Beha’alotekha 5771

by Josh Seed, 2011 USY Religion/Education International General Board

A poor Jew went to his rabbi for advice. “Holy Rabbi!” he cried, “Things are in a bad way with me, and are getting worse all the time! We are so poor, that my wife, six children, in laws, five grandchildren and I all have to live in a one room hut. We get in each other’s way all the time. Our nerves are frayed and, because we have plenty of troubles, we quarrel all the time. My home is so terrible that I’d sooner die than continue living this way!”

The Rabbi pondered the matter gravely. “My son,” he said, “promise to do as I tell you and your condition will improve. Go home now and bring all of your animals into your house to live with you and God will help you. Keep them in the house for two days. At the end of the two days, let them go.”

The poor man was dumbfounded but since he trusted the Rabbi, he went home and brought all of the family’s animals into his house.

At the end of the two days, he let all the animals out of the house. A miraculous transformation took place. Not a day had passed before he came running again to the Rabbi. “Rabbi!” cried the poor man, his face beaming, “With all the animals out, the house is so quiet, so roomy and so clean! What a pleasure! My house is a treat. Thank you Rabbi you have made my life sweet.”

This coming Shabbat we will be reading Parashat Beha’alotcha. Among a number of topics that are discussed in the portion is B’nai Yisrael’s constant complaining. This can first be seen in the sixth aliyah. “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.” (Bamidbar 11:1-2)

What were they complaining about? The commentators point us to the answer found just a few verses before. “They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days.” (Bamidbar 10:33) It appears that B’nai Yisrael was complaining about this three day journey. If not for the prayers of Moses, God’s fire would have likely killed everyone.

The next incident of complaining occurs shortly after. The people begin to grumble that all they have to eat was manna. They reminisced about their time in Egypt when they supposedly had fish, cucumbers, melons, onions and garlic to eat. Their complaining again brings a punishment from God. Quail fell outside the camp and whoever ate of it was stricken and died.

As the poor Jew in the story realizes, things can always be worse. Your house could be smaller, a terrible fire could devastate your people and you could be eating nothing but quail instead of manna which supposedly tasted like anything you want it to be! Parashat Beha’alotcha serves to remind us that we should be thankful for what we have. At a time when there are many people throughout the world who don’t have enough to eat, we must always be sure to consider our blessings before opening our mouths to complain.

This week’s mitzvah is to learn Torah and to teach it. (D’varim 6:7) Although the holiday of Shavuot does not carry any particular mitzvot like eating matzah on Pesach and dwelling in a sukkah on Sukkot, the holiday is special nonetheless. Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah to the Israelites and it is therefore customary to spend the holiday studying Jewish texts into the wee hours of the night.

Naso 5771

by Jordan Bailey Brandt, Seaboard USY 2011-12 Regional President and 2011 Religion/Education International General Board

This shabbat, we read Parshat Naso, the longest parasha in the Torah. It covers various topics including a second census of the Israelites, the laws regarding a female adulterer, the laws of the nazir, and the identical sacrifices given by each tribe in honor of the mishkan. Even though this parasha covers a lot of topics and there are tons of commentaries and midrashim on it, I had a lot of trouble deciding on a topic … but then it hit me.

In Naso, we read, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman explicitly utters a nazarite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord’” (Bamidbar 6:1-2). The nazir may not drink wine even eat anything from grapes, is not allowed to cut his/her hair, may not be near a dead person, and must give special sacrifices. I have taken multiple classes that have discussed the topic of the nazir and still and not sure if I fully understand the concept because I have the same reoccurring question. How is the nazir so incredibly holy when he completely separates himself from the community?

I am currently taking a class where we are discussing modern Jewish theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, Neil Gillman, and Arnie Eisen who all stress the importance and holiness of community. Obviously, these are modern theologians and we no longer have nazirim, but the importance of community can’t possibly have changed very much.

As I was doing some research trying to find an answer to a question that seemed impossible to answer, I found some hints in the commentary of the Etz Hayim. “Is he or she a saint, aspersing voluntarily to higher levels of holiness, or a person with trouble controlling his or her impulses, who therefore has to impose limits on beyond what normal people do?…[Rambam], uncomfortable with the nazirite’s enthusiasm, urged the path of modernation in food, drink, and other matters.” While this isn’t the most straight forward answer, it did satisfy me for now. I completely understand Rambam’s perspective, which also ties in well with Conservative Judaism today.

We struggle between Torah/halachah and the modern world. Just like Rambam suggests, it is about moderation and striking a balance between the two. As for whether the nazir is truly holy, that is something you will have to decide for yourself.

Shabbat shalom!

Behukotai 5771

by Max Bartell, 2011 USY Religion/Education Vice President International General Board

“And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will no reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God.” (Vayikra 26:44) You’ve really got to love it when no matter what, God has our back. Shabbat Shalom USY. In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Bechukotai, God really struck me as a typical Jewish parent. We all know the feeling of being constantly loved and cared for, while at the same time being scolded or reprimanded (lovingly) for doing something small. This really seems to be the overarching theme in this week’s Parsha. As part of the book of Vayikra, laws are a very common occurrence. In fact, there are Parshiot which consist only of laws. However, this week the way that these laws are given out is a little bit out of the ordinary.

God proceeds to give out a large group of laws, ranging from Shmitah (resting the fields), to taxes that must be paid to the Temple, all the way to a repetition of the Ten Commandments for the entire nation. While it may seem strange that the Ten Comandments were recited for at least a second time, many scholars see it as a logical event. It also signals that the Israelites were growing exponentially. Because of their rapid growth, there were many people who were not present in person at the first recitation, and therefore must hear the commandments at this point in order to be familiar with everything that is going on. As the clear parent figure in this situation, God wants to make sure that everyone knows exactly what is going on.

However, after the blessings and commandments are given, God feels that it is appropriate to inform the Israelites what will happen if they do not follow God’s laws and commandments. Some of the punishments are pretty graphic, but they clearly make their point. The Israelites do not disobey God’s laws. It seems like this is exactly the way that a loving and caring Jewish parent would act. In fact, I had a very similar experience with my own parents just this past weekend at my installation as Chazak Divisional President.

When I was informed that my parents were coming to my installation, I was really excited. As soon as they arrived, I left the room to see them, and was greeted by hugs and showered with compliments and congratulations (blessing part). However, the moment they finished, they began fixing my suit, tie, and hair. You know, normal things that parents do. While this may not have been anywhere near the punishments that God promised the Israelites, you get the point.  While it may sound a little odd, I think that God and my parents felt pretty much the same way. They were both very proud of their respective “children’s” goals, but at the same time they were a little hesitant. They were hesitant to let what they had worked so hard to cultivate, grow up. God was afraid for the Israelites and my parents for their son. Both my parents and God had that sense of anxiety that comes with not being able to control what happens next. Even though they didn’t know what would happen next, both my parents and God still had to let go, and hope for the best. Shabbat Shalom USY, have a restful and peaceful Shabbat :)

Behar 5771

by Josh Seed, 2010-11 ECRUSY Religion/Education Vice President and 2011 Religion/Education International General Board member

In today’s world of routine, we can sometimes forget the one responsible for the everyday miracles in our lives. The concept of bitachon, or trust in God, plays a critical role in Jewish thought. Just as a person should strive to observe the mitzvot, they should also try to develop a consciousness that God is actively involved in everything that we do.

This idea can be seen in this week’s parashah of Behar. The beginning of the portion reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune you vineyard.” (Vayikra 25:1-4)

Much of the parashah is devoted to a description of laws concerning shmita, or the sabbatical year, which takes place in the Land of Israel every seventh year. During shmita, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden. In Biblical times, debts were also cancelled on the shmita year, and servants were set free.
The mitzvah of Shmita begs a very important question: What food will we eat during this seventh year of rest? God, however, assures us not to worry. “And you should ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.” (Vayikra: 25:20-21)

The promise that God makes is very much like the double portion of manna that would fall before Shabbat or a holiday. In this sense, the shmita years mirrors Shabbat whose major function is to remind us that it is God who created the world and continues to maintain it. Although we all live very busy lives, we must always take a moment to stop and appreciate the miracles that we are blessed with every single day.

Emor 5771

by Nathan Dinitz, 2010-11 New Frontier USY Religion/Education Vice President

As I was reading parashat Emor, one pasuk stood out from the rest. It isn’t about the kohanim, nor the holidays, nor the man who blasphemes. It was about two mitzvot that are easily overlooked.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not to finish off the corners of your field when you harvest it, and do not gather up the gleaning of your harvest; for the poor and for the convert you must leave them; I am HaShem, your God.” (L. 23:22)

This verse is about two mitzvot: peah, leaving the corners of your field unpicked; and leket, not picking up the crops that drop when you harvest. We don’t get to keep it all. Instead, God commands us to leavepeah and leket for the poor to collect. This verse seems out of place because it interrupts the description of the yearly cycle of holidays. Shabbat, Pesach, waving the Omer, counting the Omer, Shavuot — next should come Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot — but before those holidays we get these harvest rules — leave the corners, and anything that drops, for the poor. What is this verse doing here?

Of course, I am not the only one who has noticed that this verse stands out. Even though this pasukmight look misplaced, several commentators say it belongs here for a reason.

Ibn Ezra (Rav Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra; 1089-1164 Spain) suggests that this pasuk belongs here, between the descriptions of the spring holidays and the fall holidays, because you need to remember about peah and leket — these harvest laws — during the summer. The summer is when you will need to observe them. We learn them here to help us actually remember to leave the corners and the dropped produce when we harvest — and not forget these mitzvot. If you don’t remember that this is the time to do these mitzvot, you might not do them.

Rashi (Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105; France) quotes the Tanna, Avardimas ben Yossi, who says that observing the harvest mitzvot of peah and leket is equivalent to building the Bet HaMikdash, and then offering all the korbanot of all the holidays of the whole year inside it. So, by leaving this food for the poor, one is serving God as if one had brought offerings to the Temple. We serve God by serving other people. According to Avardimas, these mitzvot are here — among the Korbanot of the holidays — to show that peah and leket are just as valuable as the whole community bringing all the holiday Korbanot.

Finally, the Meshech Chochma (Meir Simcha haKohen of Dvinsk 1843–1926; Latvia) connects Avardimas’ comment to a pasuk from Mishlei — the book of Proverbs:

“One who gives graciously to the poor makes a loan to God, and God will repay him (Proverbs 19:17).”

Building on Avardimas and Meshech Chochma, I think that the pasuk is here to remind us that because peah and leket have no shiur — no maximum amount — we should be generous in leaving the corners and dropped produce for the poor, because the poor who are going to take it might not have anything — not even enough to eat. This verse comes after the section about Shavuot — on which we read about how Boaz told his reapers to deliberately drop extra leket for Ruth to collect — and before Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur — when one is judged by HaShem. As the Meshech Chochmah reminds us, our generosity is a loan to God, and God will repay.

How can we in USY apply peah and leket? How do we share the benefits we reap from our work with those less fortunate around us? As we give to the poor, how can we remember that we’re making a loan to God? Can we be extra generous with this mitzva?

An Example: Giving to tzedakah before lighting shabbos candles each week.
Another Example: Bringing SA/TO funds to conventions with more intention and generosity.

Kedoshim 5771

by Max Bartell, 2011 USY Religion/Edducation International General Board

P.J. O’Rourke is famous for saying, “Because of their size, parents may be difficult to discipline properly.” Now, regardless of the fact that O’Rourke is not a member of the tribe, this type of view and opinion is exactly what this week’s Parsha, Parshat Kedoshim seeks to change and get rid of. In Parshat Kedoshim, there are a rather unusually large amount of Mitzvot. There are 13 positive commandments, and 38 negative commandments, totaling 51 commandments. The first commandment in the Parsha is “Every man should revere his mother and father,” followed by “You shall keep my Shabbatot for I am Hashem your God.” There are a number of interesting things in these first two commandments, ranging from the wording used in them, to the reasoning behind the order that they are placed in. From the first commandment, “Every man should revere his mother and father,” we learn a number of things. We learn that by using the word revere, the Torah is implying that a person should not disagree with his parents in public, and should always treat them with the utmost respect. This can range from not taking their seat at a table, to correcting them in front of their friends, no matter how egregious their error may be. Just as a side-note, this pasuk is often used as proof and reasoning behind caring for your parents, even unto their old age.

Another interesting point that the commentators make with regard to this Parsha, has to do with the fact that the commandment to keep Shabbat directly follows the commandment to respect parents. According to Rashi, the importance of the order is that eventually this verse comes to teach us that a child should refuse his parent’s request that he or she desecrate the Shabbat, because ultimately Hashem and his Torah take precedence. This pasuk does not give a child the right to disregard the orders of his parents unless of course, the parent directs the child to break another one of God’s commandments. Only then is disregard of the parent’s orders acceptable. In terms of order that the commandments in this Parsha should be observed in, think of it this way: “1. Respecting your parents” and “1A. Keeping Shabbat.”

It seems that the commandments here really come back to one main theme of Judaism. The idea of the unwritten “Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule is essentially “V’ahavta L’Recha Camocha” or “Love your neighbor as you would yourself.” The commandments in this Parsha are really centered around the concept of respect. From the idea of not embarrassing your parents, all the way to not correcting an error that they make in front of their friends. While respecting our parents may appear to be a tall task, it is really quite simple. What it all boils down to is treating your parents the same way that you would like them to treat you. I highly doubt that one might want his parents to correct him or tell him that he iswrong in front of his friends. And even sometimes, when it may seem that his parents don’t understand your situation, he must still respect them because, in the words of Dr. Suess: “A Person’s a Person, no matter how small.”

Metzora 5771

by Josh Seed, 2010-11 ECRUSY Religion/Education Vice President and 2011 Religion/Education International General Board member

This Shabbat we read Parashat Metzora. Like much of the book of Vayikra, Parshat Meztora deals largely with the laws pertaining to ritual purity. This was an important topic for the time with the Tabernacle in use and the eventual building of the Temple in Jerusalem. The fourth aliyah reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘something like a plague has appeared upon my house.’” (Vayikra 14:33-35)

The previous passage speaks about a skin disease known as Tzara’at, sometimes translated as leprosy. The Talmud and many commentators see Tzara’at as a punishment for the most serious of sins, Lashon Hara or malicious gossip. Just like gossip, the Torah tells us that the plague could spread beyond the individual, to his clothing, home and beyond. Anyone suffering from Tzara’at would be required to separate themselves from the community. This begs the question, why is this part of the treatment process? Why must one reside away from other people in order to be deemed pure once more?

Lashon Hara can spread quickly and affect many people. Perhaps the individual was sent away to prevent their gossip from damaging the community. The disease of Tzara’at does not exist today but that does not mean that we no longer see Lashon Hara. Gossip is just as much of a problem today as it was in biblical times.

Judaism exists within a community and a principle of acceptance can help to make everyone feel welcome. It is this idea that makes our organization so special. USY provides a place for all Jews to come together and express themselves in a fun and safe environment. Everyone has a place and the stereotypes that may exist at school do not carry the same meaning. When we meet for a convention, we put all of our differences aside and become a single community. To quote one Kadimanik, “USY is the place I can always be myself.  Everyone accepts me for who I am.”

The mitzvah for this week is appropriately Lashon Hara or the prohibition against telling gossip. Judaism forbids causing any deception or embarrassment through speech, even if the statement is true. According to the majority of Torah scholars Lashon Hara is considered to be a most serious of sins because of the harm that it can cause.

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