Parsha Naso

This week’s torah parsha is Naso. One of the interesting aspects that I found was the issue dealing with the sotah – a woman who was suspected of adultery. The test that was done to confirm her guilt was that a section of the torah was soaked in water until the ink dissolved. The sotah was to consume and if her belly swelled then she was guilty and would die. If not, than she was interesting. This appears similar to some of our own more archaic methods of dealing with criminals. There were several “trials” or manners in which people’s innocence was tested. There was trial by water, where a supposed guilty person was shackled and dropped in water. If they sank, they were guilty, if they floated, they were innocent.

The notion of testing people’s innocence through trial is an interesting notion as it purports that we need more than an omission of innocence, but a physical act that is so grand in scale that it can be interpreted in a guilty or innocent conviction (whereas words can be loose). Many of these trials are founded on the belief that G-d is the ultimate decider and knows the innocence of the person. Ghandi once said “there is no G-d higher than truth.” In saying this, there appears to be a bit of an interesting contradiction in the use of trials as proof and having     G-d be the decider of the outcome.

There is a nice Yiddish proverb that states “a half truth is a whole lie.” Our modern society is rich in the stereotype the politicians are master wordsmiths who are adept at making lies appear to be the truth. While often we take what they have to say at face value, they eventually end up being found out. If the sotah was put through a trial where as she was essentially swearing her innocence on the literal words of the torah, would there not be another more modern way of making people eat the words the speak?

Finally, there is also much to be said on one’s reputation in the world based off of how they comport themselves. When a person says that they are going to take action on an issue and don’t, or allow a large amount of time to pass, they are just as guilty of their inaction as is the crime itself. A person’s word is their bond, when they have sworn to do something, are they not also affirming themselves before G-d too? Would we not be judged in a similar matter? On Yom Kippur, we are to break any promises that we have not kept in order to start the year anew. However, as the Russian proverb says, “With lies you may get ahead in the world – but you can never go back”.

Shabbat Shalom!

Daniel Benzimra

Bamidbar – The Quest for Tranquility

The Quest for Tranquility

In the closing passages of tractate Berachot, the sages offer a surprising and rather disheartening declaration: “Scholars of Torah have no rest (menuha), not in this world nor in the world to come” (B. Brachot 64a). What are our sages trying to tell us? Nowhere in the Talmud do we have a satisfactory explanation for this statement.

For many this is a gloomy prognosis; will we never merit a sense of achievement? After toiling over the pages of the first tractate of Talmud, after plowing through dense tomes, investing significant time and energy – perhaps with the hope of becoming a Torah scholar – we are greeted with this discouraging pronouncement: “Scholars of Torah have no rest, not in this world nor in the world to come.”

One hassidic masters have a beautiful explanation. They say that Torah scholars have no rest because they need no rest. Those who dedicate their time to Torah study are so inspired by their encounter with tradition that they never tire (Rav Yeive, 18th century, Poland). Indeed when we embark on a journey that speaks to the root of our soul, we draw on hidden reserves of energy; we transcend our earthly existence, never tiring always invigorated.

Another hassidic master offered an explanation that reinterpreted the meaning of “rest.” He understood “rest” to mean stagnation. Torah scholars do not rest because they never vegetate. Each day spent poring over the texts of our tradition reveals heretofore hidden pearls. Thus the statement that they will not rest is actually a blessing: Torah scholars will continually produce, continually innovate, forecasting creativity and originality in their work, they will not languish.

Unfortunately the word Menuha does not contain the sense of stagnation, or vegetating. The 16th century rabbi Moses Isserles quotes in his opening comment to the Shulhan Aruch: “I have set God before me constantly (Psalms 16:8). He makes a distinction between Menuha and Shalva, translated as tranquility.

Accordingly, Rabbi Isserles says that  Indeed we strive not for rest; rest is idle festering that can be beset by decline and rot. We do aspire, however, to tranquility, that inner sense of peace and purpose; a pervasive feeling of making the unique contribution that is our lot; a life dedicated to the pursuit of goodness. Shalva can only be attained when there is no menuha. Menuha is good for Shabbat as a respite from the vicissitudes of the workweek; shalva is a goal for life.

The shalva of the righteous student of Torah is in truth the absence of menuha, for the righteous student of torah does not rest in the face of much, much that must be fixed… and how can a person experience tranquility when he sees faults and does not attempt to fix them?” Lack of rest is a religious ideal. It is a value to which a person who seeks to grow intellectually and spiritually should aspire. The epitome of tranquility is not respite; it is movement and progress.

It is on that very note that Brachot, the first tractate of Talmud, signs off: The goal is not to conclude; the ideal is to continue without rest.

Shabbat Shalom
Jacques Abourbih

FNTP – Scott

This week Scott will be speaking as part of the Friday Night Talks Program on the topic of ‘Jewish Mothers Day’

If I am not for myself who will be for me?

Im ein Ani li, Mi Li (If I am not for myself who will be for me?)

by Jacques Abourbih

Hillel is widely recognized as one of the wisest most humble person who ever lived. His most famous aphorism recorded in the Pirke Avot says: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

I think part of the difficulties with this statement is the universal perception of Hillel as Mr. Nice guy. One cannot imagine that Hillel, the paradigm of humility could be so self centered as the first part of that aphorism implies, much less advocating for himself. People are quick to point out that the second part counter-balances the first: “And if I am only for myself who am I?” There. You see? Here is the old Hillel that we know and love.

Not so. The second proposition does not negate the first. Nor Hillel’s questions a mere exercise in introspective musing on one’s spiritual purpose. The Mishna advocates social justice for both the community and the individual. The last part of the aphorism sheds a significant dimension demanding ever vigilance that the rights of the self are not abused in favor of the collective or vice versa. It says: “If not now when?”

There is a powerful story in Martin Buber’s book “Tales of the Chassidic”.

A man once approached a Tzadic, a great chassidic master who askes him:

“Why did you come here?”

‘To find G-d.”

“Then you came for nothing. You wasted your time.”

“Why” demands the man

“God is everywhere.”

“Then, tell me, master, why should I have come?”

“To find yourself.”

Let’s dissect the first part of the aphorism. There are two expressions in Hebrew to describe the self that don’t have clear translations in English. The first one is Ani, roughly translated as “I”.  It is the deepest self. It is our personalized facet of the Divine image.   By contrast “Li” the second self roughly equivalent to “myself” originates from others, from society’s perception of the person – from that which is outside “Ani”.

It is easy to see how Ani and Li wrestle with each other creating an identity crisis. The ultimate victory of this struggle is Abraham in Genesis where g-d tells him: “לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ” “Go, get yourself out from your country, your birthplace, your father’s house”.

The alternate reading of לֶךְ-לְךָ is “Go to yourself” to find yourself.  The idea is that only by breaking away from the external forces that place demands on you can you hope to come to realizing your true values and your priorities in your life.

Clearly Abraham was torn by demands made upon him by his ties to his community, his village of birth, to his responsibilities in Haran. It is only when he “went to himself” searching “Ani” for answers that he understood his destiny.

Shabbat Shalom