative response.

When we want something good for someone we often say, "do this as a segula." Or sometimes it is said, "say this prayer at the kotel for forty days to find your soul mate as a segula," or "recite this psalm on behalf of sick person as a segula," or "wear this amulet as a segula." So clearly, at least in the folk mind, a segula has the sense of being a catalyst, of bringing about positive change on some level.

As role models for tzedaka, culture, agriculture, education, science, the arts and humanities, with leadership roles in progressive movements for social justice, equality and better working conditions for all, Israel's light shines brightly. We are a segula indeed. We are not perfect, but we are trying.

As we enter the High Holy Day season officially with Selichot this Saturday night, let us remember that we are not perfect creatures either. We make mistakes, but the point is to learn from them, to grow from them, to become better people because of the mistakes we have made. Thank G*d I make mistakes! That's the only way I know how to grow!

Shabbat Shalom
Good Shabbos

© 1999-2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me.

http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
Dedications are available.

Friday, September 12, 2008

KI TEITZEI: LOVE AND HATE

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

They say that the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you wait for the perfect you'll miss the good. If you pass up the good while waiting for the perfect, you may still be waiting! This is as true in life as it is in dating.

In our parsha, Ki Teitzei, there is the instruction, if you have two wives, where one is loved and the other is hated, that we must honor the birthright of the oldest, the firstborn son, even if he is the offspring of the hated wife. The hated wife is identified first as the senuah, the hated one, spelled sin, nun, vav, alef, hey. But then she is identified not as the senuah, but rather as the seniah! The letter vav is replaced with the letter yud.

What is the significance of this change in spelling? Every word is divine. Every letter is divine. So it must have a meaning. Furthermore, the Torah was given to us to be eternally relevant to every generation. So today when most of Jewry has foresworn polygamy, what lesson can we learn from the change in spelling?

The letter yud represents divinity. It is teaching us that behind everything which we hate there is to be found a Divine lesson for us. Sometimes we hate a person because he reminds us of a defect in our own character. That is a Divine message. Sometimes we hate someone because they are so good that we become jealous of him and look for petty ways to find fault with him to assuage our sense of regret for our own imperfect natures. Or perhaps he is full of joy and we are depressed or sad and hence we are jealous.

A spouse is called an ezer k'negdo, translated often as "helpmeet." Ezer means "helper" and k'negdo means "against." When you are on the correct moral path she is to be a helper. But when you fall off the path she is NOT to be an enabler. Her job is to oppose you and help you get back onto the right path. But then you may hate her for it. But she's just doing her job. The enlightened spouse will recognize this and seek to amend his ways and so be in love again. So in truth the two wives are really one in the end.

And the son who is to receive the birthright, regardless of which wife is his mother, what does he come to teach us? That even good things may come from seemingly bad origins. After all, David, the future king of Israel and progenitor of the Mashiach, is from the fruit of a Moabitess who in turn stems from the incestuous liaison between Lot and his daughters after witnessing the fiery demise of Sodom and Gemorrah. Sometimes a setback is really a setback. But let us have the eyes to try to see the Divine message behind every seeming setback and to turn hate into love wherever we go.

As the Torah teaches (Lev 19:18), Love thy neighbor as thyself. Neighbor and evil are spelled with the exact same letters, reish and ayin. And we are to hate evil. So what this means is that we must love our neighbor as ourself, even as we hate the evil that they do.

And as Hillel summarized the essence of the Torah: that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary.

Shabbat Shalom!


© 1999-2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me.

http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
Dedications are available.

9-11 REMEMBERED

Friends,

September 11, 2001 fell out on the 23rd of Elul that year.

So let us pause to reflect on the day, in the light of the 23rd Psalm:


The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness

For His name's sake.

Yea, though I walk

Through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me.

Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me

In the presence of mine enemies;

Thou annointest my head with oil;

My cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy

Shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Friday, September 5, 2008

SHOFTIM: TWO HEARTS, ONE YEARNING

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman


Jewish DNA reflects a yearning to simultaneously ascend two figurative mountains: the universal call to serve humanity on the one hand, and the particular call to serve the Jewish people on the other hand, and in so doing preserve our culture, religion and heritage and be alone with our G*d.

Ultimately through fulfilling both yearnings we then come to serve G*d in the deepest way. For serving humanity, and serving G*d's priestly nation of Israel, G*d's servants for humanity, is the ultimate path to serving G*d Himself. After all, Kohein means servant. Lekhahein is the infinite form meaning to serve, and what is a truly lived life but one which was a life of devotion and service.

"VERACH HALEVAV YELECH VEYASHOV LEVEYTO...(Deut.20:8)

...and let the faint-hearted return home (rather than let his cowardliness demoralize the nation)."

This is the usual meaning of the verse. But really it is saying something else altogether, because RACH actually means "soft." It is saying that a soft heart is the true heart, the heart of the home, the heart we should always bring into the home. And we all have two hearts, in that the word LEVAV, for "hearts" alludes to the plural on account of the doubling of the letter vet. Their doubling is said to allude to the two inclinations- the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). See also the shema and veahavta prayer- "bechawl levavcha u'vechawl nafshecha u'vechawl me'odecha (with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might)."

But we have two other inclinations that are paired together as well- the Sinai inclination and the Yerushalayim inclination; the universal urge and the nationalistic urge. In truth, we should serve G*d with both urges.The call of Sinai in the wilderness, that zone of undifferentiated universality, where Israel received its charge to bring the Torah, the light of the world, to the nations of the world competes in our hearts with the yearning to be alone with G*d on His holy mountain in the city of David.

But really they don't contradict each other at all. Really the two are actually one very deep yearning- that we will one day play host to all the nations of the world who will then come up to Yerushalayim, to G*d's Holy Mountain to testify to G*d's Oneness.

And in the previous verse (Deut. 20:7) it states, "is there any man among you who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go home so that he will not die in war and have another man marry her."

In the deepest sense this is an allusion to the nation of Israel who is betrothed to Hashem. Each and every year Israel renews the marriage vows of Sinai on the Festival of Shavuoth. Therefore Israel is always to seek the peaceful path, for Israel is constantly in a state of betrothal, always bringing the softness of the heart to the hearth of the home. We seek peace always, fighting only in self defense when our enemy wants war.

"oomee HAISH ASHER ERAS ISHA....." (see above)

Now this is very deep, so you have to concentrate really hard.

The verse itself alludes to the idea of two mountains. The first four words all contain the same letters-alef and shin, which spell AISH, or fire. And each of the words have additional letters: yud, raish, raish, hey, which when arranged in reverse order spell HARARI, meaning "my two mountains (two because the hey is doubled, like the doubling of the letter vet in levav)."

And ERAS can be rearranged as ROSH, and the letter sin can refer to the word simcha, bringing to mind the verse from psalms - al ROSH SIMCHATI (" I will raise Jerusalem above my chiefest joy").

The two mountains of Judaism are Zion and Sinai. With two hearts, our world/universal heart and our national/Jewish heart we are to serve G*d. But in truth they are really the same heart.

Shabbat Shalom. Good Shabbos.

Sefer Chabibi. Copyright 1999-2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

This Torah thought is written in honor of the blessed memory of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Yaakov Hakohen Melman.

ROSH CHODESH ELUL; OF PARADISE LOST AND REGAINED

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

In the midst of the summer's bloom we don't think of its impending farewell. What has nourished and sustained us and made us feel alive will soon be taking leave. The balmy careless days of leisure will soon give way once more to the frenetic schedules and tiring obligations of the noisome world.How much we will miss these days. How much we will pine for them when they are gone.

But life implies change. Life implies passing. Everything must take leave at one point or another. Let us appreciate it in the moment. Let us experience it in the present time and preserve it in our precious memories.

As the month of Av becomes the month of Elul, the heaviness of our burdens become lighter as our sorrows are transformed into joys. Just as the Torah asks us to leave our parents and cleave to our spouses, so too we take leave of Av (father) and join together with Elul, whose letters comprise the acronym for Ani Ledodi Ve'dodi Li. "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

Elul corresponds to Virgo in the Zodiac. Virgo represents a state of unspoiled purity- a consciousness of returning to the purity of The Garden before the fall of mankind. It is the month before Libra- the judging on the scales of righteousness for all creation. As Adam left G*d, his father, and sinned with the aid of his beshert, he needs to reconcile with her once more before the judgment for reconciliation to occur.

For us to reenter the Garden once more in a renewed sense of purity and wholeness and restore those endless days of paradise, we must know that we can't do it alone. We are all inextricably tied to each other. Judaism teaches that our redemption is a collective redemption, not a personal one. And as we ourselves grow, we help lift up the entire community.

And as all the people of Israel grope and lurch to that ultimate redemption we must know that it is a collective enterprise, not a solitary one. As lovers dance in the fields together so too will Israel one day dance with G*d. Then paradise will be renewed everlasting. Indeed, it was never truly lost.


© 1999-2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me.

http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
Dedications are available.

NEVER GIVE UP!

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When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." - Aish Kodesh
"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

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United States
I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!