Tag Archives: Disabilities

Parshat Emor (5775)


Leviticus 21 -24

Do you expect perfection of your spiritual leaders?

Do you demand a lot out of your leaders? Do you find that you demand a certain level of perfection in your spiritual leaders and rabbis? Can a leader with defects still be useful and inspiring to the community?

11078623_10153757197976110_119730993_oIn age of the Bible and when the ancient Temples stood, the role of spiritual leadership was held by the kohanim, the Temple priests. This whole section of Torah is related the Temple sacrifice and to the sanctity of these priests.

I come to you today, with my eye drawn to this one section related to the demanding qualities and the harsh disqualifying physical characteristics which pertain to a kohen – a priest. To the section related to disabilities which disqualified a priest from religious service, specifically the odd topic of broken bones.

Though I am not a kohen or rabbi, I am recognized as a leader among many of you. I am returning after some time of being away from the written and scholarly world because of issues relating to broken bones, tumors and surgery; all of which has still left me unable to write well. Yet all the while maintaining my vital active service in my community and synagogue through these limitations. All this has me feeling pretty sympathetic to the priests in this story. But enough about me for now, let us jump right into the lesson and I’ll explain my current struggle along the way.

Now I don’t mean to be presumptuous and equate my work with that of the kohannim – the Temple priests. The role of the kohen was more demanding than any job I can possible think of, not just in laborious physical demands and responsibilities.

I find these thoughts regarding the role of the kohen captured most beautifully by the words of poet David Harris Ebenbach, in the Artist’s Torah:

“In Biblical times, the role of the kohen, temple priests, was an extraordinarily demanding one, and not just in terms of the workload. There was also an expectation that the priests would attempt to do better than a good job – to approach, in fact, perfection in a variety of ways – and that anything that compromised this perfection would render the priest unfit for sacred duty. We’ve seen this other parashiyot where God makes precise and detailed rules for the way a priest should set the temple up and maintain it, how a priest should conduct the sacrifices, even how the priest should dress. Again and again there is the sense that doing things a little bit wrong makes everything turn out extremely wrong.”

The demands upon the kohen were also extraordinary in regard the physical and carnal characteristics it demanded of these leaders. In them, the Torah also demanded a certain level of perfection. And this is what we find described in the greatest detail here in parshat Emor.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of all the ways by which one may become disqualified from the sacrificial service. These laws fall into two categories.

This first category is dealt with in our first aliyah – in our first reading from Leviticus 21:1-15 – concerning that which makes a priest tamei, ritually impure. Such as defiling oneself by coming in contact with the dead, except for the case of a close relative. In like manner the Torah also describes other defiling features, such as shaving one’s head in certain fashions and cutting one’s flesh for the dead. Among this is also includes other defilements and demands, such as those related to forbidden sexual unions: a sexual union with a harlot; or marrying a non-virgin; taking a widow or divorced woman as a wife.

These things are generally understood as clearly being a matter which one has a choice regarding. These things presumably can be remedied, as they are only temporary restrictions. The disqualifications are conditional and specific. This state of tumah which disqualifies him from duty is consequential. Therefore one can restore himself from this state and recompose himself. Even in the matter of forbidden relationships for a priest, this can be solved by sending his paramour away and repenting. Once he does, he can then return to the sacrificial service.

My Hand Xray with Tumor

A tumor was removed from inside the bone of my left index finger, seen here on this xray.

And then there is this second category which starts in our second aliyah – Leviticus 21:6 until the end of the chapter – covering that which rendered a priest mum, or blemished. And in this the Torah becomes even more specific and demanding. We are left to read a number of disabilities which render one unfit for sacrificial service: being blind, maimed or lame; having abnormally long or short limbs; having broken bones. And it also lists other unusual abnormalities which it lumps together; having a hunchback; dwarfism; cataracts; permanent lesions and sores; and even usual disqualifications like having crushed testes makes the list!

This second category of things – those things which are considered blemishes – these are the most striking of all because these things are all matters which a person does not have any choice or control over. These were seen as permanent disabilities, and therefore they permanently disqualified one from their priestly service.

It’s truly astounding to realize that the kohanim were required to be utterly flawless, even in the matters which he has no control over. He had to be free of all these impediments.

This is something which modern readers undoubtedly find shocking, as a form of discrimination. But some of us can almost understand their antiquated mentality of why this was required. Why it was important for Temple priests to be free from these “defects.” Why a certain level of perfection needed to be maintained.

Before I start to diverge in thought, I want to go back and share with you one other precious observation by Ebenbach though:

“Tough to be a kohen, for sure, and understandably – these men were involved in the most important work of the community, work crucial to the soul. What they did on a daily basis could either elevate us towards the divine or, if done poorly, could leave us cut off, bereft. What they did mattered. ”

I appreciate that as an artist he has come to understands the mechanics of the drama and the physical aesthetics, all of which were seen as necessary to facilitate temple worship. He then poses a question to other artists and modern readers in the end. Does an artist have to be perfect to produce art? He concludes that no, he clearly doesn’t. However, one also shouldn’t be riddled with personal issues which distract and get in the way of creating that art.

For a moment I want us to step back into the text to they key verse which caught my interest here. A verse which perks my interest, but which also is kind of a painful subject for me right now in my personal life, quite literally.

In the middle of the listing all these blemishes by which they are disqualified from sacrificial service, we find this listed:

Or a man who has a broken foot |

or a broken hand.|

אוֹ אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁריִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל,

אוֹ ,שֶׁבֶר יָד.

O ish asher vo shever ragel, o shever yad.”

Leviticus 21:20

From this we derive that a kohen who has broken bones may not serve as a priest for the offering of sacrificial offerings. Specifically, having one’s leg or arm broken, as the text literally reads.

Now today in the modern age we don’t have sacrificial worship led by kohanim, instead have prayer’s as offerings. And we engage in learning of the Torah which is led by our clergy. Our leaders are Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and often characters like myself. And luckily for us moderns, we don’t have so many restrictions upon us. And our responsibilities are quite different. Those of us who work for the Jewish community still do the crucial work of the soul and ministering to people’s needs, just in a different fashion.

Work which isn’t isn’t quite so back breaking, which doesn’t require the handling and dismembering of animals. Thankfully.

The most physical work I ever have to do is the carrying of some Torah scrolls around at synagogue and helping as gabbai during the Torah service. Helping out the clergy at the bima. And caring for the sacred scrolls as we transition between the ritual readings and several high points in the service. In a small congregation like ours, my knowledge and assistance in facilitating this is most often needed. Yet even this has come with some great difficulty for me lately, and has left me requiring even a bit of assistance myself.

11071892_10153723617031110_1988370096_o

The large post-surgery cast.

For the past few months I been notably nursing my left hand and arm. And I still currently find myself wrapped up in a series of cumbersome bandages and attention grabbing casts. All this related to some broken bones in one of my hands.

This issue all began a few months ago when I started experiencing pain in my left hand. Thinking that the pain was just something passing and being quite used to physical pains, I ignored it at first. Then one day I heard a crack in my hand, followed by terrible pain. And even then I ignored it for a few more weeks. I didn’t see a whole lot physically wrong at first, but then came the swelling. Of course everyone in the synagogue told me to see a medical specialist, which eventually I did get seen by once the condition became too hard to ignore.

In the end the doctors found a lesion growing out of the bone of my left index finger. Surgeons then identified it as a huge tumor growing out of my bone marrow, one which had been silently growing inside for some time. Getting fatter until its expansion fractured the bones in two places on its way out. A tumor breaking my bones, from the inside out.

The doctors quickly scheduled me for surgery, to remove the tumor and the damaged bone. And the surgeon also rebuild my hand from bone fragments sawed away and harvested from up near my elbow. The tumor was then submitted for biopsy, to make sure it wasn’t cancerous. And the hand and arm was then set in place, leaving me all bandaged up as I was sent home for a few months of recovery.

Of course, any of you know me well enough see that I have been just as stubborn and determined as ever during this recovery. I’m hardly the type of person to lay back and take it easy. Though it appears that I have been missing from the written world, this has actually been the most active time in my life both as a religious figure and as a community organizer.

11046907_10204989875323941_914874807304407853_o

Walking tour with Beth Shalom of Whittier; on Breed Street, Boyle Heights.

All through this crisis I’ve been planning all my many doctors visits and events narrowly close, just to keep up with my civic and religious duties. And just five days out of surgery, I even had the honor of giving a long awaited tour of historic Jewish Boyle Heights to the sweet people of my synagogue. And then from there jumping right into the thick of the Passover holiday. I have all the while been determined to stay in bed no longer than necessary, quickly returning to the joys of public service. Making public appearances as I’ve been capable.

Now I realized I’m not completely healed. I spend a lot of time teaching and directing things right now, but I’m a lot less hands-on with projects right now. Though the bones are set, I am not completely healed yet.

A reminder of this came a few weeks ago when my dear friend Eileen, who is like a mother to me, scolded me as I took a Torah in arm. It was a Passover holiday service which required more than one scroll, and due to a slip in choreography I ended up with a Torah scroll in my good arm during a set of prayers. Carefully cradled so as not to drop it, and to prevent a disruption to the special holiday service. Though as I turned to face the crowd I saw Eileen rightfully wagging her finger at me and later scolding us guys for letting me do it, in her motherly way of course. She is among the many of you who are now teaching me to slow down and how to accept that I’m not whole. And also how to also be patient with myself, as it will heal in due time.

Now you see why I am so drawn to this reading from our parsha about broken bones, specifically relating to the hand and arms of a priest in public service. Now it’s not that I’m just fixated with this issue of broken bones on my own. This Torah portion also seems to be quite fixated and very concerned regarding the topic of broken bones.

Why is this issue of broken bones so important? And why is this condition lumped up with the permanent disabilities?

For those of you who are part of my synagogue family, we will find an answer suggested in the Etz Chaim Torah volumes that we use for service and learning, found here in the isles. [see Etz Chaim, page 720; also cited by Ebenbach] It can be logically deduced, and so it is also suggested by some rabbis, that in the ancient world broken bones were indeed a permanent condition in most cases. In a world without precise medicine and surgical ability, a bone could not be properly set. And for this reason it would often continue to be a source of pain and disruption in one’s body for the rest of their life.

Unlike my broken bones as a modern person with the benefit of medical science to restore me, the same type of injury suffered by one in the ancient world was prone to remaining a permanent disability.

However, the prohibition against a kohen who has broken these bones is not just a practical one, so as not to have one physically disrupting the temple service. Our rabbis also point to another more ritually significant reason, one which keeps with the theme of sacredness which is stressed here in this sacrifice heavy book of Leviticus.

Parshat Emor is said to mention broken bones as disqualifying blemishes three additional times, when in relation to the animals themselves which are being offered up by the priests. In Leviticus chapter 22 – in our third reading – we are going to see this mentioned in verses 20, 22, and 25. Rashi teaches us that one is not permitted to (1) consecrate, (2) slaughter, nor (3) dash the blood on the altar of an animal with broken bones as blemishes. This blemish rendered the offering unfit at every step of the way, and was considered an abomination. [see Rashi, Lev. 22:22]

It is seemingly understandable that just as G-d required perfection for His offerings, so too He also required the seemliness of perfection in those priests who were appointed to offer them up.

Now before we move on, I need to remind us that we are talking about a blemished kohen only being disqualified from being a priest who could sacrifices offerings on the altar. He is rendered unfit for this service alone, however his state as a priest remained. As long as he remained ritually pure he could continue to partake of his benefit as a priest in eating of the priestly portions, as we see also described for the rest of the priestly household here as the Torah continues on to the end of the chapter.

The sages and rabbis also held that a priest was still viable to participate in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, one of the highest points of the ancient service. We know very well that the blemished priest could and did extend their hands in blessing towards the people of Israel in the ancient Temple, when it was physically possible for them to do so.

Now there is a rabbinic prohibition, one which relates to the calling up of a kohen with blemishes. A revealing text, we find in the Mishnah:

“A priest whose hands are deformed, may not raise them [to bless the people]. Rabbi Yehudah also prohibits it to a priest whose hands are stained with woad or with madder roots, because the people stare at him.”

כהן שיש בידיו מומין,לא ישא את כפיו. רבי יהודה אומר: אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות אסטיס ופואה, לא ישא את כפיו, מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו.

Mishnah, Megillah 4:7

Generally we know that the prohibition, both by biblical and rabbinic standards. relates to noticeable deformities. One is prohibited from ascending if they are deformed either from their body or upon their body. The first being a noticeable deformity growing from the body, much like my tumor once it grew out the bone and to the surface of my hand.

This latter case of hands simply being stained, being an example of blemishes caused upon the body; presumably staining his hand dying cloth. A blemish to his body, simply as result of a priest having to take up a trade to help make ends meet. This staining was an occupational hazard and not a deformity. The marks of a working-class man. Yet it disqualified kohanim nonetheless.

The reason given for this prohibition is the most interesting thing yet. Why should a kohen be prohibited from performing his sacred service? Surprisingly, it’s not because G-d simply doesn’t want “inferior” people offering up His worship; a thought which somehow comes to mind for many fundamentalists. No, a more sensible reason is provided for us. So that this person will not be gawked at as they perform this sacred service.

In the Gemara we would later see this prohibition also seemingly extended to feet injuries, speech impediments and even being blind in one eye. All these things which might cause people to stare at the priest as he blesses. Interestingly, in the end the rabbis proved this prohibition to merely be pragmatic, as the talmud would finally conclude that if a kohen was well known enough that his condition raised no suspicion among the congregation then his service was permitted. (See Talmud, Megillah 24b)

Again, this prohibition is purely pragmatic. So that when a kohen ascends to engage in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing – that people should not inadvertently stare up at the kohen. [It is our custom to not look up at their extended hands as they are blessing, in reverence and awe.] Disrupting and distracting from the sacredness of this blessing, which in many traditional congregations is still one of the highest point of our service.

So now let us answer for ourselves, why is this point so important? Why is this even an issue at all? The answer should be obvious to all of us. The truth, it is the awe and wonder of the moment is what makes our worship so very powerful. A great deal of the power of the service is the drama, as it rises and falls with choreographed precision. Prayers with words which are carefully chosen and precisely delivered, invoked to elevate both emotion and spirit.

Yet, our tradition knows how distractible we are as people, especially to anything which we perceive as unusual or off-putting. Be it found in the offering, or found in the person of the priest offering it.

Our rabbis narrow in on this point in the Sefer HaChinuk, regarding our biblical prohibition against the elevation of a kohen with blemishes: [Thank you to Aharon Varady for helping me properly locate this citation.]

“From the root of the mitzvah: Since people ascribe value to activities based on the importance of the performers of those activities. A person who appears imposing and well mannered will find more favor in all that he does before those who see him. In the opposite case, a person who is of low form and unusual appearance will seem unworthy in the eyes of his beholders if his actions are any less than perfect. It is therefore appropriate that the person on whom atonement depends be of pleasant appearance in all facets so that people will attach their thoughts to him. Aside from this, it is possible that in his perfect form there is a hint to certain concepts, for as a person contemplates [the perfect form] he will purify his soul and elevate it. Therefore it is improper for there to be anything unusual in any form in him, lest the soul of the contemplative be scattered due to the anomaly, for it would then be moved from the purpose.”

משרשי המצוה. לפי שרב פעלות בני אדם רצויות אל לב רואיהם לפי חשיבות עושיהן, כי בהיות האדם חשוב במראהו וטוב במעשיו, ימצא חן ושכל טוב בכל אשר יעשה בעיני כל רואיו, ואם יהיה בהפך מזה פחות בצורתו ומשנה באבריו, ואם אינו ישר בדרכיו לא יאותו פעלותיו כל כך אל לב רואיו, על כן באמת ראוי להיות השליח שהכפרה תלויה עליו איש חן יפה תאר ויפה מראה נאה בכל דרכיו, למען יתפשו מחשבות בני איש אחריו. ומלבד זה, אפשר שיש בשלמות צורתו, רמז לענינים, שמתוך מחשבות האדם בהן, תטהר נפשו ותתעלה, ולכן אין ראוי בשום צד שיהיה בו שנוי צורה מכל צורותיו, פן תתפזר נפש המחשב מצד השנוי ותנוד מן החפץ.

Sefer HaChinukh 275:2

Interesting, and also very revealing. The truth is we as a congregation are often quite consciously observant regarding the leaders offering up our blessings. Yes. We hold them to a higher level of accountability. Just as close to faultlessness as we expect in our worship, we also expect this to be embodied in the people offering it up before us. A distinguished person, but not one whose issues are distracting.

We expect the art of our religious experience to shine forth, without the artists being a distraction to the creation of that art.

Yet, in the end our tradition finally comes to recognize that the “blemish” is not always such a great matter of disturbance for the sufferer himself, but for the congregation instead. It lays fault for any exclusion squarely upon us as a congregation, and not on the person himself.

I’m glad to say that at the synagogue where I am a member and teacher, at Beth Shalom of Whittier, we have an inclusive and progressive community. One where unkind gawking or unfair exclusion is unthinkable. We welcome everyone to participate, including those with disabilities and special needs. We find this to be as blessing and not a distraction!

Shmuel Gonzales, 6th Street BridgeAnd this is what I have in mind and heart today. This is what turns-over in my head as I ascend the bimah this week. A thought I keep in mind as I once again snicker at myself, unnoticed to anyone but myself. As I secure my tallit around me and over my ever present punk rock jacket, the one with the anti-swastika pin. As I march forward unlike any other guy in the room: in Doc Martin boots, studded belt, piercings here and plugs there. A queer and ethnic person. A working-class Latino, from the wrong side of the tracks. Imposing only in personality, but a shadow of as man I used to be. Who is now far too thin already from my long battle with chronic conditions and constant threats of terminal illness.

There are so many things about me that are unusual and sometimes breathtaking at first sight, altogether different from what people expect of a “good Jewish boy.” And so many hard issues related to my health and body, things which make me less than whole. And yet the only thing that makes people stare, in loving concern of course, is my brightly bandaged hand and arm. Sometimes distraction remains, but it’s a good thing in this case!

I am coming to realize a truth, one demonstrated by you all. That despite the superficial blemishes people like myself may have, we can still be inspiring and a joy to the community.

For months now I have risen before many of you to say some prayers and help us elevate our worship, burdened with these noticeable casts; white, black, red, and black again. Mostly helping people as I try to be as hands-off as possible. Hopefully for this week is for the last time, bizrat hashem. Thankfully the tumor was found to be benign, I will make a full recovery. I will be back at it after some physical therapy helps helps me get it moving again. But thank you all for your support through all of this. Shabbat shalom!

Related articles:

Advertisements

Parshat Kedoshim (5774)


Leviticus 19 – 20

Because “I Meant Well” Doesn’t Cut It

As we come into this week’s parsha we cannot avoid the fact that this week’s theme is holiness, Kedoshim means to be holy, to be sacred. Our parsha is named after the key word that leads this parsha, and the leading word in the phrase: “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani Hashem eloheichem / You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy.” (Levitcus 19:2)

We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often trusting us to blindly to lead them. If we misadvise someone, its just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall

“We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we mis-advise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall”

The Torah begins to detail what it means to be holy. Respecting your parents, and observing Shabbat. (v. 3) Not making worthless idols, but instead showing respect for the sacred service of Hashem. (v. 4) This all keeps in mind with lofty sacredness we normally associate with religion and tradition. (v. 5-8)

But then our Torah immediately begins to challenge us with addition demands which are not so heavenly, but instead focused on the way we treat other people. The Torah suggest that part of holiness is displayed by how care for our fellow man. At this time we are also commanded to leave behind some of the remaining crops after the harvest, and to leave the corners of the field so that they can be collected by the poor, and the stranger – the ger the resident alien (or the convert). (v. 10-11)

And then the Torah makes even more demands, ones of an ethical nature. That we do not steal, that we do not falsely deny people their property or deny our true intentions. That we not lie to our fellow. (v. 11) Lest we believe these demands are merely good civil suggestions, we see that our Torah presses the issue of honesty as being a matter of spiritual significance.

We cannot be dishonest with our fellow and expect that it to not eventually have mirroring consequences for how we respect the creator of man – Hashem our G-d. We are told that we should not be false because it can inevitably lead to one falsely swearing or testifying by G-d’s Name, and thereby, “chilul Hashem eloheichem / profane the Name of your G-d.” (v. 12)

This part of the Torah is elementary for every Jew. We understand that we are to deal fairly and honestly in all our dealing because our actions can lead to the desecration of G-d’s Name. It’s more than just taking a false oath and testifying dishonestly after swearing by G-d. We also understand that as Jews, as religious Jews, our actions have consequences. Acting poorly reflects badly upon our faith and diminishes people’s respect for our G-d. We drag G-d’s Name down into the muck with us when we act unethically.

Simply put, the command to be holy is so important because the world cannot comprehend our G-d as holy if the people who claim to represent Him act appallingly. This call of holiness is not just a demand for us to rise to holiness, but also a stern warning not to diminish the holiness of our righteous G-d through our actions.

So what are we next warned again? We are further commanded not oppress our fellow. To not rob them. And to not withhold the wages of the workers. (v. 13) The Torah talks about paying a laborer in the manner of a day laborer, at the end of the day and not stiffing them or holding out.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the plight of the many immigrants to this country who are most often oppressed, robed of all they have on their road to freedom, and then upon arrival most often exploited in employment because of their illegal status. Day laborers in this country are openly exploited in some of the most appalling ways.

The strangers in our midst – the ger, the immigrant and the convert – this is most often their reality. Being unfamiliar with our ways and at the mercy of the suggestions of others they are taken advantage of by not just the locals, but most often by other immigrants who insincerely swear they are merely looking out for this person’s best interests. But even if its obvious that is not true, the stranger isn’t in a position to defend themselves and therefore just learn to deal with it. As people siphen these laborers dough and resources. I see things like this near everyday in the barrio, with inappropriate demands and unfair pay. As I see it, the Torah’s commands are no less relevant to us today.

Before we move on, I would hope that we all make a commitment to deal fairly with all workers, both with our own citizens and the strangers in our midst. Even day laborers are entitled to a fair and timely wage according to our Torah!

However, today we are going to focus on the final verse of our first aliyah, verse 14. This next commandment related to holiness is the least understood of these statements. It reads:

“Do not not curse a deaf person.

Do not place a stumbling block

before a blind person.

You shall fear your G-d – I am Hashem.

| Lo-tekalel cheresh

| velifnei iver lo

| titen michshol

| veyareta me’Eloheicha ani Hashem

Leviticus 19:14

The placement of these commands should make sense to us. We have talked about the poor, the stranger, the laborer, and now it deals with the disabled. Specifically the deaf and the blind. That one should not curse them, nor be tricksters with them. One might ask themselves who would be cruel to a person and take advantage of them based on their condition? You would be surprised the callousness some people have. It should be severely obvious to us, we are commanded do not to mistreat the disabled.

Because it is also unthinkable to our rabbis that people should be so overtly cruel, the rabbis have tried to focus more deeply upon this message to make us realize that this commandment can also apply to each of us in more subtle ways.

Our sages are of the opinion that it is unthinkable for us to curse any living person, let alone a deaf person. That when the Torah makes this command it is merely to double reinforce this for their benefit! So our rabbis pretty much walk away from this saying not to curse anyone, but especially not the deaf. Because they can’t hear you, it’s cruel and unfair.

I agree with the sages on this. Our rabbis tend to see all of this verse in a more symbolic manner. They further draw ethical lessons from these verses for the benefit of all people. This has also been my understanding as I read these verses.

For example, the first phrase of our statement “do not curse a deaf person” also has figuratively meant to me to not get angry with people when they cannot hear what you are saying. When they just don’t have the ears to hear, they just aren’t capable of listening or giving heed to better advice.

Rashi’s advice also seems to follow a similar line of logic as we continue with the commentary for this verse, regarding the blind. The Rashi for the blind reads:

You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person: Before a person who is ‘blind’ regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him. [For instance,] do not say to someone, ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey [with the proceeds],’ while [in truth] you plan to cheat him [by advising him to sell his field for a very low price for your own purpose,] since you yourself will take the field from him [for this low price].”

ולפני עור לא תתן מכשל: לפני הסומא בדבר לא תתן עצה שאינה הוגנת לו, אל תאמר מכור שדך וקח לך חמור, ואתה עוקף עליו ונוטלה הימנו:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

Rashi likens a person who is knowledgeable and clueless in a matter to one who is blind, for a person is indeed “blind” in that matter. When one can’t see for themselves what is true and what isn’t. They can’t see the path or dangers ahead, so they are dependent upon us to help them navigate that path. Since our trusted advice leads the way, it’s no less cruel to trip people up with advice than it is to physically stick out your leg and cause them to stumble. Sometimes our bad advice, that can be a stumbling block to others.

Rashi even outright tells that based on this command we are forbidden from giving advice that is improper for a person. We are commanded to keep in mind the best interest of the person, and not our own interests. Rashi tells us we are forbidden from giving advice which benefits us, instead of the person we are advising. That we benefit, as they stumble.

Furthermore, our rabbinic tradition seems to suggest to us that we should not be loose with handing out advice for which we have a financial interest in. Rashi makes this example, its like giving bad real estate advice to the needy, when your intention is to make a steal by acquiring their property below market value. Our rabbis thereby would suggest it is inappropriate for us to go around giving advice for which we have personal and special interests in, for which we ourselves profit.

Why not? Simply because it’s nearly impossible to be objective in one of those situations. That should be obvious.

Personally, I don’t necessarily like giving out personal advice to people. I always wait until asked, and I am always pensive about my responses. Making sure to keep in mind the situation and needs of the person I’m talking to. And always trying to leave my own interest out of it. But more often than not, I’m usually simply listening to people and helping them figure how to pick and approach the best of the choices present in their lives.

Honestly, I prefer to give my personal advice to people privately. As the internet is rife with people who loosely hand out advice on things. People who give you hokey advice, then want to “click here” to buy into it.

Personally I strive not to be one of them. I hope to share the personal knowledge I have, so that people can make better choices for themselves. But I believe the Torah herein tells us to be careful regarding our intentions when we suggest things to others.

Now the Internet personalities out there most certainly get upset when you pose it that way. Because it is very easy for one to snap back, “But you don’t know my intentions!” Precisely one cannot truly judge another person’s intentions, that’s another reason yet why we should restrain ourselves:

And you shall fear your G-d: [Why is this mentioned here?] Because this matter [of misadvising someone] is not discernible by people, whether this person had good or evil intentions, and he can avoid [being recriminated by his victim afterwards] by saying, ‘I meant well!’ Therefore, concerning this, it says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d,” Who knows your thoughts!’ Likewise, concerning anything known to the one who does it, but to which no one else is privy, Scripture says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d.’” – [Torath Kohanim 19:34]

ויראת מאלהיך: לפי שהדבר הזה אינו מסור לבריות לידע אם דעתו של זה לטובה או לרעה, ויכול להשמט ולומר לטובה נתכוונתי, לפיכך נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך המכיר מחשבותיך. וכן כל דבר המסור ללבו של אדם העושהו ואין שאר הבריות מכירות בו, נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

One of the reasons we need to keep from doing anything that looks inappropriate in our dealings with others is because they have no way at all of knowing our intentions. For in such a case, when things go sour, what is else can one say? Other than, “I meant well!” and, “I had the best intentions!” But the truth is that is insufficient of a statement. In fact Rashi and our rabbis would suggest that is merely a knee-jerk way of avoiding recrimination.

Rashi instead speaks to a person who uses such an excuse through this last clause, saying that you should fear G-d. Because He really does know whats going on inside your head, and in your heart. Therefore fear G-d – or more appropriate, show respect for G-d – and know that He is privy to your private thoughts. One should consider if their intentions are really so pure, or if they are instead colored by personal bias or financial interest. And be aware that even when we don’t consciously recognize it, G-d does know and will judge us accordingly. G-d seeing all the factors, even the ones we choose to leave out and ignore.

When we do things that are inappropriate and non-transparent we not only jeopardize our own sacredness, but we also profane the Name of G-d. When we engage in things that may appear inappropriate we show a shocking lack of respect for G-d, not just for man.

Lesson of the Week: We ought to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we misadvise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall.

Related articles:


Parshat Ki Tavo (2013)


Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Tithing and Tzedakah: Charity during the Holiday Season

handstzedakahcharityThere is never a polite enough way of saying to people, “You need to do more to help the down-and-out!” However, it’s something we face this week as the Torah makes us admit that “I forgot” really isn’t an excuse.

As we enter our study this week the holiday appeals for charity are already ringing out from our congregations and favorite Jewish programs. We consider Rosh haShanah the start of our civil year, and with its arrival we begin to regard our civic concerns. We consider our finances, and most often begin to set aside money for membership dues, children’s education and tzedakah; figuratively meaning “charity,” but literally meaning to do justice (tzedek) for the poor and the needy.

As if the coming season doesn’t remind us of this already, the Torah portion for the week also brings attention to our giving. I normally don’t like to harp on the message of monetary contributions of charity, feeling the spirit of giving has been grossly distorted by some greedy religious leaders. But we cannot be dissuaded from discussing what is right simply because others might do wrong with its message. For Jewish people, the giving of charity is something we all tend to hold with high regard and have positive feelings about. Understanding the meaning of the word tzedakah we see that charity is synonymous with social justice.

Among all the things that Jews become introspective about during this season of repentance, Jews also pay special attention to our charitable contributions. One expects to be judged for their ways on Rosh haShanah, one doesn’t want to be found neglecting their ethical responsibility as we go into this season. Have we given this year? Have we set aside a tithe for charity?

But from where does this custom of giving derive? Is it a biblical commandment? That is what we are going to look at today as we study our parsha. We will pick up with the text at the top of the second aliya:

“When you have finished tithing

all of the tithes

of your produce in the third year,

the year of the tithes,

you shall give them to the Levite,

the foreigner,

the orphan,

and the widow

so they can eat until they are full

within your gates.”

| Ki techaleh laser

| et-kol-masar

| tevu’atcha bashanah hashlishit

| shnat hama’aser

| venatatah la-Levi

| lager

| layatom

| vela’almanah

| ve’achlu vish’areicha

| vesave’u.

Deuteronomy 26:12

Last time we looked at this parsha we talked about the celebrations and ritual requirements for the settlers of Israel as they go into the land. (see Parshat Ki Tavo 2011) After their first harvest the Israelites are to bring bikkurim – the first of all the produce – which are to be presented to the priests in the Temple. This is the first of such offerings that is set down by Torah, which takes up the whole of the first aliyah to discuss.

Now in our second aliyah we are getting beyond the general terumah (priestly offerings) and begin to discuss ma’aser – the ten percent portion (from eser, Hebrew for “ten”) – which we call the tithe.

From a straight forward approach it seems clear. In the third year of the seven-year shmitah cycle (the agricultural year and fallow cycle), after all the different tithes are separated one is to take out the tithes and give them to the Levites and the needy of the community.

The rabbis, as you would see from Rashi’s commentary, seems to complicate the matter a bit by further breaking this down into first and second tithes. However, these are merely practical considerations for how one would actually apply these principles in an agrarian society that centers around a Temple.

However I would bring out attention back, and let us take notice that we are talking about separating a portion of our produce (tevuah) that is grown in the occupied land of Israel. In a literal sense, the tithe is only offered of crops and grains from the holy land.

For this reason there is a machlochet as to whether or not we are biblically required to give tithes in diaspora. We have no Temple and active Levitic priesthood to bring our offerings to. Furthermore, most of us are not farmers. We no longer live in a primarily agrarian society, the system of giving no longer matches our economy.

Though the most accepted religious view is that we are not halachically required to give a tithe in galut, it has still become the custom of Jews to give ten percent of their net income (the amount left after all deductions) towards tzedakah – for charity. There is a reason we don’t harshly apply the full weight of rabbinic laws regarding tithing, because with a first and second tithe given consideration one can be required to give as much as 20% of one’s earnings. However today we go with the simple view, and in keeping with the spirit of the Torah we give a straight tithe of 10% of our earnings after deductions.

The reason I have to stress all of this is because the biblical way of applying tithing is not at all like the practice we actually have today. Jews in the biblical age had to give a lot of offerings. Think about it. The first of all our harvests, a portion of each successive harvest of crops, and then a second tithe given for the poor. Not money, but crops. That’s a lot of giving! This is what we mean by “kol maaser / all the tithes.”

I also stress this because in the English language the term tithe also comes with some negative Anglo connotations. When people hear “tithe” we generally understand that as meaning a church tax. That is the mental picture of the English speaker, of preachers calling out to the masses to give them their 10% to help keep their “ministry” going. But this is not the correct understanding of tithing either. A tithe is not a payment for being a member of a congregation.

Sure there is a portion that is set aside for the Levitic priests and their descendants. However, the Torah here in our parsha also lumps giving to them up in a tithe which is also set aside for the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.

At first it might not seem apparent why these people are all lumped together here. What do they have in common that we are to separate a tithe for them?

Simply put, they are all people who have no true income because they have no land to farm. Levites, as priests and civil servants, are given no permanent settlement of land. The priests are instead sustained off the tithes of the people. The foreigner, orphan and widows are also people with no land or way to provide for themselves. They too must be sustained from tithes.

Our Torah calls us to give as part of a religious obligation. However it does not call us to give for merely religious purposes. It puts our giving for spiritual endeavors on the same level as giving for the destitute.

This truth cannot be avoided, when it is summed up that the reason that we are to give is so that the needy within the gates of our cities will be able to eat until they are satisfied.

Here in this parsha our Torah calls out to people to give. It doesn’t just theoretically call for us to be generous and charitable people. It identifies people who are needy, and then tells us we need to give so that they will not go hungry. Not just so they will not starve, but we should give generously so that they can eat well and be satiated.

Our Torah plays hardball with us by giving names to the needy, and then demanding that we provide for them.

The Torah stresses this point again by naming these people a second time, as part of a confession that is to be made by a person presenting their tithe. Our text continues:

“And you shall say before

Hashem, your G-d,

‘I have removed the sacred portion

from the house

and I have also given it to the Levite,

and the immigrant,

and the orphan,

and the widow,

according to all the commandments

you have commanded me;

I have not violated your commandments,

nor have I forgotten [them].”

| Ve’amarta lifnei

| Hashem Eloheicha

| bi’arti hakodesh

| min-habayit

| vegam netativ la-Levi

| velager

| layatom

| vela’almanah

| kechol-mitzvatcha

| asher tzivitani

| lo-avarti mimitzvoteicha

| velo shachachti.

Deuteronomy 26:13

As one gives their tithes they are made to confess this. They vow that they have separated all the tithes. And then like we are following a check list, the Torah once again reminds of all the people who need our assistance. It calls them out by name to us.

We are told to confess in more than one way that we have properly tithed: we confess that we have followed the laws, that we have not tried to avoid these commandments, and that nor have we forgotten them.

Our Torah tells here in this parsha that we are commanded to give to people in need, we are not to avoid giving to them, nor are we to forget to give to them. Not only does our Torah point out the needy in our communities, but it gives a name to them and tells us that using an excuse that you forgot about them is not an excuse at all.

Giving Tithes for the Financially Challenged

I am a person that is physically disabled. I live off of social security, and assistance from generous friends and family. The amount of money that a disabled or retired person collects is often very little. How can a person with limited resources do their part for charity?

Our Torah is quite practical. It does not demand that we endanger ourselves by extravagant giving. There is no form of piousness in giving more money for charity than one can afford. In fact, our Torah even puts a cap on how much we are able to give.

As previously discussed above, biblically we can interpret the tithe system to go as high as 20%. There are indeed some great poskim that believed that one should regularly give 20% of their net income to charity and did so (the GR”A, the Vilna Gaon; and the Chasam Sofer being among them). This is as far as we can extend the laws of tithing rabbinically, and this is the cap to which we are allowed to give.

The Talmudic text for this also reveals the reason why we are to be levelheaded about our tithing:

“Rabbi Elai stated: It was ordained at Usha that if a man wants to scatter money lavishly, he should not squander more than a fifth (chamesh), or else he will also become one in need.”

אילעא באושא התקינו המבזבז אל יבזבז יותר מחומש תניא נמי הכי המבזבז אל יבזבז יותר מחומש שמא יצטרך לבריות ומעשה באחד שבקש

Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 50a

The reason, per the gemara, that one cannot separate more than a chamesh – a fifth, or 20% of one’s money for tithes – is because if one gave more than this they may be putting themselves at risk. If we instead give sensibly we will be able to keep ourselves and our future resources to give sustainable.

One thing a person on a fixed income needs to consider first is what their net earnings are. That is important and is not as obvious as it seems. Most consider their earning what they make after taxes. This would make sense, because if you are paying say 20% in taxes on a $1,000 dollars, you only bring home $800. All your check is really only worth $800. Thus we use the net earnings.

Furthermore, for most of us our real “earnings” can be even smaller than that. Often times there are reoccurring monthly expenses like paying for your Medicare insurance plan, transportation costs and all kinds of expenses that eat up your paycheck even before you get home. Those expenditure need to be taken into consideration, as those also cut back our true take-home pay.

The halacha is also very receptive to special needs. For example, in the case of people with small children the halacha allows us to take special deductions if we need to in order to help us meet their needs. Some things like babysitting expenses cut into our income. Sometimes children’s tuition is just too hard to manage. We are also allowed to deduct those expenses from our tithable income figure up to a certain age (6 yeas old per halacha, but extended up to 16 years old per the law of the State of Israel). Simply put, charity starts at home.

For any person on a fixed income we need to ask ourselves how much is left in our pocket as spending money? From that we can consider giving a 10% portion, that is reasonable if we can afford it. That amount is a sacrifice that is proportional to our own financial state, and still allows us the pride of also doing a mitzvah.

Programs I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people build a life after addiction.

  • Chabad of California – Among all the many programs that Chabad offers, the least well-known are their many rehabilitation and social service programs that are non-sectarian and open to all.

  • Mazon – a Jewish response to hunger.
  • Open Siddur Project– One of the finest projects on the Internet, helping transcribe and develop Jewish liturgy as a free and Open Source library.

  • World ORT – Empowering Jewish communities in Latin America and the former Soviet Union, and 60 other countries around the world. Using state of the art technology to provide education and vocational training, enabling people to make their own way in the world.


%d bloggers like this: