Tag Archives: Gender

Tu biShvat: The active, virile energies it addresses in nature and us


The development of the seder, and what we can learn about our will for assertion from this tradition

Tu biShvat – the New Year for the Trees – is probably one of the most enjoyable, and yet one of the least understood, holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a highly mystical holiday, and also deeply connected to nature. And because us moderns tend to be quite detached from both the mystical and the natural world, it’s hard for us to connect with this frame of mind. It’s often hard – especially for those of us who are primarily urban business people – to connect with the land and do it in a most spiritual way.

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog (Israeli citron) trees breaking soil!

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog trees breaking soil! This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

This is especially more so for us Jews outside of the land of Israel, where the agricultural issues of how to manage the crops of Eretz Yisrael and where observing the related halacha isn’t something we really experience.

This holiday marks the agricultural fiscal year in the land of Israel. This is when all the trees are accounted for in the land, allowing the growers to know when it was appropriate to harvest from a tree. This accounting made it possible to know when to observe the many agricultural related Torah mitzvot; such as to give first-fruit offerings from a new tree, and when to mark for the agricultural sabbatical years (shemitah) in the land, and from what point to give tithes from ones crops. (see Leviticus 19:23-25)

Notice that this year is the shemitah year in Israel, where we don’t plant or harvest in Israel. We let the land rest and lay fallow in the holy land. But here in the diaspora most people are unaware of it. Like I said, it’s hard to connect to this outside of the Land of Israel. Where the seasons might not jive and the cycle doesn’t apply. This makes it difficult to grasp and appreciate, this cycle of life in Isreael. And this can even be unnerving to some, who do not hold Israel dear. As indeed, this holiday does ask us to consider the nature and produce of the Land of Israel. And it also calls us out to actively connect with this very land.

But this holiday which we know today comes down to us today as an outgrowth of both spiritual and secular reinterpretation. Ones which have greatly shaped the holiday and the way we celebrate it today.

The kabbalists of the middle-ages – those Jewish masters of mysticism and the esoteric – they were deeply connected to the land of Israel after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and upon their arrival in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There the symbolisms of this holiday came alive for them as they began to renew the land. And there they were also able to discover deeper spiritual meanings to this observance and to the traditions surrounding this holiday.

Out of this tradition we received the seder for this holiday, as documented in the “The Pri Etz Hadar: Fruit of the Majestic Tree seder for Tu biShvat by Rabbi Natan Binyamin Ghazzati (ca. 17th c.),” a deeply mystical text intended to help people take a spiritual accounting of their growth and produce on a soul level. This text first documented the customs for the Tu biShvat seder we know today. A source text made popular among Sephardic and Chassidic masters, being close adherents of the mystical schools.

Of course, as the age of enlightenment arose many people began to neglect the deeply mystical practices. And intern this holiday of Tu biShvat fell into neglect by many in the next couple centuries.

However, another huge revival and re-envisioning of this holiday – this time a secular one – would come about as the result of another direct encounter with Jews and the land of Israel. Actualized as part of the Zionist dream during the 19th and 20th century, during the rebirth of the land of Israel and the formation of the modern, secular State of Israel. This holiday would take on the role akin to Arbor Day, and focus upon the restoration of the land of Israel. Planting trees and restoring the wildlife of Israel, which had been stripped bare in the many wars, crusades and occupations.

For many Jews in diaspora, Tu biShvat would thus also come to hold significance. A day in which we direct our focus towards Israel. To try to connect with eretz Yisrael in the most direct ways possible. Many contributing to the restoration and preservation of the land. The world over, Jewish progressives and religious Zionists would come to observe this day by giving tzedakah (charity) for planting trees in Israel. This day noticeably marked with the passing around of the Jewish National Fund pushka.

Believe it or not, especially for Orthodox Jews in America, the giving of tzedakah for planting trees is one of the only ways most of us remember observing the holiday as kids. I was talking about this with my friends who were former yeshiva bochurs as we planned for the holiday this year. Except for obtaining from fasting, which isn’t necessarily an observance in and of itself, that was about it. Raising money in diaspora and physically planting trees in Israel was the most pronounced observance any of us remembers. One which was less likely if you were haredi, and therefore not Zionist leaning.

In the orthodox world I remember we would all do a little learning, but few people held a full Tu biShvat seder in those days. Most likely, because few people knew exactly how to perform it well enough. Which is quite sad because the seder is dripping in symbolism which should be most meaningful for those who are fully immersed in the verbiage of kabbalah and chassidus. And yet, we admit we have often been lacking in our application and enthusiasm.

Of course since then, a lot has changed. Newer siddurim and the advent of online resources, more people are finding the seder more accessible. But the reviving observance is also greatly motivated by a growing interest in kabbalah in society today. An interest which many traditional movements are thrilled to be meeting, so today there is a lot more promotion of this holiday more than ever to address this interest.

However, for the most part the most success in incorporating this holiday into the consciousness of diaspora Jews has come during the latter part of the 20th century and during the turn of the 21st century has been made by progressive Jews. By diaspora Jews who have brought the lessons learned in modern-day Israel to the rest of the world. Who have witnessed the melded of the secular with the spiritual in the modern-day State of Israel. And who have in this model taken the holiday and made it more socially conscious in our own lands. And who have also come to mark this day as an opportunity for their communities to become socially and politically active regarding the environment and nature. Realizing that we wont bear fruit until we break ground through social action.

In this spirit the holiday of Tu biShvat has come to be embraced the world over as a Jewish Earth Day Celebration of sorts. Where people not just celebrate nature, but actively show their green thumb and their social activism. A time when one gets to show their love for nature and vow to preserve it.

The latter reason is probably another factor for why this holiday of Tu biShvat is more well observed among progressives and less so among conservatives in America. Be it personal discomfort with being called a tree-hugger, one’s dissociation with nature… or even worse, ones troubling environmental politics. What ever the reason, many religious Jews in the Americas show neglect towards our observance because of our personal sentiments we need to correct.

Today I want us to take the time to focus on a tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair within ourselves. So intern we can be more effective in making a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world! We need to have both.

A Peek into the Mystical Aspects of the Tu biShvat Seder

And that is precisely what this holiday is about according to our kabbalistic tradition. Making a tikkun (a correction) within ourselves.

And more specifically making a correction within our male energies and over our sense of assertion. This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

And this is where I fear I might lose readers, both nervous males and bashful females. I’ve noticed I can talk as much as I want about the feminine aspects of G-d’s shechinah these days, but talking about masculine things is something many are becoming less accustomed to! Men and women, both equally, show discomfort at times. However, I think that whatever our gender is we can all learn a very important lesson by looking at the very masculine and assertive essence of this holiday of Tu biShvat.

I don’t want to make it weird so let me explain what I mean, and use the paralleling examples we can draw from. At this time of year we are approaching the spring harvest two months from now, which is the biblical new year; that is something most of us know little about. So instead let us look at the opposite side of the calendar, and compare it to the coming of the civil and religious new year – to Rosh haShanah; that is something we seem to all naturally know more about. I’m sure many of you will immediate recognize the polar distinctions between these two seasons in our tradition.

When we think of the season of Rosh haShanah we think of it as a season with female spiritual correspondences. The season of Elul and Tishrei are often regarded as a feminine and receptive time of year. This month of Elul, its kabbalistic Zodiac sign is the Beitulah; the virgin which corresponds to Virgo, explained as the same virgin (beitulah) of Libra with the scales of justice (moznayim) in hand. This symbolizes the receptive nature of the virgin earth, during the season of plowing of the land. It also represents Din – or judgment, which is also seen as a feminine aspect of the Divine. As we know, we are making selichot in that month of Elul, in preparation towards being judged in Tisherei. That season is characterized by judgment and restriction.

But at the same time the season of fall is an intimate season, in which we are to mystically mirror a young virgin longing for marriage and intimacy. When we want to mirror that longing in our relationship to G-d. That is why we also consider Rosh haShanah our wedding day to G-d. From that point of spiritual reference, we focus upon our receptivity.

See, that wasn’t so hard. Not too difficult to talk about. And even if we are not kabbalistically learned, most of us recognize these themes. Now let’s see if we can grasp the other end of this.

In contrast, at this time of year we are supposed to be focusing on the more masculine correspondences displayed in these upcoming months. Now during Shevat we do not consider this season barren, this is now the time of the almond blossoms breaking forth. The ground will soon start to break forth with life, and with the hopes of budding of fruits to come.

We are now going into the fertile months. Two months from this night, we will be looking up at a full-moon like this and celebrating Pesach; we will be eating the produce of the spring wheat harvest, and counting towards the barley harvest until Shavout. This is a seminal and groundbreaking time of year. A very virile and fertile time of year!

We aren’t the only people who see this, consider how strong the theme of fertility is present in the cultures around us as this season approaches. As the common culture will soon find their celebrations also entrenched in symbols of fertility; as they decorate everything in eggs and bunnies. This theme is starting to be in the air for many cultures the world over, not just for us alone. It’s not hard to recognize and understand this seasonal contrast.

In contrast to the feminine and receptive nature of Rosh haShanah (and Beitulah), the spiritual new year of Pesach is a strikingly masculine holiday. And so is Tu biShvat. The Fall nature is barren and receptive, the Spring is asserting and springs forth. We know what we are talking about here, as traditionally cultures have often binarily called this “masculine initiative,” so we get what this means. I don’t need to be too explicit, I think we all get this.

Notice how the kabbalistic zodiac sign Taleh, the lamb in our tradition or a ram, it corresponds to the spring month of Aires (the month of aviv, spring; Nissan); it displays the masculine spiritual forces par-excellence. It represents an active and domineering partner in its spiritual attributes. It displays the Divine aspects of Chesed – that passionate and ever-expansive type of love. That fiery and lusty energy is what takes center stage as this time of fertility draws close.

Now we really need to pay special attention to this point. And I think if we examine our own drives we can clearly connect to these points in every person. That what this side of the Divine essence represents is that power of assertion we have inside us. That drive to want to assert ourselves in life and in our relationship to other things. It signifies that ever-expansive desire to aggressively assert ourselves over nature and life itself. To take whats barren and make life spring erect from it.

These are the words and themes mystically woven together in this Tu biShvat seder. For those who are attuned to kabbalah and chassidut we know that part of the this tikkun we are making is within our own personal will and drive to assert ourselves; and to bring balance to an ever-expansive type of chesed in us, as displayed by masculine aspects of the spiritual forces used in the text of the seder. (Abba, Tzedek, Yesod, etc.) It calls us to consider and make tikkun (correction) for an expansive love and passion on overdrive.

Take a look at the Pri Etz Hadar when you get a chance. Notice that the seder wording clearly makes those parallels in how it speaks about making a correction in Yesod (the phallus), and by means of this expressing how our over expansive drives are so seen as a form of unchastity. As we are embracing the virile energy at this time of year, we are also asked to be equally mindful in using that power responsibly. It calls us to make a correction in ourselves, related to bring balance to our own carnal desires and actions. Instead of giving completely over to this virile drive we are called to bring balance to it. Asking men in the traditional text to be mindful that they might be over-expansive in their carnal passions, and to make a tikkun (a correction inside ones self) for that.

This is a lesson which was learned though nature, and which needs to be applied back in our relationship with nature. At the heart of the Tu biShvat seder, under all the layers of mysticism, that is what it is doing by calling us to on all levels overcome a base-level drive inside of ourselves to assert ourselves over nature and be more responsible with the power we assert over the earth.

At Rosh Hashanah in Fall we are called to be mindful of being receptive and properly submissive in our nature. But in this coming season of Spring, we are asked to be mindful of our will to assert ourselves and to expansively spring forth.

For those who are brave and honest with themselves, we need to be asking ourselves some questions deep inside our souls at this time. Privately ask oneself:

  • Am I over-asserting myself over the earth in a damaging and disrespectful manner? Am I being over-expansive in respect to the earth?
  • Am I over-asserting myself sexually, using it in a damaging and disrespecting manner? Am I being over-asserting in my sexuality?

The Seder and the Four Worlds

Now the structure of the Tu biShvat seder shows us how to apply this vigorous expansiveness, how to properly apply all this Chesed. And addresses how to become more effective in this aspect, both in our passions and actions. It does this by taking us on a journey up the scale of the kabbalistic Four Worlds of ABiYA:

Assiyah: The world of Action

Yetzirah: The world of Formation

Beriah: The world of Creation

Atzilut the world of Emanation (actualization)

In this seder we start our frame of reference grounded in the physical world of action, and we are moving towards pure thought which we perceive as being in the fiery heavens (where the sun and stars burn in the sky) as the mystics perceive of this path. We are moving upwards, elevating our senses and drives and thoughts to even loftier heights.

tree labeled four worlds kabbalahBut it all starts with activity, this process begins with us starting within the world of action. It starts with us putting our hands into action. And then as we begin to act, we can then better perceive of how to form and inspire creation in this world.

This holiday orients us and points us forward, and up. Directing us to strive on for a higher level of thought and passion which is beyond constriction, understood as the world of Emanation (Atzilut). Where G-d is One and the world is one. At this highest level of consciousness, we are trying to actualize a world without striving, restriction, disunity and lack; where there is completeness and wholeness.

Now I’ve said a mouthful, and I know very well that most of us aren’t mystics. I know not many of you consider yourselves too spiritual or mystical. Many of us are moderns and progressives, people who are not wrapped up in a world of mystical symbolisms as others. I understand this.

But that is the beautify of this holiday, it doesn’t require us to be at a place of lofty spirituality. The spiritual exercises of this holiday starts us firmly on the earth, in the natural world and in this very realm of physical action. All we need to do is focus on how to bring our actions better in line with our most loftier thoughts.

This tradition of ours doesn’t tell us we need to attain great spiritual heights. It just tells us to start with our actions, and to elevate our thoughts which inspire our actions. We don’t need to be concerned if we reach Atzilut, really. We aren’t literally trying to reach perfection, but what is important is that we are striving towards bettering and perfecting this world towards that more ideal reality. And doing a tikkun, making a correction, for those defects we recognize in this world.

In both our actions and with our passions as previously discussed, we are asked to become more conscious about our sense of assertiveness. That is what I want us to keep in mind as we make our way through the Tu biShvat seder this year. How to make a tikkun in that area of our lives as well.

Reflection: Now I don’t really think that traditional Jews are less observant than progressive Jews in respect to this holiday, just less enthusiastic about it sometimes in diaspora. As it is noticeable that progressives have started to do more visible activism during this holiday in the west. And that’s a chesed, it’s a really great thing!

In actually, I don’t believe one side is necessarily more observant or correct than the other. But that traditional Jews and the progressives Jews today are often approaching this holiday from different sides, but for the same goal:

  • In the orthodox circles, people are and often have been more attuned to their tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair in oneself.
  • And in the progressive circles, people are generally more attuned towards a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world.

However, the reality is that all of us need to be working towards a tikkun in both these areas, and do so more seriously during this season. Our tradition actually calls us to deal with both. We can’t really achieve one without the other, so we need to bring balance to both.

Tu biShvat Seder Resources:

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Parshat Vayeishev (2013)


Genesis 37 – 40:21

Finding Friendship in the Company of Outcasts

Do you have a friend that always accepts you no matter what? Is that your idea of a good friend? What type of friends do you have in your life? Are they cronies or are they partners for greater things? Today we are going to explore some friendships born under pressure, and explore what makes them most intimate.

Though most of this parsha seem to concern itself with the uppity Yosef haTzadik, I actually found myself drawn in to the story of our anti-hero Yehuda. We don’t often give enough look at him, first because he is a villain of sorts up until now. Secondly, his story is sandwiched in the middle of our parsha, so it feels like just a minor stop-off. However, we have a lot to learn here in Genesis chapter 38.

Let us take a look at the top of our fourth aliya:

“And in time its happened that

Judah was demoted in the eyes

of his brothers,

so he turned to certain Adullamite

whose name was Hirah.”

| Vayehi ba’et hahi

| vayered Yehuda

| me’et echav

| bvayet ad-ish Adulami

| ushmo Chirah.

Genesis 38:1

Previously we learned that Yehuda was chiefly responsible for his brother’s kidnapping and the consequential selling of him into slavery.  For his role as antagonist in this case, rightfully his brothers demote him. The word use is vayered, they made him decrease or go down. His yeridah (descent) was not just metaphorical, it was also physical as he ran away from his blessed home and went to stay out in the wilderness with a friend he made from Adullam, in the Valley of Elah.

Male Friends Embracing

This week we discuss friendships. Why don’t we talk enough about the need of men to have male-friendships?

I use the word “friend” because this is the type of word that is used in the scriptures to describe the relationship that there was between Yehuda and Chirah. Not just once does it use this word, but twice in this chapter we hear of Chirah as Yehuda’s, “ray’ayhu / his friend.” (see Genesis 38:12, 20) The text also seems to suggest they might be business partners, as the first mention of friendship also states that they went up to sheer their sheep together as if this is their shared trade.

Now what type of friend is this that Yehuda has in him? I once heard the crass phrase: “Friends help you move. But real friends help you move bodies.” This here friendship of course was not that bad, but it was pretty close to being partners in crime. They were close friends that depended on each other and that held each other’s secrets. A friendship that in a time of need one can depend on the other for help in getting out of their mess. In each other they had a friend that wouldn’t turn away out of judgement or disgust.

Now this type of friendship is rare. In fact we don’t often hear of this type of interdependency in our tradition. Of this type of re’ah (רֵעַ), of this type of friend. One of the few places that we hear of this type of relationship is during the Sheva Brachot of the marriage ceremony. We pray that a couple should find in each other, “ahavah v’achavah, v’shalom v’rayut / love and fraternity, peace and friendship.”

Finding a good friend can often be just as hard as finding a good spouse. Finding someone in whom you can trust and even expose your most intimate things to is not at all easy.

What Yehuda needed in a friend was someone who would not just understand him as much as his wife did, but someone who was trustworthy enough to help him defuse a secret that one would normally keep from  their wife!

In quick summary, Yehuda had a childless widow of a daughter-in-law who desperately wanted a child. According to the custom it was her right to have a male brother of the husband’s clan help her conceive, in order to enable her to keep her status and land holdings through an heir. Because one of Yehuda’s sons did wrong by her and subsequently died on account of it, he refuses to let another of his immature boys get involved and thus she is left in a state of hopelessness.

However, we read here in this chapter that one day Yehuda came across this woman, Tamer his daughter-in-law. Her girlfriends had told her that he was coming into town, so she sought him out to again make her case. One night she was waiting on the side of the road for him as he was coming back from partying. We can only assume in a drunken stupor. Dressed in a veil, Yehuda mistakes Tamar for a prostitute. In desperation she goes along with it, and she does in fact conceive by this act.

The crux of the story is that Tamar is given a signet ring, a tassel and his staff as a guarantee for her payment of a goat that he is promising her. Though she takes these items knowing they will be needed to prove the paternity of the child she hopes to conceive.

When Yehuda comes to, of course he needs to follow through on his promise. And better yet he needs to claim his cherished items that can identify him as a player. So he sends his most intimate friend, Chirah the Adulami with his ransom.

In the end we read that eventually Yehuda learns about Tamar’s pregnancy in a complicated and dramatic plot twist. And he does claim the twin sons as his own, clearing her of any wrong doing and even praising her. He was the one that had twice acting unbecoming; first by his refusing his adult son to her for her redemption as a lady, and secondly by using her as an outlet for his very typical, macho sexual appetite.

It is true that on the surface we don’t see Yehuda repent of his sexual act. We are almost forced to accepted that men are cheaters, and that polyamory is the norm in that age. What he did was shameful, but according to their societal norms it wasn’t that wrong for a man. Though it is also true that the act he performed as an evil-impulse ended up manifesting as a chesed (a kindness) anyhow. Still this story does not put Yehuda in the greatest light. It’s not something to be proud of, rather something one would normally prefer to keep private.

So private is his wrong, this silly act of giving a his most important belongings away, that only his best friend can be trusted to help him clean up the mess. He sends his friend Churah the Adulami, to help him keep his word. In this friend he found someone who was not just a casual friend, but someone who was intimate enough to know the privy happenings. All the sexual secrets, the financial indiscretions, and the personal failures.

We might want to mark this man Chirah as an enabler. Or even as a lousy friend, considering we all know that friends are to set each other straight. They are the people who should be most bold and stern with us about our ways. Instead it looks like he is helping him out and trying to get him out of trouble. But really Chirah is helping him do right by this woman. Our sages will call him a tzadik for this, they see him as a righteous man.

The other reason we need to value the mention of Chirah is because he deserves the credit of being friend to the broken Yehuda after he hit rock bottom. Here Yehuda is holding guilt on his conscience, and the weight of the blame for the brothers that conspired with him. He is running out in the boarder regions, with no one else in the world willing to have him. Then Chirah not just took him in, but also became a friend that accepted him with no judgments. If anything his interest was to mitigate the situations of Yehuda’s folly.

The place that Yehuda was in both mentally and physically was very rough. He was in no place to be left alone. He was there because he was an outcast. In fact, the scriptures seem to suggest that is exactly the reason he was there. Yehuda is not the only person in the scriptures to be run away to Adullam. We know of one other great but lusty man who was exiled and hid there, it was Kind David himself.

In the book of Samuel we read of David’s escape from the pursuing King Saul, he was on the ruin in fear of his life. The scriptures tell us precisely that he “vayimaleit / he escaped;” he fled to the cave of Adullam, he was running for his life. (see 1 Samuel 22:1)

Now what do we know of this place and why people go there, other than it is remote and so obscure of a place that some people dwell in its caves? The scriptures tell us this about the locals that were willing to gather there, and about the people who were willing to venture to this rough side of the tracks:

“And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him [David]; and he became captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

וַיִּתְקַבְּצוּ אֵלָיו כָּלאִישׁ מָצוֹק וְכָלאִישׁ אֲשֶׁרלוֹ נֹשֶׁא, וְכָלאִישׁ מַרנֶפֶשׁ, וַיְהִי עֲלֵיהֶם, לְשָׂר; וַיִּהְיוּ עִמּוֹ, כְּאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ.

1 Samuel 22:2

Here we see that the place where Yehuda had previously gone to hide during his exile, David had to go there during his time of exile and trouble as well. This is skidrow, this is rock-bottom, that is what Adullam represents.

Though there are some differences between Yehuda’s situation and that of David. Yehuda was there merely to hide out, and it just so happened that while he was there he met a friend that helped him out and helped set him back on his feet. Yehuda had to be developed, and as strange as it seems this was where and how Hashem put someone in his path to accomplish that. A friend that kept him busy with companionship and enterprise, instead personal misery.

However, in David’s situation it was a little bit different. You see David was there with a purpose. He was there as part of a political and social revolution. He was feared by the king so he was on the run. Though while hiding out in the hood he made connections with all the people who were also in distress and helped make their cause his own. He partnered with the other people who were in distress and dire straights. The people who were crushed under the burden of debt, the people who were tired of the bitterness (mar-nefesh) in their society. He organized them into a band of brothers to fight for his noble cause, today we recognize that as a seminal part of our Jewish history.

Now through this we learn something interesting about friendships in general. The Rambam tells us that there is more to friendship than just having good friends or bad friends. He contends there are more levels to judge how deeply your friendship goes, and it’s more than just the distinction between personal friendship and professional camaraderie in his mind. The commentary of the Rambam for Avot tells us this:

“….as the men of mussar say, ‘Do not establish friendship according to your nature; establish friendship according to your friend’s nature.’

When each of the friends conducts himself according to this directive, then the desire of each one will be to fulfill the will of his colleague. Thus, they will both share a common goal. How appropriate is the statement of Aristotle, ‘A friend is another self’ (Ethics 9:4).

There are three types of friendship: friendship of function, friendship of pleasure, and friendship for the sake of a higher purpose. Examples of friendships of function include a business partnership, or the relationship between a general and his army.

There are two types of friendships of pleasure: friendship of enjoyment and friendship of security. An example of a friend of enjoyment is the relationship between men and women in marriage, and the like. A friendship of security is when a person has a friend on whom he can rely without withholding anything from him, neither deed nor word. He reveals to him all his matters – both good and bad – without worrying that he will shame him – either in private or in public. When a person is able to trust a friend to this extent, he will derive tremendous satisfaction from his conversation and his company.

A friendship for the sake of a higher purpose refers to a situation where both individuals desire and focus on a single objective: the Good. Each will desire to be assisted by his colleague to attain the good for them both. This is the type of friend [the mishnah] commanded us to acquire – for example, the relationship between a rav [rabbi, teacher] and his student, and between a student and his rav.”

Rambam (1135 – 1204 C.E.), Commentary on Avot 1:6

I think these words hold many truths for how we should select friendships, and how on many different levels we can develop that relationship. Our sages lead us to a very interesting perspective as to what we should define as a “quality friend.”

Discussion: One of the things that I feel is very much left out of the discussions these days is the topic of intimate male companionship and friendships. The deepness of relationships that men can have with each other.

In this day and age we thankfully have many lectures about women’s relationships. For instance, we are more than comfortably to talk about the friendship between Ruth and Naomi. Discussion groups in progressive shuls are more than willing to talk about “The Red Tent,” and jump into fantasy about women united through menses and bosoms. But you can’t seem to have a talk in the common culture anymore about friendships between men in the bible without it being branded as “gay.”

We are so uncomfortable about male intimacy and friendship, that people just rather assume the notable male relationships must be homosexual in nature. To me that not only sounds insecure and small-minded, but oddly homophobic to latently suggests something is queer about having close friends of the same-sex. We joke of these friendships as “bromances.”

Is it not possible for men to also have the same type of close emotional and biological ties we know exist for women? That males can also have good, quality, platonic, yet intimate friendships as well?

If anything, what we have learned today has taught us that are times we can indeed have platonic, same-sex friendships that are just as wild as those girls on “Sex and the City.” And yes, at times the love of a friend and the stimulation it sparks in us does seem to rate higher than even our marriage relationship might in certain areas. It’s just a different form of friendship, in a different context. But it is a very natural thing, and shouldn’t need to treated like a deviance.

How do you think the Jewish community should better engage the topic of the beauty of male friendships?


Parshat Tazria-Metzorah (2013)


Leviticus 12 – 15

Childbirth and the Implications of Purity: Is the Torah Being Sexist?

Mother and InfantThis week we are going to deal with ritual purification of people. This topic spans several seemingly distinct and diverse topics. This section deals with both ritual purity related to childbirth, and ritual purity related to tzaraat – a skin infliction commonly known simply as leprosy in English. It deals with issues of purity (teharah) and impurity impurity (tumah). As you see we deal with the incidental forms of impurity such as childbirth, and the consequential like tzaraat that is a divine punishment for lashon hara (slander). We deal with male childbirth, and female childbirth; and the sacrificial system that was set up for returning one to world of communal ritual after a initial birthing period has passed. It also explains how this happens for the person with tzaraat as well. This week we will mostly deal with the women’s issues.

Now I understand why many people are not so familiar with this section of Torah, except for the references related to gossip and slander. Often times people just skim over the rest in discomfort, over the seeming grossness of it all. I have even noticed in a lot of the commentaries, especially those for the youth, we just pass over this section related to the purity of women all together. Of all the verses that most of the commentaries choose to point out, it is the seemingly oddly placed third verse (see Leviticus 12:3) related to brit mila (circumcision) that we point out. I find this odd considering this is the one verse that our masters like Rashi ignored.

First before I seemingly get too critical, I must remind us that there is almost a logic to why we have done this. Circumcision is the paramount mitzvah, it’s the officiating sign of Abraham’s conversion, and for this reason is called brit milah because it is “the word of the covenant” or the “covenant promise;” milim means words or promises; interestingly it also means chatter or rhetoric. Maybe the topics of slander and purity are not so far off as we make them in our imaginations, but I digress.

As we learn from this section of Torah it is a serious thing that we stop all activities to perform. We take circumcision so seriously that it is nearly a universal custom for all Jews, even for the people who are not born into a religious family. Oddly even for someone who fell off the turnup truck like me, my family knew enough to have me circumcised just in case one day I did decide to be religious; I’m sure most of you from a suburban, secular background get this. Everything stops and we perform brit milah on a boy at eight days old because here in this section of Torah it specifically tells us to:

“On the eighth day

the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

| Uvayom hashmini

| yimol besar orlato

Leviticus 12:3

From here we derive the custom of preferably performing it on the eighth day, and during the daylight, performing the mitzvah literally b’yom – meaning “on that day.” It is so important of a mitzvah that we rush to perform this on the eighth day even if it coincides with Shabbat! It is not just because the reception of this commandment predates the acceptance of Shabbat as our heritage, it is because this is a direct stipulation of the mitzvah itself as presented here. It stands alone as a positive mitzvah.

Now we should all be asking ourselves, why does it have to be on the eighth day? We can come up with folk logic and anecdotal medical theories as to why, but the truth is that the placement of this mitzvah does show that it is kind of related to the topic of female menstruation which is the first verse of this parsha (see Leviticus 12:1).

And this is why a lot of people don’t discuss it, first on the part of immature men who are too grossed out and oblivious about women’s reproduction to discuss it. It’s not just an issue of being tznius, its more of being squeamish about talking about a woman’s period. On the part of women, it’s because many of them are appalled that the Torah talks about a women’s period in terms of ritual purity; thinking we are talking about cleanliness instead of a state of ritual accountability. I want to remind us we are not talking about cleanliness at all, we are talking about being ritually pure to perform public and religious service, after all we are in Leviticus that concerns itself with priestly order and function more than anything else.

I’m not saying that this only applies to the priestly caste, no it relates to everyone. However this is a place in the Torah where we see the functions of the citizen Israelite and the priests meeting. No really, their obligations don’t just coincide but the priests and the Israelite actually meet up for reason of inspection of their ritual purity at a certain point after their time of separation and immersion in a mikveh. The priest are stated here to be the ones who determine if a person should return to ritual service in all cases; both after a form of “menstruation” which is childbirth (which is just a clumsy way of saying a vaginal discharge), and that of a skin discharge or irruption like tzaraat.

Despite how this looks on the surface, the Torah is not singling out women here. Nor is it degrading them, even though it can be almost seem like it is by some of the simplistic and quaint divrei Torah that men like to give about women’s issues. I’ll admit, there are a few reason that an egalitarian person might find themselves a bit appalled with the traditional take on Torah here. The first reason presented by most females is that the waiting period before returning to the Temple is twice as long if she gives birth to a girl than if one gave birth to a boy, and because the Torah present’s women’s menstruation first when dealing with human purity. Furthermore women’s menstruation is juxtaposing with the description of what makes animals kasher (kosher, meaning appropriate) and their blood.

I have to admit, maybe some men understand more about Jersey cows than women’s reproduction, but the Torah isn’t degrading women to the level of farm animals. Nor is it suggesting that we treat women like a piece of meat. Bodily discharge, as stated and presented throughout this parsha, is obviously an issue for men as well as women; chapter 15 of Leviticus details a mirroring immersion and purification process for a man with a seminal discharge to round out the message.

I have a personal reason why I believe the Torah starts our with women when it discusses human purity. First off, because women are the source of all life. The Torah does present the species of animals in a certain order in the creation story, and it does mirror that when presenting animals in Leviticus; domesticated animals, wild beasts, birds and then lastly the human animal. (see Rashi for Leviticus 12:1) But when it comes to the human animal is starts with the woman first, from whose womb life comes forth. Also, a female discharge be it related to menstruation or childbirth, it is just a matter of nature in the same way being a ritual unclean or not is a matter of nature for an animal. It’s not something they can help, it is natural and not consequential.

And because it is a natural process it is more recurrent, it’s probably logical that we deal with this one first. And also because the issue of female discharge is going to be something that is factored into the reason why we choose the eighth day to circumcise. It’s also going to hold some implications for how this affects the length of the then taharah period.

Though the topic is lengthy I want to try to keep it as simple as possible for us. We start out with the “yamim kimei nidat devotah titma / days of the menstruation period for which she is unclean.” She is unclean for seven days after her discharge, then immerses in a mikveh and at nightfall is ritually pure (tahor) and she is thus no longer tumah (ritually impure). Upon inspection we see that the man’s time of impurity is also seven days. This is always the case.

The reason why the menstruation period is first mentioned and then the circumcision is because we do not delay to rush to perform the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision). We need the mother and the child with her to be reintroduced to the midst of the camp and dedicated into the community of Israel as soon as possible, and the morning of the eighth day is the first time possible. Both circumcision and naming is on the eighth day when he is presented.

Though this idea seems to hold some merit, one thing it does not answer for us is why the period of tahara is twice as long for the women who gives birth to a girl as it is for a woman who gives birth to a son. Nor does it answer for us why her nidah is also twice as long, being 14 days for a girl instead of 7 days as with a boy.

The period of waiting for a boy is 33 of tehara after 7 days of nidah; combined we get 40 days. I’m sure most of us see so many significance we can draw from that. But I ask us all to remember, she is only unclean for 7 during her nidah period, but after that she has a state of blood-purity (tehara) for an additional 33 days for a boy. For a girl however the additional days of tehara is 66 days; combined with 14 days nidah comes to 80. It rounds them for one to be exactly double of the other.

But notice it does not say that she is unclean, no she is in a state of purity (tehara), so even if blood (or spotting) emerges from her she is considered pure. Thus if this occurs she is not forced to dwell outside of the camp as a quarantined person, like one recovering from a physical affliction. True, she is not permitted to bring an offering yet until after her tehara period has passed, even though she is already considered clean and back in her own home.

And this is what the command is primary about, namely to give a mother time to bond with her child. Though a woman is returned to the comfort of the community, she is not demanded to return to the regular tasks of daily life. This is made clear to us by the words stating that she should not touch “kodesh,” meaning she should not eat of the holy donations or offerings of the Temple, nor should she enter into the holy Sanctuary. Though this offers an extended break from returning to the burdens of life for all new mothers, it is especially so for the Levite mothers by not requiring them to be active in the mechanism of Temple worship until after a time of rest.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the generations of Jewish mothers and the rebbetzins of our communities. Too often we consider the work of the rabbis and spiritual leaders, but forget the equal contribution that has been made by their partners. More often than not we get a two for one deal, by receiving not only a shliach but also gaining an equally dedicated partner along with them. Most often these are the people who plan our events, provide the elaborate onegs and simchas, work as educators, organize charity work, perform counseling and engage in the visiting of the sick, and a myriad of other tasks that people assume just happen on their own. Many times people think of the women contributors of our communities like we do the female Levites in this story, we fail to see the contribution they make because we perceive of their job of being present in the Sanctuary in order to consume the kodesh only as a privilege, but not for the truly demanding responsibility that it is. We fail to see all the background work and demands that come with it.

The Torah thus prescribes a forty-day rest for a mother after she gives birth to son and eighty days after giving birth to a daughter. In order to allow a time of rest, providing the mother her space to bond with the child and to recuperate both physically and emotionally. This also relieves her of the requirement to be examined by the priest for a question of ritual uncleanliness until after this resting period, which intern releases her from any type of concerns that would subject her to being set outside the camp for any reason.

It is true that our parsha does have one seeming inequality to it, something that almost can’t be helped giving the culture during the age of the Bible. The Torah through this command does show a great concern with introducing the male child quicker to the world of Jewish ritual than it does with females. Though a circumcision does not require one to go to the Temple, it can and will be performed literally anywhere and on any day of the week that the eighth day falls on; special considerations of ritual cleanliness would not play here. But it does for instances of a first-born male, which should be redeemed by the priests (traditionally done anytime after 31 days after birth). Our Torah does give preference that a male child should be able to be introduced to the full religious community as early as 40 days after the birth of the boy.

Though the period is extended to 80 days for the birth of a female. However even in this inequality the Torah appears to me to show a certain sense of tenderness. It seems to me to extend the period of assumed “blood cleanliness” and suspends health inspections of the mother and her daughter, as logic dictates that this would be more true in the cause of females (who are prone to spotting).

However I think it goes a bit deeper. I believe the reason for allowing a double portion of rest for the mother who gives birth to a daughter is because our Torah understands the unique bond between a mother and daughter that should not be so rushed. A mother should not be so quickly rushed away from the bedside of a daughter that she uniquely relates to through empathy and a unique form of consanguinity.

Whereas our parsha fails to deliver in “equality,” it does something touching in asking up to give twice as much chesed (kindness) to the females in our lives.


Parshat Yitro (2013)


Exodus 18 – 20

Anshei and Eishet Chayil: Resourceful Men and Women

Shabbat Candles - Eishet ChayilParshat Yitro is not a particularly long parsha. It’s three small chapters, but it only really has two major themes to it. The first is the set-up and delivery of Moses’ father-in-law’s advice as to how to govern. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) The second part is the set-up and delivery of the Ten Commandments episode.

I want us to take a look at the first part of this story this week. In it we are told that Yitro advises Moses that what he needs to do more that just be the representative of the people before G-d, bringing all their issues before Him. Moses needs to also delegate and deputize people under him to help establish law and order. We read the following statement being made to him:

“Moreover you shall select from all the people

men of valor who fear G-d,

men of truth who hate gain.

And you shall place over them

leaders of thousands,

leaders of hundreds,

leaders of fifties

and leaders of tens.”

| Ve’atah techezeh mikol-ha’am

| anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim

| anshei emet son’ei vatza

| vesamta alehem

| sarei alafim

| sarei me’ot

| sarei chamishim

| vesarei asarot.

Exodus 18:21

Moses is told that he needs to establish a chain of command under him. Leaders are appointed over certain sectors of the population. Some leaders only in charge of as little as ten people, then there are people above them that supervise a larger population of say fifty, another to supervise one hundred, and then authorities continue in like fashion until they represent thousands of people as magistrates. At the top of this leadership was Moses as a final office holder in this structure of appellate courts. But Moses function would be to advocate for them, not just before G-d but “mul Elohim / against G-d.” Thats what it means by he shall bring their cases unto G-d. He represents them as an advocate for the people. (Exodus 18:19)

There are two sets of qualities mandated for the people who are to be judges and magistrates under Moses. First is for them to be “anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim / men of valor who fear G-d.” Second is for them to be “anshei emet son’ei vatza / men of truth who hate gain.”

The second of the qualities hardly needs explaining when we are talking about appointing judges and authorities. They should be men who are honest, people who hate “vatza / profit.” People who are not concerned with amassing money. Most often this term vatza comes with more than just a connotation of greed, but the idea that one gains profit from dishonest dealings. In 1 Samuel 8:3 we see this shown to be on the level of bribe taking. Instead these judges should be honest men, who can’t be bought off.

In this same vein as this it should make sense for us to understand the term “anshei-chayil / men of valor,” to mean men who aren’t afraid of doing what is right. Men who can’t be intimidated or bought through bribes or blackmail.

Normally when we think of the word chayil we think of someone being brave, like a soldier. This is very fitting because this word variant can be used to describe people as individual fighters (chayal, soldier; chayalim, soldiers), but also a unit of men called a chayil can also mean an army (see Isaiah 36:2, 2 Kings 18:17). Earlier in this book of Exodus we even explicitly see the forces of Pharoah that got destroyed in the sea called “l’chol chayil Paroh / the whole army of Pharoah.” (see Exodus 14:28)

If we think along these lines we should understand that a person that is called to be a leader needs to be a valiant and fearless person, not necessarily that he is combative. We are talking about a brave man who is not afraid to fight the good fight. This is what it means in essence to be a “ben chayil,” or as we would say a mighty man. (see 1 Samuel 14:52, also used in the plural “bnei chayil / men of valor” in Deut. 3:18). It is their bravery and strength that we are considering when we used this term. We are describing their character more than categorizing their profession.

The fact is that in order for one to be able to resist the pressure of bribes or intimidation that is often levied against those in authority one needs to be a very brave person. One must to be fearless. But surely it’s not their combative nature that is sought here. I can say this with some certainty because when most of us religious people think of the term chayil we don’t think of bnei chayil. No instead we think of an “eishet chayil / a woman of valor.” (see Proverbs 31:10, Proverbs 12:4) And no one wants a combative woman, don’t just take my words for it, the scriptures even attest to this, “Do not give you strength (chaylecha) unto women, nor your ways which obliterates kings.” (Proverbs 31:3) No offense to women soldiers, but the ideal of a womanhood is not to be warring brute. I don’t think it is any different for us men though.

I say the ideal character for a woman, because the way that most of us know the term chayil is through one of the aforementioned examples of the term Eishet Chayil where it is a virtue. Every Shabbat evening in religious homes it is the custom for the family to gather around the table and for all to sing from Proverbs 31 before Kiddush. The family praises the wife and mother of the house as a women of valor (eishet chayil). It is reinforced into us since we are young boys to find this type of woman, and for girls to aspire to be this type of person, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is above rubies. The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, and he has no lack of abundance.” (Proverbs 31:10-11) A matriarch of a family should be a woman of valor, virtue, strength and substance. In the Eishet Chayil we praise the ideal woman.

Now as we think back to our parsha, and we try applying this type of characteristic to men, that they should be anshei chayil – men of valor – we find that our teacher Rashi also stresses this point of substance. His commentary understands the text as follows:

Men of substance: (anshei chayil)

wealthy men, [or the bountiful]

one that does not flatter

or show favoritism.”

אנשי חיל: |

עשירים, |

שאין צריכין להחניף |

ולהכיר פנים: |

Rashi to Exodus 18:21

Now I must admit that Rashi’s interpretation rubs me the wrong way. I whole-heartedly disagree with his understanding, I don’t think that the rich are any more better suited to govern others. Nor do I necessarily believe that the wealthy are less likely to show favoritism and partiality. That is not how it appears to me, especially in this day and age where the wealthy corporate voices have taken over politics. Especially in a country like America, where it is notorious for people who are major business owners to get special tax incentives and no-bid contracts merely for having financial clout and social connections.

So why does Rashi make this point at all? It is because the word chayil does actually mean substance. And in some cases it means more than just substance of character, it also means to be of monetary substance. During the blessing of the tribes we read of Moses blessing Levi this way, “Hashem Bless his substance (chai’lo) and accept the work of his hands.” (Deut. 33:11) There are several places where chayil clearly means riches (see Isaiah 8:4, 30:6; Genesis 34:29)

Now the reason that Rashi says this is not because he is following some conservative political doctrine that says that people who are bigger money makers show through their wealth that they are wise enough to be in-charge. He is not asking us to ascribe to some type of libertarian view that government should be run like a business and people good at finance should be allowed to be larger decision makers in our society.

His reason is revealed in his commentary for the words “hating monetary gain.” Rashi says therein that a judge should hate to have their own property in litigation. They are not frivolous litigants or quick to sue a person. Or as others understand it, not just that they are not in legal and financial dispute but that they should not owe money to anyone. They should be above reproach financially and be independently wealthy. One is more prone to be honest if they don’t need to gain anything by swaying justice one way or the other.

And sadly for me that is one reason I believe that his point doesn’t necessarily fit our current society. Today the wealthy often placed themselves in charge in order to advocate the gain of their own upper-class. They often come out of the corporate lobbying world prior to holding public office and go right back into it when they leave office. More often these people, because of their familiarity, become crooked as they are just not brave enough to stand up to pressure of their peers or colleagues. They are rarely people whose nature is to hate dishonest gain, people who are already satisfied with their existent wealth. The corruption in our culture tells us this is not true for us today.

I do not believe that to be among the anshei chayil (men of valor) means to be a rich man any more than it I believe that eishet chayil means a “rich woman.” Men and women of wealth are not any more capable than people of modest means. In fact we have one notorious eishet chayil mentioned in the scriptures that was not rich at all, she was a penniless widow that needed to be redeemed by Leverite marriage; Ruth, the grandmother of King David! Notice in Ruth 3:11, of her it is said, “…for all the men of the gate of my people do know that you are a virtuous woman (eishet chayil).”

However it must be said that this word does give us the connotation as a term that can be applied to a certain quality of person, a person that does show great capability. In Genesis 47:6 when Pharoah gives the land of Goshen to Joseph and his family to settle he tells him, “…and if you know of any capable men (anshei chayil) among them, then put them in charge of my livestock.”

And this is most likely what this term “anshei chayil” means. It means men of great capability, of exceptional leadership qualities.

No I don’t believe anshie chayil means rich men any more than eishet chayil means a rich woman. Most certainly I can’t deny that if we use the example of the text of the Eishet Chayil as a comparison, I cannot say with certainty that it cannot be suggested to mean “woman of substance;” meaning that finding a well-off bride is a catch as good as finding rubies. In the biblical era the giving of a dowry was common. It may seem odd to us today that people would pay men to marry their daughters. However we must also understand that women did not have the rights of owning property or making a living outside of the home. Marrying off your daughters was an interesting dance of trying to find the best person to not just be a provider for her but to also take on the inheritable property of the family. Sure, sometimes a man could make out well by marrying a prominent bride, but I don’t think this is what it means.

True, if we look at the Eishet Chayil text in Proverbs 31:10-31 we do see that this woman brings great gains for the husband and the family as a whole. Though if we carefully consider it we find all this is kind of striking because of all we think we know about how generally patriarchal ancient Hebrew society was. It is not the picture of a woman who is too fragile to work, or a lady that is too inept to be in involved in business. She does bring financial gain and prosperity to the home, but in this praise of women of virtue we find a description of a very empowered and capable type of woman. Her contribution of wealth and success is not incidental, it’s not just through happenstance like inheritance. She is said to seek out fabrics and fibers to work into cloth. (v. 13) She is competent at imports and purchasing. (v. 14) She not just feeds the family day and night (v. 15), but she also invests in land and farms it with her own hands (v. 16). She clothes her own family, and cares for the needy of the community. (v. 19-22) She not only makes garments for her family but she also fabricates them and other merchandise to sell for profit. (v. 18; 24) She is not just a passive contributor to her family, she is praiseworthy because of the work of her hands and she reaps the benefits of the fruits of her labor (v. 31) She is so good at business that her husband is said to sit at the gates with the elders of the land, instead of engaging in work he is hearing cases of law and studying Torah in the public square with the rest of the men of status. (v. 23) She is not just a woman of resources, she is resourceful.

If we consider this description of the Eishet Chayil it should not necessarily sound weird to us, especially those of us of haredi backgrounds. Even thought gender roles are notoriously strict in the ultra-orthodox world we still see that this description of an Eishet Chayil actually is quite appropriate for haredim, more so than even for the secular. Quite frankly, it is actually quite common in the haredi world for many men to not seek out a typical profession. Often times when a man marries it is common for the family to not just give seforim (holy books) as gifts but also its quite customary for the family of some brides to subsidize the income for the couple so that the husband can continue to study in a kollel – a yeshiva, a Torah academy for married men. Fervently religious people encourage the husband to get the best Torah learning he can so that he can help raise children knowledgable in it. It is common for the wife to take on work or business in order to help keep the family afloat, in addition to her caring for their daily needs of them all. Even in the “old-world way” women are not just gentle little creatures that mostly sit on their virtues, they are depended on to be strong and resourceful pillars of the home. A mother is nothing if not resourceful. An eishet chayil is very resourceful and capable woman.

Likewise, in the same line of thinking I believe that anshei chayil is better understood to mean capable and resourceful men. It does not just mean brave or valiant men, nor does it just mean that men called to leadership should be people of virtue and substance. I believe it does means one should be bold. But I don’t believe that it has to mean that people need to be wealthy to be in governance, as Rashi suggests. I do believe that it means that these leaders should be people who instead do well for themselves, but primarily because they are resourceful people.

We need to place more capable and resourceful people in leadership. In the defense of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged (like women). More often than not, it is these people which have struggled hardships and societal setbacks, these people are most resourceful in this life. Honestly, most of us can’t think of a person more resourceful than our own sweet mothers who always did what it took for us to get by. This is something that men can learn a lot from their female counterparts about.

In an ideal world we would have more women that strive to be an eishet chayil so that we can have more men learn to also be among the anshei chayil.


Parshat Va’etchanan (2012)


Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Formlessness of our G-d: Not Making G-d in Our Image

I’m always fascinated by the discussion about what it means to be made in the image of G-d, as described in the creation story of Genesis. There we see the term used b’tzelem Elohim – that we are like an approximate copy or projection of the Divine; like a shadow, or a traced copy (צל; tzel). We are not exactly like G-d, say anatomically, but we are reflections of the Divine Nature. G-d is incorporeal and above any physical likeness, therefore we cannot say that we are exactly like Him. It’s very important that we remember this or else we get caught up in a simplistic way of thinking, where tzelem takes on another meaning in the depths of our minds even if we don’t know it; that of an idol. (צֶלֶם).

Here near the start of Moses’ final declarations being documented here in Deuteronomy he begins to give his final summary of their experiences in order that they reflect upon the lessons that they have learned. Right away he pauses and explicitly goes into detail regarding one notorious occurrence, that of the giving of Ten Commandments. He reminds of how G-d gave us the Torah:

And Hashem spoke to you

from out of the fire

you heard the sound of words

but saw no form,

there was only a voice.”

| Vayedaber Hashem aleichem

| mitoch ha’esh

| kol devarim atem shom’im

| utmunah einechem ro’im

| zulati kol

Deuteronomy 4:12

Then Moses begins to talk about the paramount moment of the giving of the “Aseret haDivrot / The Ten Commandments;” or as the Torah explicitly calls them here, the “Aseret haDevarim / The Ten Words,” or the ten sayings. (v. 13). Moses defines his mission to Israel as teaching them how to follow these laws and rules for when they cross over into the Promised Land they can live by them. (v.14)

But then here he circles back to deal with one point again. Moses says:

Watch yourself very well,

for you did not see

any type of image

on that day that Hashem spoke to you

at Horeb from out of the fire,

lest you become corrupt

and make you

an image that depicts the form of a figure,

[do not make] a form in the image of

a male or a female…”

| Venishmartem me’od

| lenafshoteichem ki lo re’item

| kol-temunah

| beyom diber Hashem aleichem

| beChorev mitoch ha’esh

| Pen-tashchitun

| va’asitem lachem

| pesel tmunat kol-samel

| tavnit

| zachar o nekevah…

Deuteronomy 4:16

I like most people begin to trail off at this point because we all know where this is going. Moses explains that we are not to make any icon in the image of an animal, bird, of things that prowl and swarm on land (creeping-things), or even fish of the sea. (v.17-18). Interestingly the only thing that is left out from this type of prohibition is the making of the form of angels and cherubs; but only by means of omission. (see Parshat Chukat 2012)

Quite honestly for the most part we as modern people don’t have a problem with the latter part of this prohibition. Iconography is something that is foreign to all but the most primitive of people. Even our modern experiences of outright object veneration is considered merely symbolic and has most often been embraced as some sort of revivalism of ancient pagan ways. Modern people just don’t worship any form of animal or beast.

But us modern people should not feel less convicted by this call to pure and depiction-less worship. If anything, more so. We are so advanced in our thinking we seem to realize the role that we play in the “animal world,” but still in this respect we seem to exclude ourselves. Most of us think it foolish for a person to worship a cow for instance, or a bird. We can clearly see that is not divine, and that the concept of deity transcends any single form or representation in creation. But many of seem to have no problem with imaging the Divine in the form of humans; after our own likeness, in the form of the human animal.

I don’t want to drivel on with too much philosophy, our great teachers such as the Rambam wrote extensively on the subject of the almost iconoclastic call of Judaism, one that only sees parallels in the Islamic empire of his age. I can not do justice to his great way of describing it through his body of work. Ones in which he greatly stresses those shared beliefs that we have with Islam, that G-d is above depiction and that even the use of anthropomorphisms are a compromise of the transcendence of the Divine Nature.

Sure we often have to use mundane and human terms when trying to explain G-d, but fully with the understanding that G-d is not a person and that we are at best estimating in terms we can relate to. But that’s it. We try to be careful to keep that understanding because if we stray too far we may begin to think that we understand the mind of G-d. We can begin to think that G-d thinks and acts like us.

People want a G-d they can relate to. So we use approximations, but they are bad descriptions of G-d’s nature. He is above being mad or angry; above being pleased or happy even. G-d is transcendent above all. But in order for us to understand sometimes the scripture have to use these types of terms to get the point across, using feelings and ways of relating we all have in us.

The problem arises when we try to think that we understand the way G-d “thinks” or “feels” by reason of deduction in own mindset and sentiments. We project our likeness on to G-d. And that’s really what it is often times, people who think they have the mind of G-d just find a lot of ways saying G-d thinks like them. And that is utterly ridiculous, and we need to avoid such tendencies. Besides it’s just odd for us to do so anyhow.

For example, many years ago I worked for the Reformed Jewish movement in America. Our interim-director at the time was someone who was quite a feminist. Even though I was Orthodox, I didn’t have problems with her feminism. But what I did find odd was that when leading in the liturgy one at an event she changed the liturgy of Psalm 136; “Thank the L-rd for He is good,” then she changed the well-known response to, “for Her kindness endures forever;” exchanging the masculine of the text to the feminine back and forth. The older people looked at each other with a look of, “Oh how interesting.” Us few younger people looked at each other like, “That’s really lame.”

In a way we all could understand why she did that. We were all Americans, and we understood the statement that she was making. We all grew up in a pseudo-Christian America where G-d is understood as an old man. I emphasize man, because the image of G-d as Father to us all is not just symbolic but quite literal to people in this nation. The Almighty is the father of their god, and thus their idea of G-d is a male with all the trappings that entails. Only recently have some of the brave in their ranks begun to embrace and teach upon the female-like characteristics of the Divine. The “sacred feminine” was purposefully excluded. Not just merely for their theological convenience, but also to accommodate the sexism of the age we were raised.

However inclusive her intentions were, it showed a childish compromise of our tradition on her part. You see, her attitudes in having to utilize this unusual and almost provocative wording were reactionary to an immature concept of Deity on the part of our host society. Her way of reacting to that was with a response that was just as childish, stepping away from thousands of years of understanding G-d and the godliness of Elohim as being above gender and therefore utilizing the Hebrew masculine, plural; which is normative for things that are of genderless or in crowds of mixed genders. G-d is not man or woman, therefore we use a term that is above that, a lofty tense that holds the weight of both. Her engendering of G-d seemed to most people to fall short of that lofty concept. It seemed silly in the company of obviously dedicated religious intellectuals, in an age where embracing of Hebrew was so normative even in the far-liberal circles that the language change seemed more like a gimmick and projection of her own psychological need to have a G-d she could relate to by making it out to be like her. Mostly because such a sentiment was typical for people of her persuasion in that respect, that if G-d could not be like her then she didn’t want to have any part of it.

One should understand that why this is silly to people like me is because we have already seen this in our history. In fact going on throughout the history of the Jewish people in the Tanach we are going to see other competitive expressions of deity arising many times. One of the most infamous would be the Ashtarot; the chief goddess of the bronze age in the middle-east, her name being in the feminine, plural; as opposed to our G-d who is the masculine plural, though gender inclusive. The reason is quite clear if we understand who she was, in that she was responsible for restraining the wrath of the male god Baal who was lower in the pantheon. She was the ancients response to a harsh patriarchal system. But she, would be a female that would come with all their cultural hangups of gender in the end, and would find herself competing time and time again with male challengers for the lead of the pantheon of gods. Continuously in successive generations the battle would go back and forth between the male gods that were warlike and disciplinarian; and the female gods that were compassionate symbols of fertility, but overbearing and volatile. The people’s leanings would swing back and forth as they became tired of one extreme and would default back to the other again.

But here in this parsha Moses points out that a central purpose of this giving of Torah was to liberate us from this type of foolish constraints upon our understanding of G-d by limiting the Divine into any form. G-d is nothing, He is not one thing; and at the same time He is everything; all things in creation are reflections of G-d’s nature, but G-d is not like any one thing alone. We cannot study and try to pattern the behavior of the Divine like we are watching a subject on Animal Planet. We can’t try or claim to understand G-d’s mind and motivation like people try to with a mouse in a maze study.

We cannot not limit G-d, as the Divine is bigger and more than we can ever comprehend or describe. G-d is the Encompassing-All, everything exists in Him and through His will alone; even though “He” isn’t a complete description without qualification of its gender inclusiveness in our Hebrew language and mindset. This need of rising to this higher understanding is not just so we can have a mature idea of G-d, but also so that G-d can be more mature than the trappings of petty human characteristics in our own mind as well. If we can’t do that, the inevitable result is that we start projecting more and more of our own qualities and fickleness upon G-d. That is just as much an idol as limiting G-d in the form of a mamash beheima – an actual animal.

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Parshat Pinchas (2012)


Parshat Pinchas (2012)
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The Cost of Leadership: Having to take it up with your Higher Authority

Confused JudgeWhat is the cost of leadership? What type of price does someone need to pay in order to be in charge. It goes without saying that most people would not mind being a person of greater importance. Being ambitious is a good thing. Most people wouldn’t mind being the boss, with all the benefits and privileges that comes with leadership. “Being in Charge” is really attractive to most people. People always seem to think that it means that you have no one to answer to, until you find yourself being “The Decider.”

That’s not to say that everyone is ambitious for power. As we learn Moses was more humble than any man on the face of the earth (see Numbers 12:3). In fact he showed great resistance to taking on leadership (see Exodus 4:10-17). But it becomes apparent to us as we go on through the exodus story that Moses does actually grow into his job. In time he would take responsibility for the governance of Israel and hearing all the cases of the Israelites.

But as we learned along the way, this was not the ideal. Moses was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to delegate responsibility because he could not do it all himself. (see Parshat Yitro, and Parshat Shoftim) Thus the cases were heard by tribal leaders and elders who served as judges. But if something was too hard for them to figure out it was to be brought to Moses. (see Deut. 1:17)

Here in this parsha we see one of these situations arise, where a case was appealed to Moses as an ultimate authority to rule on a subject. Starting with Numbers chapter 27 we see that five daughters of Tzel’ofechad, of the Tribe of Menasheh, descendant of Yoseph haTzadik (Joseph the Righteous), brought a case to be settled. Up until now the camps and corresponding land allotments are being given according to one’s paternal lineage; from father to son exclusively.

Among the few exceptions that were not accounted for out of all the families that were recorded in the census at the beginning of this book were the families of those who perished with Korach and his rebellion, therefore there were no living heirs. The other exception was the allotment to Yehoshuah and Kelev (Joshua and Caleb, the spies) who were given their choicest lands as a reward for their upstandingness instead of by lot (see Numbers 26:55; with Rashi; and corresponding references to Judges 1:20 and Joshua 19:49-51).

We find out that these five daughters who brought their case to Moses were the only living descendants of their father. Though their father had perished in the desert, his death was unique from the others in that he had not be in rebellion. His daughters stood before Moses and all the authorities and made their case that their father died of some sort of private sin, but it was not for incitement or rebellion. We don’t know why exactly, but our sages suggest everything for violating Shabbat or approaching Sinai when it was unsafe to do so, and therefore he died. The fact that their father was not a rebel was obvious from the fact that they were alive, whereas rebels and their kin had all previously perished (see Parshat Korach).

These women contended the only reason they were being excluded from the land allotments was because their father died without having any sons. Furthermore, they contended his error had nothing to do with them. Even yet, his sin to some could be considered a transgression based on ignorance which caused him to die in an untimely manner. Their father might have had his faults for which he paid ultimately for, but that didn’t warrant that his name should be forgotten and his descendants treated like they didn’t exist.

There was no remedy for them. An examples would have been the leverite marriage; someone closely related could have married them to help them keep their property. But no one stepped up to the call here, and this wasn’t their fault. Therefore they demanded a remedy. (Numbers 27:1-4).

The parsha (at the end of the third aliyah reading) reads as follows:

“And Moses brought their case

before Hashem.”

| Vayakrev Moshe et-mishpatan

| lifnei Hashem

Numbers 27:5

Rashi makes the most ingesting commentary regarding this verse:

So Moses brought their case:

The law eluded him,

and here he was paying

for crowning himself [with authority]

by saying:

‘and the case that is too difficult for you,

bring to me’ (Deut. 1:17)”

ויקרב משה את משפטן: |

נתעלמה הלכה ממנו |

וכאן נפרע |

על שנטל עטרה |

לומר: |

והדבר אשר יקשה מכם |

תקריבון אלי |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

Surely other people had died in such careless ways as the father of these women, but the uniqueness of the situation was that there was no other living male in this case to help them. And even more unique, is all of these women were very wise and bold enough to adequately make their case before Moses and the elders. It had been appealed all the way to him to settle.

Keep in mind this wasn’t the first case of inheritance rights that was being brought to him to settle, we saw the case of the half-Egyptian Israelite earlier where he did appeal, but his claim was rejected and it resulted in a great crisis in their midst. The half-Egyptian flew off the handle and so it went no further, because he was so mad he cursed G-d and then died. (see Parshat Emor) These women also strongly presented their claim, yet they honorably made their case and so it stood to demanded a response.

So here arises this case. This time even more complicated, not a son, but daughters. And their claim seemed valid. It could not be so easily dismissed. So what does Moses do in response? He decides to bring the issue before G-d.

There are a few things we lead from Rashi’s commentary. The first is that this was something that Moses had not considered before. He didn’t think of mentioning such a situation in his previous instructions, only recognizing the rights of male-to-male relative inheritance. He didn’t possess an answer to remedy this situation. Moses was stumped.

Now it is true that Mosheh Rabbeninu – Moses our Teacher – as the author of our tradition, was the teacher par-excellence who understood Torah more so that any other person. But here it is admitted that something eluded him. This is not surprising to us Jews. Moses is not an oracle or avatar, he was a mere man who was limited in ability and understanding just like any individual. This is not so surprising for me to see this revealed in these scriptures

What is amazing to me is that Moses actually admits that this issues is beyond his compressions. He does what few people of high authority do; after struggling with the issue he admits that he doesn’t know the answer and he does not do anything until he consults G-d on it. This is yet another sign of his great humility.

Yet there is something more that amazes me still about Rashi’s commentary. He states that Moses “nefshar,” meaning that here he was paying the price. What was he paying the price for? For taking the “crown” of authority. He had previously said that if there was any issue that was too hard for the people then it should be brought to him, and here he was being called on to follow through.

And herein comes our lesson about authority and leadership. Everyone wants to be the king of the hill. It looks so easy to wear the crown. By “crown” we are being symbolic. But here in the biblical age it is quite literal. For the most part authority laid in the hands of monarchs. Even in Israel’s case, at this point in history they are without a monarchy and nobility, but the honored people of their tribes are still refereed to a princes. (see Numbers 1:16; Parshat BeMidbar) That is how much respect they commanded. But above them all was Moses, the final authority. We was the Commander-in-Chief; as they say, it appears that the buck stopped here.

Want to see the cost of leadership? Sometimes it’ written all over the faces of those in charge.

For a moment I would like us to consider our own leaders today, my friend. For a moment let us just consider our politicians and government officials. One of the most remarkable observations most of us have about leadership, being in a modern world where we are accustomed to seeing our leaders regularly, is how quickly they age when they get to the top off the ladder. The media loves to discuss how quickly we age our Presidents. The responsibility is so weighing upon them that is clearly evident to us that the burden they shoulder wears on them to the point that its prematurely ages them in dramatic ways. Being the boss isn’t as cozy and easy as it seems. They are people who we turn to in order to provide solutions to us for the really hard decisions. Such responsibility takes its mental and physical toll. This is the cost of leadership.

Let us consider the case again for a second, and try to understand what make it so perplexing to Moses. These daughters of Tzel’ofechad are not just being difficult women. They aren’t there to just nag him. Their problem is very pressing. The nation is going to ascend into the Land and they are going to be left homeless unless a situation is found for them. Moses’ instructions regarding inheritance seemed clear and easy enough to understand, there was very little ambiguity regarding it, but it did not address their needs. It was unthinkable that they should be left without remedy. Upon hearing their case and considering the real injustice in this matter if left unsettled, Moses appeals to G-d to give him the answer that is escaping him.

Again I want us to remember the situation of the half-Egyptian (in Parshat Emor). A remedy was not found for this man thus it led to blasphemy of the Name of G-d, and subsequently the man’s death. It appears to me that in light of this situation, when once again called to rule on an issue of inheritance, especially on an issue that was sorely neglected from his policy, Moses not only felt like he had to hear out their issue but he also seemed to feel the urgency of having to find a real answer. Their livelihood depended on it. He would not allow the children of Israel to stand back aloof once again; unbending, unresolved; and leaving these women in ruin.

Now despite all Moses’ wisdom this issue was beyond his ability to decide on his own. We should also keep in mind that this is a dramatic switch in inheritance rights in an age where women are ordinarily given no regard at all. Any change in policy would be a big deal, with huge societal consequence. In Moses’ humility he does not think himself wise enough to decide alone, and thus brings it to G-d to decide.

Of course we learn that G-d responds to Moses’ petition on this matter. G-d says that in this case “Ken benot Tzel’ofechad dovrot / the daughters of Tzel’ofechad spoke correctly,” and thus G-d commanded the transfer their father’s property to them (v.7). Our tradition says that it is said intensely and with great “evrah,” or anger or wrath on the part of G-d for the situation of these women. (Rashi on v.7)

Hashem therefore instructed that from then on any daughter of Israel may inherit their father’s property. Practically what this means is any woman who has no left her father’s household may retain it as her own property in his passing as inheritor. However, it is not to be transferred to another clan, say if she were to remarry. It was already the case that land and tribal holdings remain in the tribe, not to transfer forever to another; this law previously understood to apply to mere sales. Now in around about way it’s extending this law even to this situation, while allowing provision for a maiden to maintain her home and lifestyle should she not marry into another family. If this were to happen, then the father’s male relatives would inherit the property and keep it in trust for the tribe. Likewise, if a man was without any daughters as well as sons, then it would follow the regular method and likewise go to the nearest male relative. (v.8-11) Thus a legal remedy was found.

As we consider this weeks parsha, and we consider all the responsibilities and positions of authority in which we may find ourselves accountable for, I would hope that we would come away taking to heart the example of Moses. When people turn to us for help we should do everything that we can to provide the assistance and guidance they need. We should not just ignore their problem, thinking ourselves so smart and so important that we should not be questioned and further appealed to when our answers don’t seem to fit so nicely. We should not just harshly hold on to what we think we already know about something, but hear a person out regarding their situation. And if we do, we might find that we have don’t really have all the answers after all. The situation might not be as cut-and-dry as we expect.

We need to listen and really consider things. How could Moses have taken this issue to G-d if he hadn’t first listen enough to comprehend their concerns and adequately present their case to Hashem?

And the greatest lesson of all is that we should not just rely on our own understanding and impulses regarding something. We should take it to G-d, and continue to seek His guidance and understanding until we do understand and find a solution. This is not just a good idea. This is the cost of leadership. The weight of this crown his heavy; the cost of it is very great. If listening to people intently and giving heavy reflection was necessary for Moses, how much more is it necessary for us simpletons?

Something To Think About:

In the Jewish tradition we refer to the Torah as “Zot haTorah asher sam Mosheh lifnei bnei Yisrael; al-pi Hashem b’yad Mosheh / This is the Torah that was set before the children of Israel; upon the command of Hashem, by the hand of Moses.” This is said during the Hagbah – the lifting of the Torah for all to witness; in Ashkenazi tradition this is after the reading; it is composed of two verses, Deuteronomy 4:44 and Numbers 9:23; in the Sephardi tradition this is said before the reading, though interchanging the latter verse with Deuteronomy 33:4 instead, continuing with the words “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh morasha kehilat Yaakov / the Torah which Moses commanded us, as a heritage for the congregation of Yaakov”. Traditionally people understand this as meaning that the Torah was written by Moses.

Whether or not Moses physically wrote the Torah in our tradition is something we almost consider irrelevant. We recognize that almost all of our tradition was mostly oral at one point. When we say “b’yad” (Heb. “by the hand of”) we don’t always necessarily mean that a person physically wrote something out themselves, but that it was “handed down” from them. Some of our tradition was written, some of it was oral for a great deal of our history. But either way we consider it coming from Moses because he had a hand in the decision-making and demonstration of these truths.

If we return to the commentary of Rashi we have a very interesting statement being made regarding our original verse we discussed in Numbers 27:5. The continuing commentary reads as follows:

“Another interpretation is

it was proper that this affair

be written down by the hand of Moses

but the daughters of Tzel’ofechad won [their case]

and so it was written in by them.”

דבר אחר |

ראויה היתה פרשה זו |

להכתב על ידי משה, |

אלא שזכו בנות צלפחד |

ונכתבה על ידן: |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

What do we mean by this? There is something unusual about the verse. It does look quite out-of-place because it actually refers to Moses in the third-person; “and Moses brought their case…” How can this be if this is “written” by Moses. This seems like another interesting fluke akin to when the scriptures say Moses is the humblest of men; would Moses really speak of himself in this manner? I don’t know. But to me it’s still irrelevant to debate if Moses was the physical scribe.

However this question is kind of interesting to contemplate, because if we say that this phrase means Moses wrote out the Torah himself, are we saying here in this verse that these five Israelite daughters wrote this passage into the Torah themselves “al yadin / by their own hand?” Most likely not, but it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t anyhow. The truth is had they not raised this issue before Moses and the elders to bring before G-d it would have never been documented in the Torah at all. Their veracity and wisdom regarding this matter makes it as good as if it was written by them, because without their insight this would have never have been mentioned and resolved at all. Through these five women a whole new insight into Torah was handed down for the benefit of all Israel. They “wrote” a new chapter in Jewish history.

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Parshat Bereishit (2011)


Parshat Bereishit
Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

The Creative Power of Complimentary Relationships

Before I get started, I want to say this was a hard one to write. This is dedicated to Hugo Garzona, of blessed memory, may his name continue to rise higher and higher into the heavens.

Once again we embark on our annual procession through the Torah. It is my hope that this year we continue to look the dynamics of relationships that we see it the Torah. After years of research and pouring over both mystical and allegorical commentary on the creation story it’s very hard to not get attached to every tangent, but I think staying the course in looking at what G-d has to say about personal relationships is really the direction that is most meaningful at this time in my life.

“Thus G-d made Man

in His image,

in the image of G-d

He create him;

male and female He created them”

| Vayivra Elohim et-ha’adam

| betzalmo

| betzelem Elohim

| bara oto

| zachar unekevah bara otam

Genesis 1:27

We cannot help but be thrown immediately into the most profound questions of, “What is Man? And who am I?” We are told that Hashem created Man, Man was created in His image, Man was created both male and female. As is widely known, our tradition tells us that Man was created with both female and male aspects, in one person. In fact in Talmud Brachot 61 the Man is allegorically described as having two faces, one male and the other female. With this as a given understanding, the prevalent misconception of G-d as a male being found in western traditions does not even come into consideration. The Jewish tradition stands firm in the idea that G-d created Man, meaning the human race; that race is made up of males and females, of which both our natural aspects are a reflection of the Divine image.

Monastir, Yugoslavia, A Jewish couple on their wedding day, Prewar.

Monastir, Yugoslavia, A Jewish couple on their wedding day, Prewar.

Now notice that here in chapter 1 when we see the description of Man, the word used is adam; we are talking about the human race. In terms of describing what this race was like, it was both zachar (male) and nekevah (female). This is important, because if we look at chapter 1 the description of creation is a gloss-over, it speaks of things mater-of-factly and often without qualification. However when it comes to Man, we find a clarification, lest we come to the misconception of G-d as a person who embodies any form or gender.

It is not until chapter 2 that we get a finer description of what the world at this point looks like. We are given a description of how the world operates, and what the created beings occupied themselves with. We are also given a description of how Man was created; being formed of the dust of the earth, that G-d caused to live by imparting a breath of life. (v.7)

Now, it is important that we clearly understand that the biblical narrative starts from the assumption that Hebrew is lishon kodesh, the holy tongue, and in-fact the mother tongue of all of G-d’s creation. Being that the text is written in Hebrew it also makes the assumption that we can clearly see the connection of one word to the other, and that we understand how meaning is derived in Hebrew words.

For example, the text reads “Vayitser Hashem Elohim et-ha’adam afar min-ha’adamah / Hashem, G-d, formed man out of the dust of the ground.” It assumes that we see the connection between the words Man (adam) and the ground/earth (adamah). It also assumes that we see the brilliance intertwined in the Hebrew language, with the play of words in the word Man (adam) and the word red (adom, same spelling but different pronunciation), which is the same color as the ground (adamah) that Man was formed out of. Likewise, the life force of Man, his blood (dam: spelled Dalet, Mem) is also red (adom; spelled Alef, Dalet, Mem).

For those who study in the Hebrew language we understand that words are derived from a shoresh, or root word. Words are built based off of conjugations of these root words. This has a very important benefit, in that if the word in application is unknown to us the meaning of the word is hinted to by the root from which it is derived. Verbs are perfect examples, which consist of three letter radicals; to understand the word we can break it down to it’s root.

We understand that each item that was created in the world was formed through an utterance; G-d spoke and it came into existence. The contention is being made that as G-d spoke, each letter and each word had an inherent meaning, which took form as G-d uttered it.

Therefore in chapter 2, when we see Man charged with his task of naming each of the animals that were brought before him, we see that he is not just arbitrarily naming the creatures. He is forced to consider each of them, and name them according to their essence. He looks into each creature and named it according to the attributes by which it was formed. In fact Bereshit Rabbah 17 lauds man as being superior to the angels, which it states were not able to assign names to the animals.

“And the man

named all the animals,

and of the birds of the sky,

and all the wild beasts;

but the man did not find

a helper opposite him.”

| Vayikra ha’adam

| shemot lechol habehemah

| ule’of hashamayim

| ulechol chayat hasadeh

| ule-Adam lo-matza

| ezer kenegdo

Genesis 2:20

Now let us step back and consider this, taking all this into account. We see that Man is created in G-d’s image, again we understand this as meaning that Man was endowed with Divine midot (characteristics; attributes; or ways of relating to the world) and the desire to emulate them (Sifri). We were created in order to exemplify godliness; that we establish justice and bring order to chaos. G-d created us to be an active part of creation, to partner with Him in perfecting this world (tikkun olam).

However, the Man found himself different from the rest of creation, in that humankind was endowed with the ability to speak. It is this single capability that is highlighted here as we begin to approach the concept of what Man’s purpose was. As each animal was brought to him it is named, and that name assigned to it was “v’yehi shemo / and that remained it’s name” in the same manner as when G-d created each item “v’yehi kein / and it remained so.”

Man’s observations about the world were in line with that of G-d. He was lacking in nothing. All wisdom and capacity; capability and faculty; Man was without lack or deficiency. We read that G-d “vayavey el ha-adam lir’ot mah yikra-lo / brought the man [the animals] to see what he would call them.” G-d is overseeing this entire task, but never needs to intervene, the man clearly understands each of these animals and species.

But of himself it says, “ule-Adam lo-matsa ezer kenegdo / but the man did not find a helper opposite him.” It appears that at this point it becomes evident to the Man that there is no mate opposite him, he is alone. I must point out that again, this assumes that we are thinking in terms of the Hebrew language which (like romance languages) has both male and female items. With this in mind we can see how perplexing the situation is; he understands the difference between a rooster and a hen, and a cow and a bull, but for himself there is no name. He is merely ha-adam, the human.

Think about it for a moment, up until now that Man has only been referred to by the term “adam,” human. We have a description of what Man is, but he has no name.

It is not until a side of the Man is taken (Rashi) and formed into a corresponding mate that he even begins to answer the questions of his own nature. When he sees his pair that G-d creates for him, he says, “zot hapa’am etzem me’atzamai uvasar mibesari lezot / now this is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh / yikare ishah ki me’ish lukacha-zot / she shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken from man.” It is at this point that we hear for the first time the terms “man” (ish) and “woman” (ishah). It is at this point that the man becomes aware that he is something more than just a human (adam) but he becomes a person (ish).

And this is where my mind has been all through out this week. We understand that “it is not good that the man be alone,” but in this situation the man is not necessarily by himself. By being “alone” (lebado) we are not saying that the Man was solitary, and secluded; as “lebad” can likewise mean to describe that a person is a unique exception, or distinctly apart from the rest. No, he had the company of the other creations and G-d Himself. But was completely aware of his “otherness.” Though aside from his “otherness,” he had no point of reference for himself.

It is not until he is faced with another human, one that is akin to him that he even thinks so far as to consider who he is, not only as a creation, but as a person. When he sees his mate, who is like himself, for the first time he is able to compare and contrast against himself. He is able to see himself, through the eyes of another. And in this capacity, she truly did became a “helpmate.”

Here in the narrative we have the male, look on the female for the first time and he declares first that she is “ishah/woman” and only then does he define himself as “ish/man.” Without another corresponding to himself he has no idea if what he does is correct, or normative; he has no point of reference for his actions, nor his relevance. In defining her for himself, he found meaning in who he was as an individual.

And that is the blessing of G-d’s plan that we be in relationship with one another, it is intentional in the universe that we have another spur us on. It is the natural order of this world that another ignite passion in us that brings meaning to our life and emboldens us to be better people.

And I guess this is where I have no other way of explaining without making it personal. There are many of us would have not gone after that better job if it weren’t for the caring of a spouse we wanted to provide better for. There are many who would have never sought out better living situations if it weren’t for the care of our loved ones. Many of us would have never have explored our own spirituality if it weren’t for the religious interest of our partners. Think about it, many of the better decisions many people makes for their lives are related to the influence or in response to our relationships to others. Often times life can be mundane, with us being content and lazy, fine with where we are at until someone excites a new direction and new identity in us.

Sadly, I am also aware that conversely when relationships end or our soul mate passes away it can be a devastating blow to our identity. It can seem like the purpose for which we built everything is lost. Often times a slumber begins to descend over a persons ambitions. And sometimes even worse, one can even go as far as to become so disaffected with remembering the love lost that they begin to detest anything that reminds them of that life and shy away from anything that reminds them of that.

We find out as we continue through Genesis that relationships are complicated and unpredictable. They can be chaotic and even come with consequences. However despite all the seeming risk involved not only is it worth the while, it is part of the Divine plan. No, it is not good that we be alone. And if we take an honest assessment of the relationships that we have had in this life, we can say that it worth going outside of ourselves and building new connections to people.


Parshat Matot (2011)


Parshat Matot
Numbers 30:2–32:42

All About Vows, Not All About Women

 Getting Up to Speed: How we got here

Our parsha begins with instruction that is given to the tribal heads of Israel, to the leaders of the clans. Remember in last weeks parsha I pointed out that much of the drama in the story of Parshat Pinchas  was related to the tribal heads not doing their jobs to discipline their own families, and letting the actions get out of hand until a plague began to engulf the people. We read how they are told to remedy the situation, but disaster is instead diverted by a striking act of zealotry by Pinchas the priest. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011)

A Whole Chapter That Turns Talmudic

This whole first chapter of our pasha is going to concern one single command, so it must be pretty important. Everyone important is there, and it has an important tone. This parsha opens up with giving a directive that it states in very direct and clear terms as “zeh hadavar asher tzuah Hashem / this is the thing that Hashem has commanded.” (Numbers 30:2)

Now this command has to be spoken about in such definitive terms because it’s going to talk about issues of gender and shake things up in a way that is pretty revolutionary for the time. Not that talking about these issues doesn’t raise a stir even at this point in history. I’m not ignorant, I personally know a few feminists rabbis that are going to give blood curdling speeches about how the Hebrew scriptures spew sexism and some will even go as far as suggest we should rip pages out of the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) in objection. I’m against sexism, as much as anyone else. There is no room for it in Torah-true living. But expunging our true historic development and not putting things into a broader perspective is just intellectually dishonest. Besides, if we are going to keep this Torah we need to learn to read it other ways and give up our rigidness; this isn’t new, this is how traditional Judaism deals with advancement.

What do I mean by look at it in a broader perspective? Well, why do we not apply the rules of logic that we utilize with the Torah – namely Talmud, the oral Torah – to the text here. I say this because here is the assembly of all the elders of Israel both small and great, and they are being given commands and it is being discussed in much the same manner we do in the sanheidrin before a body of leaders. Many people who are not traditional or not Jewish might lose interest at this point because they can easily dismiss the Talmud on the basis of the various opinions concerning details of Jewish law and say that something so varying cannot be something divinely sanctioned; because it has to be black and white. But what many people miss about applying Talmudic legal thinking is that there is so much that is said in the silence of the discussion on certain elements. The real treasure of the Talmud is that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of a person by arguing the agreed upon, only the variances of the application of what is agreed upon. This might be a bit confusing so let me give you and example using our parsha and this mitzvah.

As our text opens we are given a concrete and certain idea to consider, verse 3 reads:

“A man who makes a vow to Hashem

or swears an oath to restrict himself with

upon his self

he shall not break his word,

all that comes out of his mouth he shall do.”

| Ish ki-yidor neder l’Hashem

| o-hishava shvu’ah lesor isar

| al-nafsho

| lo yachel d’varo

| kechol-hayotze mipiv ya’aseh

Numbers 30:3

We are shown here that a person is able to make a vow to G-d, or swear to anything of his own volition. Now what do we mean by a vow? The word used is neder, it means to make a promise. Neder is also the name of certain type of sacrifice, it is a sacrifice that is to be made in the Temple to honor that vow. Basically how it works is someone make a promise for anything and when it comes through they will offer a sacrifice to G-d.

The other option is to assar, or to make an oath; literally it means to forbid. It is along the same lines as the neder promise, but is characterized by including a promise to deprive oneself of a certain thing until a certain time or a certain occurrence takes place.

Now its true the word ish can mean person, not just man. It often means man in the general sense. For me this would be good enough, a person is able to make a vow and they should keep it. But here it really does mean man.

And this is where the gauntlet falls, now the text is going to go into specifying details regarding the application of the vows and oaths by means of examples. Now for those of you who say that Talmud is the only book to knit-pick, this is where the oral and written Torahs show they really are two halves to a whole. The text if very detailed, but for the sake of time I will quickly explain the examples it lays out for us:

  • If a woman (ishah) makes a vow or an oath while she is still a minor in her father’s house, and he does not say anything in objection to it then her vow is valid and she is obligated. But a father may invalidate her vow on the day he hears of it (or as some say, if he hears of it on that day). If the father intervenes in such a way G-d will forgive her because her father has restricted her. (verses 4-6)
  • What happens if the father has not invalidated the vow that she made while as a person of his household and she then gets married? We see that on the day the husband hears of the vow he may invalidate it. And because he has restricted her G-d will forgive her. (verses 7-9)
  • Then it gives us the example of a widow or divorced woman, anything she prohibits herself of by an oath she is obligated to uphold. (verse 10)
  • Now finally, the vows and oaths of a woman who is married; if a woman makes a vow or oath and the husband does not object then her promises are valid. However, if he objects then anything that comes out of her mouth is invalid, and G-d will forgive her because her husband restricted her. This is pretty much the same as a girl with a father. (verses 11-13)

And that’s the point that hurts many of the feminists, and I’m not going to try to limit the pain people feel in that they see that women historically were often treated like property transferred from father to husband. And I will politely listen as people in their pain say “this isn’t fair that men were able to interfere in the decisions of women from birth to death.” But this isn’t exactly true.

Notice there is one category of women that cannot have their vows and oaths overruled here, that is the widow and the divorcée. It is this third category that is going to show us the reason why involvement is and isn’t allowed. On the surface it may seem like an issue of respect as to why this is different for a formerly married woman, you don’t ask a person who has become a “lady” in her own right to have to be monitored by someone else so she is thus exempt.

But if we think about it logically we see a very sublime reason; all the other class of women their vows and oaths effect someone else. As a “minor” or as a wife making promises of offerings at the Temple is obligating her father or husband to pay up, of course he should be allowed to have a say in the matter. For a father, say for example he has a child that takes upon themselves extreme fasting as their vow (a quite common one by the way) the father can not only object, but his objection also pardons the child from being held accountable by G-d if they don’t follow through and it’s just a fad. Another one I have even seen among religious people who have gone off the deep end is that they fast too much and they forget to feed their children because they don’t eat themselves; a husband has a right to say, no this isn’t okay and it has to stop, and G-d will forgive her for breaking the vow. And this is the common theme that goes on is that G-d will forgive these women if someone steps in. And of course following G-d’s example, these men should forgive these women.

Bottom Line: Women Can Make Vows and Oaths

But before anyone gets hurt feelings I want us to step back for a minute and look at this in its entirety, the Talmudic way. What do we again see that is common factor about all of this as well? At this point in history it’s hard for us to see what some people saw so clearly then, and even then its very cleaver how we are distracted with the fine points that men and women both miss the main point.

We open up with men being given the right to make vows and oaths. These vows can be made at any time, and in any place. One does not need prior permission or an intermediary. There is no limitations as to why a person may vow, and as we see it can be a vow to G-d or an oath to restrict oneself.

What we learn of the women is that the same is true for her, except that a women who is in the house of her father or husband may have her vows annulled. Let me spell that out for you, the Torah is fast talking past the point that it is doing something that is almost unthinkable in this point in history by giving women the ability to make vows and oaths, saying they do not need prior permission or the sanction of state or priest. They can make them at any time and any place. For what ever reason they may make a vow or oath. Yes, there is one restriction, but they are given the ability nonetheless and it is wholly valid and ordered by G-d that they have that right.

But the nature of the situation when it comes to vows is that they usually entail someone promising something impressive and great. But most often these days it’s a serious self-restriction or deprivation that one vows to their own self.

Historically, making oaths like this were very common at that point in history. People made oaths for everything. Sometimes, in formal circles people made oaths just out of the blue to impress theirs guests; I know it sounds childish and it is. It was a colloquial way of exaggerating that made it impossible for people to really put trust in promises. People didn’t know when someone was telling the truth our just speaking to make themselves look good.

But most often, like in the lives of so many mothers, there were the oaths made under pressure; oaths for divine intervention. Vows that are made at an ill child’s bedside, or when one gets a tragic message from a family member (G-d forbid such things). And this is the reason some of our sages hold as to why this clause allows that a woman’s oaths can be annulled, because as an example women like mothers often dealt with the real disasters that befell the family. If the children went hungry, if someone was sick in the family, if the bill collectors were bugging all day, it was mom that was going to have to deal with real anguish and be most prone to make vows of desperation. Someone had to be able to step in and remind her she is making way too big of a promise.

So our chapter sums it up by giving us a display of the endgame, what it looks like when all applied:

“All vows and oaths

of a restrictive oath that embitters the soul

her husband can uphold them

and her husband may annul it”

| Kol-neder vechol-shvu’at

| isar le’anot nafesh

| ishah yekimenu

| ve’ishah yeferenu.

Numbers 30:15

And here is where we again get our idea reaffirmed, these types of vows are ones that embitter the soul and deprive the person. This is a key and central line, we are talking about people making vows that restrict a person and makes their life miserable in a way to try to atone or show devotion.

Now bear with me for a minute as I hope to tie this together for you. I will be one of the first to admit to my feminist friends, the bible is not equal when it comes to gender inclusion. In fact it doesn’t mention women for the most part unless it really has to. This we can all agree on, right? And if the bible was using it’s normal tone, if it was talking about the responsibilities of a minor it would normally mention a son. If we were talking about the honor of the family it would normally talk about the husband, not the wife. But it is my opinion this chapter uses general terms for relating to people because its making a point, not talking about specific people or genders. Look at the words it uses: ish (man), ishah (woman); ishah (wife), ish (husband); ishah (her husband). The meaning only becomes apparent when we consider each term in connection to the relationships and roles of each person described.

I am of the opinion this is applying a principal by example and parable. The reason it uses the example of a daughter and a wife is because these people cannot be misconstrued as “autonomous” people, whose decisions and vows have no consequence on the rest of the family. This is just an example taken to its most extreme but logical end, using the best appropriate examples. All our rabbis agree this is an example of something, and I agree; just stating that the principal is greater than the puppet examples used in this presentation.

If we look at it from this perspective this chapter takes on a way different meaning, and it holds a real world application that we can utilize today in order to keep this mitzvah. Let me explain in conclusion.

Keeping Silent Means Affirming a Vow

One of the first things we are told in our parsha, when the example is a daughter, is that if the father stays silent upon hearing her vow then she is bound by it. Why, because he is tacitly agreeing to the vow; by his silence he is implying that he approves and agrees with the vow. The same is in the case of a married woman, our text summarizes this principle:

“And if the husband remains silent

from day to day

he will have let all her vows stand

or any oath upon her he will have upheld

because he kept silent on the day he heard.”

| Ve’im-hacharesh yacharish lah ishah

| miyom el-yom

| vehekim et-kol-nedareiha

| o et-kol-esareiha asher aleiha hekim otam

| ki-hecherish lah beyom shom’o.

Numbers 30:15

I don’t know how I can stress this but the word above, hekim which bears the meaning “to let stand,” to sustain, or uphold, also means to establish as well. By keeping silent it is as though he is making this promise himself. He is considered in agreement. Day after day if he watches the suffering of the vow and doesn’t object, of course he agrees because any decent person would say “enough is enough, this really isn’t necessary.”

Let us consider the nature of promises here. As I had pointed out in the beginning, vows and oaths can be made towards G-d or towards ones self. What ever they are, they are a way of us causing bitterness to ourselves. In this day and age, because people don’t often give the appropriate consideration of G-d they think they don’t have to worry about vows. They can’t see all the vows and oaths they make to themselves and upon themselves, ones that embitter their lives. These vows are also vows made in desperation, and often times they are vows to not do that again, or not feel that way again, to not act that way anymore, etc. A broken heart promises not to love again. An obese person promises not to eat that anymore. These type of things are vows too, ones often made out of emotion and which one cannot possibly keep.

And there are some vows in which we should not ever have to keep. For a moment I want to bring our attention to another example in the Tanach when comes to vows. We are at the end of Mosheh’s leadership and they are about to move into the age of the judges. During this period there was the infamous story of Yiftach (Jephtha) in Judges chapters 10-11. Most of us will know the story, he vows that if G-d will give him victory in war he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns home. It turns out his most beloved daughter came out to great him. Of course she wasn’t sacrificed like an animal, our tradition tells us she became a monastic virgin because human sacrifice is forbidden by Torah; but that’s besides the point, vows of chastity are considered cruel and merit-less in our culture where G-d calls us to be fruitful and understands it’s not good for us to be alone. The father is rightfully harshly criticized for not breaking his vow, as he could have just repented for his wrong. But instead he holds to his vow because he made a promise and he can’t go back on it (Judges 10:31). Mostly because he wanted to save face, to keep his honor. Surprisingly, many of our sages even go as so far as to criticize the daughter as well because she agreed in the end to go along with it and honor his vow; she agreed and affirmed it, then saw it through even though it wasn’t right. This vow though caused so much pain that we are told the young ladies of Israel would go up to weep with her year after year because she remained a virgin.

Now this is where some Talmud knowledge on the part of my more progressive friends would be helpful to put this issue of vows into perspective. It wasn’t only the vows of women that could be nullified. In Midrash Rabbah Genesis 60 we learn specifically about this through the story of Yiftach, it tells us that not only was he and his daughter responsible, but so was someone else; Pinchas, the kohen gadol (High Priest) at the time. Whereas we never find a punishment for Yiftach for his vow, we are told that Pinchas is punished because he did not annul the vows. The midrash bluntly and matter-of-factly tells us that the local priests, or Pinchas as high priest was able to annul the vow. He was in a role of respect and authority and needed to speak out, but he didn’t. Whereas Yiftach was too proud of himself to go to Pinchas to annul the vow, Pinchas in the end held the responsibility because he should have gone to Yiftach instead when he didn’t go, the buck stopped with him. By remaining silent our Midrash tells us that he was punished by G-d, because in his silence he affirmed this horrible oath which caused pain literally to the entire generation.

Sometimes the vows and oaths we take on in our lives are painful and ridiculous, not just for us but also painful for others as well as they watch us struggle and suffer through it. What we learn from this parsha is that there is always room to be corrected by someone we are in relationship with and accountable to because we also include them in our anguish.

And likewise when we see people in suffering we should stop their suffering, we need to use our clout and report with them to tell them to give themselves a break. Help them shoulder their burden to put it in perspective for them. Express to them because you are part of their lives their pain effects you, and you want them to know they don’t have to expect so much out of themselves.

Lastly, our parsha leaves us with two deep points. In its final verse of instruction (as verse 17 just repeats the players again) and gives us a good way getting those who harshly hold on to their strict vows to let go:

“And if he makes them null and void

after hearing them

he shall bear her guilt.”

| Ve’im-hafer yafer otam

| acharei shom’o

| venasa et-avonah.

Numbers 30:17

We can read this two ways, consistent with the rest of the chapter; if someone else nullifies their vows they are not held responsible for it, they meant the best in making the vow, but someone has restricted them from following through so they are atoned for and even credited that their heart was in the right place.

And then there is the second suggested meaning, namely that we can nullify a vow at anytime. Some of our sages teach that even if in that day a loved one affirm the vow and then changes their mind and nullifies it after the fact, the person who vowed it is again not responsible as they were restricted. It’s never too late to speak up! Use the clout and respect that a loved one has in you to convince them to let you lighten their load. If someone you love is stuck in a vow or oath they wont let go of, the best thing we can do and the Torah way is to tell them its okay, G-d understands and will forgive them. Express to them that your so confident of this that your willing to take the blame yourself and bear the guilt if necessary. You would be surprised how quickly that level of concern melts the heart of someone!

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