This week we read another double parsha, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim. While the Torah reading opens with a description of the aftermath of the death Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, for bringing some type of “strange fire” to the mishkan, and the ritual for the Kohanim, the overall theme of the second of the two parshiyot is the idea of holiness. There is an explicit command, “You shall be holy . . .” Why? Because “I the Lord am holy.” The parsha goes on to list actions that are not considered to be holy if they were done. These include using improper weights and measures in business, kilayim, the prohibition against planting two different species of plants side by side and treating people in a disrespectful manner.
What is holiness? This word often gets used but it needs definition. The Hebrew root means “separate” for some special purpose (my understanding). For example, the word for marriage in Hebrew is Kedushin. A couple have separated themselves from others to create a special relationship with each other. On Shabbat and Festivals we recite Kiddush, which through a liturgical formula we separate one day from the other six, again for a special purpose. In Parshat Yitro, HaShem refers to the Jewish people as an Am Kadosh, a holy people for it is through Torah and mitzvot the Jewish people have a special role and destiny in this world.
Holiness is not easy; it is delicate and takes much work. Shabbat is a holy day, and that holiness in manifest through the many laws regulating what is permitted and what is prohibited.
Holiness is not found in our actions towards HaShem alone, but also through our relationships with people and how we touch their lives. I have told this story before, but I like it therefore permit me to retell it.
There is a story of a monastery made up of elderly monks. No one was joining and they feared that the monastery would close. Nearby was a Jewish community. The leader of the monks went to visit the rabbi to ask what he could do. The rabbi told the monk, “I have no advice for you, but I can say that one of you is the Messiah.”
The elderly monk returned to his compatriots, somewhat dejected. He told them what the rabbi said, “One of you is the Messiah.” When his fellow monks heard this they began to treat each other as if that person was indeed the Messiah. Over time a transformation occurred in the monastery. A new level of respect and courtesy was discovered. Soon more joined. Soon the monastery was a different place, rejuvenated.
We are half way through the period of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer. Besides counting the 49 days until Shavuot, this period of time is one of Jewish national mourning for the Talmud relates to us that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died from a plague brought about because the students did not treat each other with proper respect. Because of this, we refrain from haircuts, lives music and weddings for seven weeks. Had they followed the rabbi’s advice from our story, would we be celebrating during these days instead?
Jewish life is a like a coin. One the one side there a rituals and practices for holidays and prayer. The other is the human side, the relationship side. Just like you can’t have a one-sided coin, you can’t have a one-sided Judaism. Mitzvot are on both sides. Shabbat is a mitzvah and giving kavod (respect) to another is a mitzvah. The mitzvot are vehicles for us to sanctify not only our own lives, but also to sanctify and uplift the lives of those around us.
Just think, the next person you see, may be the Messiah.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I have a confession to make. I make mistakes. For example, yesterday, I made one with a student. We talked, I admitted the error, apologized for it and we were able to move on. I make mistakes often and I while I am grateful for being called on them, for I can’t improve if I am not, it still stings when it happens for the mistakes indicate I have further to go to reach that impossible goal of perfection. I know that goal is unattainable, I still must strive, as we all must, to reach it.
This week we read the double portion of Tazria – Metzora. If any two parshiyot in the Torah appear, at least on the surface, to provide any inspiration it is these two. The main theme of both is purity and impurity and the disease known as Tzaraat, a condition manifested by snow white patches on the skin with white hairs protruding out from the patch. There were various shades of the whiteness which gave the affected skin the appearance of being deeper than the healthy skin around it.
A Metzora was an individual afflicted with Tzaraat. Tzaraat appeared as a physical malady on the body however Jewish tradition holds that it was the result of a spiritual degradation of the individual, the result of anti-social behavior – usually gossip or slander. In fact, the rabbis say the Hebrew word Metzora is a combination of two Hebrew words that mean “one who spreads slander.” The person diagnosed by the Kohain with Tzaraat was quarantined outside the camp for a period of time during which it was hoped the person would reflect on their behavior and begin the work to improve, to do Teshuva. The Metzora was one who made a mistake and process of purification as described by the Torah was the process to enable that person to improve.
People make mistakes and it is right and proper to tell one when a mistake as been made for as I mentioned earlier we can’t correct the mistakes unless we know about them. In fact the Torah does mandate rebuke of another when necessary, the question is how should it be done? How do we give criticism in a way that truly is constructive and will result is building a person up? This is something I know I haven’t yet figured out, for I know that if done the wrong way, the results can be worse than the mistake itself. I have been criticized for being too nice or too easy when perhaps I shouldn't. Those criticisms are correct. I am still working on that balance.
(By the way, I acknowledge there are really bad things people do. I am not referring to those here.)
Yet at the same time we also need to realize that we do good things as well and it is the good things that people do that needs nurturing, encouragement and emphasis.
The wise King Shlomo wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in (power) of the tongue.” Parshat Metzora teaches us that our words have impact; they have the power to destroy and the power to build. May we focus on the positive, make we focus on the good, for perhaps in doing so the mistakes will seem less egregious. (I should be looking in the mirror as I write this – I am my own worst critic). Imagine the community we can create.
We are good people, we do good things.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
In September of 1908 a ship sailing from London docked at Ellis Island. On it were my great-grandfather Tzvi Aryeh Tregor and his eldest daughter Alka. From there they made their way to East Boston. While the Ellis Island documents list my great-grandfather’s occupation as a “laborer” in his native Bessarabia, Russia, (his town was called Anchikrok) he became a tailor in America. By 1910 the rest of the family, including my grandfather, arrived. That same year the census taker changed Tregor to Traiger. My great-grandfather opened his own shop which was on the bottom floor of a three-family house; the family lived in the upper two stories. I have letters from several cousins who relate that he was a very kind man (apparently my great-grandmother was the more stern of the pair). He was a religious man who learned Chumash while he sewed. His becoming a tailor and opening his own store was to prevent him from having to work on Shabbat. I have in my possession his Kiddush cup. It is a small silver cup with the scene of a town etched into the side. I sometimes imagine that is his town.
The Talmud relates the story of Honi the Circle Maker. He was called such because during a drought he drew a circle around himself in the sand a declared to HaShem that he would not move from inside that circle until the rain would fall. Honi’s request was granted and rain did indeed fall. In another account of Honi, he encounters an elderly man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man how long it would take for the carob tree to bear its fruit. The man replied that it would take 70 years. Honi then asked the man if he expected to enjoy the carob. The man’s response was poignant. He said, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I am planting for my descendants.”
I find this passage very moving. The passage is told as a way to explain a verse from Psalms 126, “When HaShem will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers . . .”. The man planting the tree was a dreamer, he was looking into the future and dreaming of his descendants and leaving something behind for their benefit.
We just finished Pesach where we recalled our Biblical ancestor’s exodus from Egyptian tyranny. Now we are in the period known as Sefirat HaOmer, counting the days until Shavuot, the time when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Pesach only makes sense in this context for not only is a “Freedom from . . .” necessary, but it needs a “Freedom to . . .” It needs the future.
Perhaps this is our task. It is up to us to plant well for our children, to ensure that they receive the best carob possible. The carob is Jewish tradition. The carob is a quality Jewish education that will sustain them, strengthen them and strengthen the communityLittle did my great-grandfather know that one of the carobs that came from his tree, his Kiddush cup would be used by his great-great grandson (my son). Little did he know that the tree he planted in 1908 would bear wonderful fruit.
May we continue to plant here at GBDS and may we continue to make sure that the tree is nurtured and carob that is produced here is of the highest quality.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
The first time I led a Pesach seder I was a junior in college. The Hillel rabbi only wanted to lead one seder that year so he asked for a student to lead the seder on the second night. I was president of Hillel that year and something in me (insanity??) spurred me to volunteer. He sat down with me a few days before Pesach, went through the Haggadah with me and wished me luck. That second night I put on a tie and jacket (what else would I wear) and stood in front of dozens of students and some community people and gave it my all. How was the seder? Well . . . we need not talk about that here.
Thirty years after that experience we have arrived at Pesach, the Yom Tov that celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from the tyranny of Egyptian slavery to freedom. One of the most fascinating aspects of Jewish tradition is the calendar year. While indeed many of our holidays do recall historical events, our observances of them are not mere commemoration events, but rather opportunities to re-live the event itself in some way. Sitting in a sukkah is supposed to remind us of our Biblical ancestors who sat in sukkot during their sojourn through the desert. We stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot to bring us back to that spectacular revelatory experience at Sinai when the Jewish people received the Torah.
On Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at the seder, whose structure helps us re-live that experience. The Maggid section of the Haggadah is designed to bring us through this event. We begin with “Avadim Hayinu – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .” and over the course of what seems to be a long period of time we tell the story of how our ancestors were idol worshippers, but Avraham realized there was only One G-d in the world, we talk about the Jewish people going to Egypt and becoming enslaved and crying out to that G-d. We describe the plagues and empty our cups of just a bit of wine. Toward the end we list all the wonderful things HaShem has done for us through the singing of Dayyenu. Then, just before the second cup of wine, we recite the blessing of Geulah, Redemption. Finally we eat the matzah, the maror, the Hillel sandwich and commence with a delicious meal.
There are so many lessons to be learned from Pesach, so many ideas on which to focus. One thing my Hillel rabbi mentioned to me was the notion that each person has their own personal Egypt for which they need an exodus. Every person has challenges of some kind, things to which we become slaves and prevent us from becoming who we really want to be. The experience of the exodus was a challenge as the people found themselves caught between the Egyptians and the Reed Sea. With inspiration, through Moshe and Nachson ben Aminadav, the Jewish people went forward and overcame that obstacle and found themselves as free people on the other side. What will inspire us, who will encourage us to push though the challenge and free us from our personal enslavement?
Matzah is the perfect symbol for this idea. It simultaneously represents slavery, as matzah was the food the Jewish people ate while enslaved. It also stands for redemption for the Torah describes that the dough did not have time to rise since the Jews needed to leave Egypt quickly. May the matzah we eat remind us that we need not be enslaved to those ideas, those actions that hinder our true potential for greatness. May that matzah inspire us to move towards our own personal exodus. The Jewish people have become a great people since that moment at the Sea. For each of us, greatness is within our reach.
Wishing you all a Hag Kasher v’ Samayach, a wonderful, joyous Pesach.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I was up early this morning preparing soup and fish for Shabbat. I chopped up the vegetables and threw them in to the pot with water and let it boil for about 90 minutes. I put the fish into a pot to boil for about 45 minutes. By 5 am I prepared the cholent, putting the beans and barley into the crock pot. By this time the vegetables we soft and I pureed them into soup. I added a bit of onion powder and garlic powder, but I discovered one problem – no salt. I forgot to buy more when I went shopping last night. I found some soy sauce in the cabinet, poured some in and made a mental note to buy more salt on my way home today. I could use soy sauce in the soup, but I really can’t dip the challah into soy sauce at the Shabbat meal.
This week we begin Sefer VaYikra. The main thrust of this third book of the Torah is to put into use the mishkan whose construction was described for much of the second half of Sefer Shemot. The parsha begins with the offerings that were brought in the Mishkan. In the parsha there is this strange idea of a Covanant of Salt. The Torah says, “You shall salt your every meal offering with salt; you may not discontinue the salt of your G-d’s Covenant from upon your meal offering – on your every offering shall you offer salt.”
What exactly is this Covenant of Salt? The midrash describes that during Creation when a division was made between the “Heavenly Waters” and the “Earthly Waters,” the “Earthly Waters” protested – they wanted to be close to the Divine as were the “Heavenly Waters.” To comfort the Earthly Waters, HaShem forged a covenant with them that they too would have a share in Divine service through the salt that comes from the salt water of the oceans. The salt would be used as part of the sacrificial offerings in the mishkan and in the Beit HaMikdash.
Today, when we no longer have offerings, the Shabbat table is considered a Mikdash Me’at, a replacement for the altar and we use salt with the challah. Salt was used as a preservative before refrigeration. Some Hasidic commentaries say that salt neither spoils nor decays making it a perfect metaphor for the unbreakable bond that HaShem has with the Jewish people.
Salt has another property as well. When salted just right it enhances flavor, it makes the flavor of that food stronger; more tasty. There is another metaphor – the role of parents and teachers and leaders in general is to bring out the strengths of our children, of our students, of the people we are privileged to serve as leaders. Salt brings out the strengths of the food so we enjoy the food to the fullest. Our task as parents or as teachers is to bring out the full potential of our children. Leaders need to bring out the talents of others, to help them reach their full potential.
May we all be a metaphorical salt shaker for others, to help bring out the greatness of our children, our students, and those people who lives we touch every day.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger