Thursday, April 25, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Missing A Day's Count

Every evening towards the end of minyan at this time of year we “count the Omer.” The source of this practice is in this week’s Parasha, Leviticus 23:15: “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD .”

What happens if you miss a day? According to Halachot Gedolot, one of the earliest halachic collections which dates from the 8th century or so, that’s it -- you’ve missed the mitzvah and you are done for the year. Why? Because the text says to count seven full weeks. Having missed a day, you can’t fulfill the mitzvah.

But Hai Gaon, who wrote at about the same time, says no, we are to “count off fifty days” and thus every single day is its own individual mitzvah. So if you missed a day, you missed the mitzvah of that particular day but that is all. Just as failing to put on tefillin one day doesn’t mean you can never put them on again, or missing one Shabbat doesn’t mean you can never observe Shabbat again.

Normative halacha follows Hai Gaon, although technically one is supposed to continue the count without saying the blessing if you missed a day. In our era, when people are sometimes selective or inconsistent in their observance, we need to remember that every mitzvah is independent of every other mitzvah. Whatever mitzvot you observe are worthwhile and stand on their own; failure to observe one does not invalidate the others.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Rebuke

Again this week we read a double Torah portion. The second portion, Kedoshim, contains Leviticus 19 which is known as the “Holiness Code.” It begins by telling us that we are to be holy as God is holy. It then goes on to tell us some of what that means.

A bit later we read the following: “17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.
18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people; but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am Adonai.”

It is a standard principle of rabbinic interpretation that if two verses appear together they are in some way connected. Here we are told: don’t hate your brother; rebuke him if he does something wrong; don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge; love your neighbor.

Nachmanides, who lived in Spain about 800 years ago, says that the verse means the following: when we think someone has wronged us, we should not stay silent and get angry or bear a grudge. We should lovingly ask the person why they did what they did. Either they will explain why they did it, and we’ll understand and not be angry anymore; or they will realize they did something wrong and apologize. Nachmanides says that often the source of hatred and vengeance is in our failure to communicate.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sums it up this way:  “by being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.”

Friday, April 12, 2013


Certain people are not accepted in society, regardless of their character or intelligence. Today our society is striving to break down our prejudices, and people of different races and ethnicities, the disabled, and gays and lesbians are more accepted than ever before. But we still have a long way to go.

In biblical times, there was a type of person called a "metzora." (Our Torah portion this week is a double reading, Tazria-Metzora.) We normally translate "metzora" as "leper" but the characteristics of the disease do not fit leprosy as we know it today; nor do they fit any other known illness. But the metzora, the "leper," was required to be isolated. In Lev. 13:46 we read  "he shall be impure as long as the disease is upon him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart: his dwelling shall be outside the camp (mi-chutz la-machaneh)."

Israel Independence Day. usually coincides with the week we read this parasha, as it does this year.  Zionism arose in the late 1800s as a movement to establish a Jewish state. The early Zionists considered Zionism to be a cure for antisemitism. For thinkers such as Moses Hess and Theodore Herzl, Jews were analogous to lepers. We were mi-chutz la-machaneh. A Jewish state, they felt,. would be the remedy for anti-Semitism. The leper can come back to the camp after he is purified. Once we are “purified” of our nationless status, we can come back to the camp. The idea is not just that the Jews who live in their homeland will be normalized – even those who choose not to go there will be “normal” as well because we have a homeland even if we don't live there.

Were they right? Did the rise of a Jewish state "cure" antisemitism and normalize the status of Jews?

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Time to Preach and A Time to Hug: Parashat Shemini

This parasha contains the rather puzzling account of the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu when they entered the Tent of Meeting and were burned by heavenly fire. The reason for this occurrence is obscure and on Shabbat morning I will present a Chasidic commentary which stands more typical explanations on their head. For now, I want to look at Moses’ response to the death of his nephews and Aaron’s reaction.

Moses attempts to offer a theological rationale, saying “this is what the Lord meant when he said “through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before the people” -- meaning that Nadav and Avihu were punished for flouting the divine will.

Right after this comment of Moses, the text says “va-yiddom Aharon, Aaron was silent.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his commentary on this verse points out that it is rare for the Torah to call attention to someone not doing something. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People he points out that people in mourning and in pain often ask what seem to be theological questions but they aren’t. If someone suffers a loss and asks “why did this happen to me?” they are not really asking you to explain either theology or the laws of nature. They are really crying out in pain but don’t have the words to express it. So to push the thought a little further, what Aaron needed at that moment wasn’t a theological explanation of his sons’ deaths, he needed comfort and maybe even a hug.