Friday, May 27, 2011

BEMIDBAR; overexposed

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Bamidbar, the name of this week's parsha, means, "in the wilderness." What is the difference between the rugged wilderness and the serpentine alleyways of the city? Exposure.

Military doctrine shifts radically owing to the marked contrasts between open spaces and crowded marketplaces. So too, in the war between light and darkness, between sin and salvation, we must be ever conscious of the shifts in spiritual terrain.

This concept of exposure cuts to the very heart of what it means to be holy. The concept of exposure is symbolic of revelation, symbolizing those acts which can be publicly witnessed. While tradition at times valorizes revelation, at other times it valorizes hiddenness.

Shavuot, coming soon, celebrates the public revelation by G*d of this holiness. Ironically, this holiness best becomes manifest on man's part only by discretion and hiddenness. By not looking. By averting one's eyes.

The last verse of the sedrah (NUM 4:21) reads,

" lo yavo'u lirot k'vala et ha qodesh va meitu."

This pasook is very difficult to translate. While the Targum translates "vala" as "packing," this is difficult because in both modern and ancient Hebrew vala means "swallowing." In the Book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, the text states that "the Lord made a great fish to swallow (li'VLoA) Jonah."

The verse, then, comes to be understood as "(the Kehothites -non-kohanim) will then not come and see the QODESH being packed (swallowed), and they will not die."

Now what was this "QODESH?" Was it holy Tabernacle furniture that was stuffed into special kohanic valises? Or was it some kind of sacred shamanistic ether from the Divine Cloud (QODESH) which the priests were inhaling or somehow swallowing, perhaps to help counteract their withdrawal symptoms induced by their being apart from the euphoric contact with the Shekhina (Divine Presence) in the Tabernacle? The text isn't clear. And while it may be somewhat more faithful to the plain meaning of the text we can't really apply it to our lives today.

I think the deepest meaning is this, however. By linking the notions of swallowing and holiness, the Torah is expressing the idea that true holiness is something internal, not something externalized or put on for a show for others to see. True Divine service is performed under the radar, so to speak, beyond the visual screen.

So to rephrase the question, why would the Qehothite's SEEING it be forbidden? It seems that the priestly duties were viewed as a sacred task. But the *viewing* of this process by *others* would not be a good thing.

This notion of holy discretion applies in many areas that have the potential to infuse holiness into them. For example, lehavdil, the qedusha, or sancity of the marital act is valorized and sanctified by Judaism as a sacred and holy act when performed in the utmost privacy of the nuptial chamber. But when viewed by others it becomes degraded as the unclean depravities of the cult prostitute/priestess- the kedeisha. Its holy nature was removed by the aspect of its public viewing.

We expose neither the marital act nor the deceased to public viewing. We revere their sanctity. Qedusha (holiness) and Qedeisha (cult prostitute/priestess) have almost the same letters. Only their vocalization is different. In fact, the term for nuptials in Judaism is called qiddusheen. Both acts are similar but their contexts are radically different. One is intensely private. The other is intensely public. One is purposely viewed by others. The other can never be.

So too, when giving tzedaka (alms), we could be performing a Qiddush Hashem (sanctification of the Name) or a Chilul Hashem (desecration of the Name) by yet performing the very same act.
When we walk down the street, the halacha (Jewish law) is to walk with our hands in our pockets (unless one talks with one's hands) so as to quickly and surreptitiously give tzedaka in the most private and holy way. But when we have to stop and take out our wallets or fumble through our purses we inevitably make a big show, thereby causing unflattering attention to the holy beggar's (Elijah the Prophet?) dire need for help.

And when we give a large donation, the Rambam teaches that it's much more exemplary to give in a hidden way, not drawing attention to ourselves in the process. And can we swallow a secret and not pass it on? It's the hardest thing in the world to keep it private. But privacy is the key to true holiness.

The holy lamed vavniks, the thirty six righteous people upon whose merit it is taught that the world continues to exist, are considered righteous only by virtue of the utterly secret nature of their sublime status. They have to leave town once their identity becomes known.

And Bilaam blesses Israel upon witnessing the discreet array of their domiciles. Rashi explains that the doors and windows of the homes of the Israelites never faced into those of the neighbors. Privacy and discretion were assured. "Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaaqov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How Goodly are Thy Tents Oh Jacob, Thy dwelling Places Oh Israel," says Bilaam.

Discretion, then, is seen as a path to the Divine. It feels good to have discretionary income, as much as it benefits us to maintain our discretion with respect to our fulfilling our heavenly mandate. Therefore Rechilut and Lashon Harah (talebearing and slander) represent the very opposite of discretion and bring harm to those who indulge in it and cause harm to the entire community. Curses for blessings.

Often those who make the biggest show of their righteousness have the least reward for their efforts.

For in the end,

if not in this world then in the next,

those secret acts of kindness,

will be revealed for all to see,

as much as will our secret sins,

hidden though they be.

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000 - 2011 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 Melman, z"l and in memory of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther bat Baruch z"l.

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Friday, May 20, 2011

BECHUKOTAI; an accidental life

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

The secrets for successful relationships are found in this week's sedra, Bechukotai. It is also referred to as the "tochecha," or The Great Reproof. Hidden within its dire portents of doom are also the dire secrets of life. The antidote is provided along with the warning. The contraindications are listed on the label.

Whether concerning our Divine Spouse (G*d), or our mortal spouses (spice?), if you want a solid relationship, then you must not take him or her for granted. You must not be "casual" with the relationship. You must not forget birthdays or anniversaries. That is the necessary spice of the marriage.

The word for casual, "keri," appears many times throughout the parsha. Keri, related to the word "mikreh,"in modern Hebrew, connotes a chance, or accidental occurrence, or something that "just happened." In modern Hebraic parlance we say "mah karah?" for "what happened?"

In other words, being accidental in nature, conscious planning or premeditated forethought was not involved. Similarly, G*d is seen as Israel's spouse. According to our tradition, our engagement took place at Pesach, and our wedding took place at Sinai, on Shavuoth. But our anniversary with G*d is not celebrated but once a year. It is celebrated every Shabbat!

Every Shabbat at the kiddush we recall the Exodus from Egypt - yetziat mitzrayim (our Jewish anniversary), as well as the Creation of the World - yetzirat ha'olam (our human anniversary). This is borne out in the text by two remarkable hints. One is that the word "keri," quite remarkably, is mentioned seven times in this one section, echoing the proverbial seven "days" of creation (yom, usually meaning "day" in Hebrew, also refers to any time period in Hebrew, not necessarily the 24 hour day that literalists refer to in mistranslation). The fact that keri is embedded seven times in the text is a hint that conscientious Shabbat consciousness is its antidote.

The other hint is that the repercussions of relating to G*d so casually are sevenfold in nature. When we make kiddush on the wine, not only do we remember our actual leaving Egypt, but symbolically we affirm the presence of G*d in history. Repercussions signify accountability!

Conscious observance of our holy Torah prevents our relationship with G*d from becoming casual. Sleep is usually seen as the ultimate in casualness or inattention. Sleeping in class could be seen as not paying attention. But Shabbos represents an alternate reality. It's one of the highest ways we can honor G*d. If I sleep or eat on Shabbos that's very beautiful, but if I sleep or eat BECAUSE it's Shabbos, that's one of the highest ways to honor G*d, and we reap the rewards seven times over- lasting through each day of the week.

Sleep allows our subconscious to connect with its Divine source. Sleeping with intention honors that Divine source. Sheynah, meaning sleep in Hebrew, is connected to both the word for new change (shinooy) and the word for old change (yashan). Sleep is thus the fulcrum between the old which came before, laden with so many missed opportunities, and a new dawn that promises a fresh opportunity to change for the better. But the secret is in knowing how to be awake when awake and consciously mindful of the Divine Presence all around us each day. Subconscious sleeping aids us in our conscious wakefulness. Now the word Sheynah in Yiddish means beautiful (from the German schoen). So combining the two languages gives us a beauty sleep!

Is our existence at all a mere cosmic accident or a result of conscious Divine intention and Divine Will? If we treat our life as an accident of cosmic happenstance and thus bring that energy into our relationships, we will find our lives full of accidents. But if we tap into the Torah's wisdom as the blueprint for intentional living along a Divine latticework, we shall mine a rich world of rewarding relationships.

Now our Divine relationship with G*d is likewise a template for all successful human relations. We should honor and love those who are close to us at least as much as we love ourselves. We shouldn't take our friends for granted if we ourselves don't wish to be taken for granted.

Similarly, we should never take G*d for granted. For He is our BEST friend. If we do, then a great unraveling occurs- we begin to take first our spouses, then our friends, then even ourselves and our holy neshamas (souls) for granted. Don't blame G*d. He is a loving and compassionate G*d, the source for all compassion. Tap into G*d and tap into Compassion. He wouldn't be punishing us sevenfold or even one-fold. We'd be doing it to ourselves!

Shabbat Shalom.

© 2000 - 2011 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 Melman, z"l and in memory of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther bat Baruch z"l.

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Friday, May 13, 2011

BEHAR: Child Vision

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Spending feels good. Whether spending money at the mall or time with one's friends, it is a welcome form of release.

In the Jubilee year all originally designated properties were to be released back to G*d, reverting back to their G*d designated tribal-based owners, regardless of intervening economic happenstance.

There are many levels of reading text. There is the plain meaning, the symbolic meaning, the homiletical meaning and the mystical, esoteric meaning.

The word "Jubilee" in hebrew is yovel. Livlot, in Hebrew, means "to spend," as in money or time. YoVeL means "G*d spends." The earth is His property, He can assign it or re-assign it to whomever He sees fit. G*d "owns the deed," so to speak, for nations, tribes, and even individuals. G*d is the ultimate owner of the land; we are merely its stewards. Like people, G*d feels good when he spends. And His credit ain't so bad either.

After seven seven-year cycles of Shemittah, of giving the land to an opportunity to rest, on the fiftieth year we have a super-shemittah year - a Jubilee year. We still observe the Shemittah year in Israel, but do we still observe the Jubilee year today?

The Talmud (BT Aruchin 32b) states "...deTanya, misheGalu Shevet Reuven veShevet Gad veChatzi Shevet haMenashe bitlu yov'lot,"

which means " we learned in a baraita (outside the canon of the Mishna), from the time when the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were exiled (721 BCE), the (observance of) the Jubilee Years were anulled." I would say that's a pretty long time ago. It hasn't been observed for over 2700 years!

But the Torah is eternal and so even if the observance of the Jubilee Year is anulled, it is incumbent for us to try and make it relevant for our own day, perhaps in a different way.

"Behar" could be read as meaning " two mountains (bet=2 har)," for the Two Torahs- the Oral Torahand the Written Torah; alternatively as two parents-a mother and father- the father who corresponds to the Written Torah, with its overtones of strictness, and the mother, who corresponds to the Oral Torah's compassionate softening of the Law's literal meaning.

In verse 25:10, the text states "veshavtem ish el achuzato, and each man shall return to his heriditary property (achuza)."

And the Torah is suggesting to us, that from this perspective, we should re-imagine ourselves as young children, gazing up at the towering mountain-like influence of our parents. Further, leACHoZ, to "take hold," bespeaks a child-like imagery.

Children are usually seen as grabbing. But that is a misunderstanding. It's simply not true. Very young children (babies) just want to merge with everything around them. There is no "other" with a young baby. The baby puts everything in her mouth because she simply wants to merge with the whole world. It's not an ego thing for a baby. It's just the opposite. All borders are blurred- not because I don't want to see a border. There's simply a sense that all is of the same Divine unity.

On the deepest level the baby knows that everything is connected. Our task, the Torah seems to be telling us, is to recharge ourselves, to view life again from the perspective of an infant, and to know that G*d will meet all our needs for us. Some of us resent G*d because our parents may not have met all our needs for us.

In the shemittah year we let go of the land and let it rest and return to its own child-like, unrestricted, unpruned, untrained natural state of being. And on the Jubilee, the land itself lets go of its anthrocentric human-decreed owners and returns to its G*d-decreed state.

This reflects the double meaning of what shabbat means to us - as both well-resting and returning. That is why the word shavtem in verse 10 above is in the plural form even though it seems to be qualifying the word ish (man) which remains in the singular.

On the plain, or peshat level of meaning this makes no sense without this deeper understanding which resolves the tension in the grammatical incongruity of our text. Thus, in this new dual understanding, we let our physical bodies rest and rejuvenate, all the while letting our spiritual souls return to their Divine dimension, uniting with the holiness of the Sabbath.

Finally, we can read it on the deepest sod, or "secret" level,reading SVA as not "sova" or "sheva," but as SHaVuAh, meaning "oath." Thus it now becomes, "and you shall eat according to the oath." Oath? What oath? This means that just as parents take an oath to feed their child unconditionally, so too G*d will promise to feed us and nourish us if we return to a child-like state of openness to His magnificent bounty.

Of course, we should learn to grow up and take responsibility, but never at the price of losing our child-like sense of awe and wonderment about the world - and its Divine source. Chazon is the Hebrew word for "a vision." When the Torah says "each man shall return to (his) aChuZato (vs 10), it's hinting in the strongest sense possible that we should all return to our "original vision (chazon)."

This means that our holy task in life is to return to and try to attain once more that child-like vision. We should try very much to connect ourselves to the world as does a child- to see ourselves as both inseparable and connected to every other being on the planet. If we truly have a sense of merging with all life, then it would not be possible to ever oppress our neighbor; we would only be oppressing ourselves.

A child always believes in fairness. The adult cynically says,"that's life." But the Torah's utopian vision is that ALL is connected to the ULTIMATE ONENESS, that all is of and from G*d. There is none other. The baby knows best what heaven wants. After all, he just came from there.

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000 - 2011 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 Melman, z"l and in memory of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther bat Baruch z"l.

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Friday, May 6, 2011

EMOR: Between the Mems

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Blemishes are a problem. Whether for a teenage girl or for a Temple offering, having a blemish is not a good thing. Sometimes just a scratch or a bruise is enough to render an offering unacceptable. This might strike us as odd. How seemingly superficial. Certainly it would seem that we should not be judged by appearances. Character is so much deeper than that.

Perhaps the Hebrew word can shed some light on this question. The word for blemish in Hebrew is mum (pronounced moom). It closely resembles mayim, the word for water- mem VAV mem, instead of mem YUD mem. Mayim is compared to Torah, to healing, to cleansing. Mum is symbolic of rupture, of tearing, of defect.

This teaches us that sometimes you can have the right FRAMEWORK in place, but the interior, or the substance is defective. The MEMS look fine. But what is BETWEEN the MEMS? In other words, on the outside surface, everything seems to be alright. But if you look deeper, you can see the defect.

The Torah is not saying we should judge by the outside only. What the Torah is teaching is that if we have to be so careful to make judgements on the *outside* in matters of holiness, HOW MUCH MORE SO are we to be careful with regard to interior blemishes. If we need be careful to discern imperfection on the outside, then we should even cast our gaze on what is on the inside, the letters of the Torah seem to be telling us.

But is this a sign of pettiness? Of superficiality? Absolutely not. Just the opposite. It would be petty and superficial to ONLY look at the outside. The apple may look shiny and delicious, but a tiny worm hole may reveal an inner core that is wormy and putrid.

But the deepest lesson is this: that the blemish can yet be healed. The letter VAV in the middle of the word MuM can easily be transformed into the letter YUD, just by taking a little bit away. No need to add anything. But by thinking about what negativity you can eliminate in your life, it is definitely possible to transform the vav into a yud, the blemish into a blessing.

Anything is possible if we make the necessary changes.

Shabbat Shalom!

© 2000 - 2011 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 Melman, z"l and in memory of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther bat Baruch z"l.

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.

Reb Shlomo with Reb Zusha ben Avraham Zimmerman

Reb Shlomo with Reb Zusha ben Avraham Zimmerman

What mind is it?

"Great minds discuss ideas;
average minds discuss events;
small minds discuss people."
-Eleanor Roosevelt


"If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix..... If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal..........." Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

- anonymous
"Perhaps the greatest force in the entire universe is compounded interest."

- Albert Einstein
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

My photo
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!