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Emor


  • Man & The Beast

    by Rabbi Eli Mansour

     At the end of Parashat Emor, we read of the unfortunate incident of the “Megadef,” the blasphemer, a man from Beneh Yisrael who publicly blasphemed the name of God. In response, God instructed Moshe that the “Megadef” must be put to death. Interestingly enough, however, God’s instructions do not end there. He then proceeded to tell Moshe other, seemingly unrelated laws: “One who kills an animal shall pay for it, and one who kills a person shall die” (24:21). For some reason, after establishing the punishment for blasphemy, God finds it necessary to add that one is liable to capital punishment for murder, and one who kills somebody’s animal must compensate for the loss. How are these laws relevant to the context of the “Megadef”?

    The sin of the “Megadef” involves his misuse of the faculty of speech. Our ability to communicate ideas through words is a remarkable gift from Hashem, and is what distinguishes us and sets us fundamentally apart from other creatures. And we have been given this gift to use for lofty purposes – to speak kindly to others, to pray, to learn, and to help develop and advance the world. The “Megadef” used this power for the precise opposite purpose – to defame and desecrate the Name of God. God emphasizes this aspect of the “Megadef” story by noting the distinction between killing people and killing animals. A murderer is liable to the death penalty, whereas killing somebody’s animal is punishable only by compensation. The loss of an animal can be compensated for, but the loss of a human life can never be repaid. Human beings are fundamentally different from beasts, as we are endowed with a sacred soul, and this difference is most clearly manifest through the power of verbal communication. Therefore, when responding to the tragic incident of the “Megadef,” God noted the legal distinction between murder and killing an animal. He emphasizes the special status of human beings, who are able to speak and express ideas, thus highlighting the gravity of blasphemy, the ultimate misuse and defilement of the faculty of speech.

    The Torah makes a point of informing us that the “Megadef” was the son of a woman named Shlomit Bat Dibri. The name “Dibri,” which relates to the root “D.B.R.” (“speak”), likely alludes to the fact that she was a talkative woman, who did not exercise proper discretion in speech. The Torah thus mentions her name to show us the origins of the “Megadef,” the family background that very possibly led to his heinous crime. Parents who speak improperly are likely to beget children who speak improperly. It is no coincidence that a woman referred to as “Bat Dibri” had a son who defiled his tongue by blaspheming the Almighty.

    Few, if any, of us are likely to follow the example of the “Megadef” and publicly curse the Name of God. Nevertheless, we have much to learn from this unfortunate episode about the value and sanctity of speech. As speech is what sets us apart from animals, the way we talk in a sense defines the extent of our humanity. We must exercise extreme care in how we use this remarkable power, and always speak in a dignified, proper and refined manner, using this gift the way God intended for it to be used. And as we see from the story of the “Megadef,” the way we speak has a profound effect upon our children, whose own manner of speech develops according to the example they see at home. If they watch and hear us speaking properly, this is how will they will speak, as well, and they will thus grow to use God’s gift for the purposes it wass intended, to glorify His Name and bring more Kedusha into the world. 


    At the end of Parashat Emor, we read of the unfortunate incident of the “Megadef,” the blasphemer, a man from Beneh Yisrael who publicly blasphemed the name of God. In response, God instructed Moshe that the “Megadef” must be put to death. Interestingly enough, however, God’s instructions do not end there. He then proceeded to tell Moshe other, seemingly unrelated laws: “One who kills an animal shall pay for it, and one who kills a person shall die” (24:21). For some reason, after establishing the punishment for blasphemy, God finds it necessary to add that one is liable to capital punishment for murder, and one who kills somebody’s animal must compensate for the loss. How are these laws relevant to the context of the “Megadef”? 

    The sin of the “Megadef” involves his misuse of the faculty of speech. Our ability to communicate ideas through words is a remarkable gift from Hashem, and is what distinguishes us and sets us fundamentally apart from other creatures. And we have been given this gift to use for lofty purposes – to speak kindly to others, to pray, to learn, and to help develop and advance the world. The “Megadef” used this power for the precise opposite purpose – to defame and desecrate the Name of God. God emphasizes this aspect of the “Megadef” story by noting the distinction between killing people and killing animals. A murderer is liable to the death penalty, whereas killing somebody’s animal is punishable only by compensation. The loss of an animal can be compensated for, but the loss of a human life can never be repaid. Human beings are fundamentally different from beasts, as we are endowed with a sacred soul, and this difference is most clearly manifest through the power of verbal communication. Therefore, when responding to the tragic incident of the “Megadef,” God noted the legal distinction between murder and killing an animal. He emphasizes the special status of human beings, who are able to speak and express ideas, thus highlighting the gravity of blasphemy, the ultimate misuse and defilement of the faculty of speech. 

    The Torah makes a point of informing us that the “Megadef” was the son of a woman named Shlomit Bat Dibri. The name “Dibri,” which relates to the root “D.B.R.” (“speak”), likely alludes to the fact that she was a talkative woman, who did not exercise proper discretion in speech. The Torah thus mentions her name to show us the origins of the “Megadef,” the family background that very possibly led to his heinous crime. Parents who speak improperly are likely to beget children who speak improperly. It is no coincidence that a woman referred to as “Bat Dibri” had a son who defiled his tongue by blaspheming the Almighty. 

    Few, if any, of us are likely to follow the example of the “Megadef” and publicly curse the Name of God. Nevertheless, we have much to learn from this unfortunate episode about the value and sanctity of speech. As speech is what sets us apart from animals, the way we talk in a sense defines the extent of our humanity. We must exercise extreme care in how we use this remarkable power, and always speak in a dignified, proper and refined manner, using this gift the way God intended for it to be used. And as we see from the story of the “Megadef,” the way we speak has a profound effect upon our children, whose own manner of speech develops according to the example they see at home. If they watch and hear us speaking properly, this is how will they will speak, as well, and they will thus grow to use God’s gift for the purposes it wass intended, to glorify His Name and bring more Kedusha into the world. 

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  • Trust means Sharing the Blessing

    by gTorah.com

     The agricultural aspects of the Chagim are often forgotten in today’s world of finance and commerce. People would plant their fields around Sukkos; cut the crops at Pesach; and leave them to dry until Shavuos, when they would gather in the yield – hence the alternative name for Shavuos, Chag Ha’Asif – the Chag of Gathering. The main feature of Shavuos was the Omer offering, where people would bring the first two bushels they harvested to Jerusalem.

    People nervously check their investments to see if they work out. It’s the same for crops, between planting and harvesting. Once cut, owners can be satisfied with the certainty of that year’s yield. Yet in Judaism, the freshly cut crops would be off limits until the Omer offering was brought. This then permitted consumption of the rest. Shmitta and Yovel govern land use so that people relinquish control and effective ownership of their land every few years, and the Omer serves a similar purpose.

    Typically, communal offerings consist of a single animal or unit, representing the united Jewish people. Why is the Omer made up of two portions?

    Rav Hirsch teaches how the laws regulating use of the Land of Israel instil a sense of gratitude and trust in a person. That little bit of doubt, that little bit of insecurity, are exactly the points at which a person can actionably show their dependence and gratitude for the blessings they have.

    When a communal offering has more than one unit, it is for the component parts of the Jewish people. There are two portions to the Omer offering to remind us that we cannot enjoy our blessings unless others are able to as well. It’s part of the trust and thanks we owe for what we have.

    We cannot say thank you for our blessings without sharing them as well.

    IT’S NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE

    The Cohanim are restricted over and above other Jews with regard to certain laws:

    לֹא-יקרחה קָרְחָה בְּרֹאשָׁם, וּפְאַת זְקָנָם לֹא יְגַלֵּחוּ; וּבִבְשָׂרָם–לֹא יִשְׂרְטוּ, שָׂרָטֶת. קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ – A razor may not pass over your head, nor may you remove your beard. Do not cut your skin. Be holy… (21:5-6)

    The prohibition on men to remove all their hair is actually not specific to Cohanim, and pertains to all Jews. The Maharil Diskin explains why.

    Jews are defined by their actions, not appearance. A Jew is recognised by their force of good deeds and quality of character. In popular culture however, we know all too well that in the age of “celebrity”, a makeover is somehow newsworthy. Appearances are deceptive; the same person is perceived differently by looking different, yet remaining the same.

    But how is the principle that appearances aren’t all they seem, taught from the laws of a Cohen – who actually have a uniform they are required to wear?

    Perhaps a distinction can be drawn. The uniform is not universal – that would truly be meaningless. The uniform is exclusive to Cohanim. An on-duty Cohen is serving God in the Beis HaMikdash – the clothing is for the office, not the individual.

    The way you dress might not be appropriate for a monarch or head of state. They have to dress up out of respect for the office, not themselves – not a hair can be out of place. But as God’s people, as princes and princesses one and all, we have to dress for the office too. Not everyone has to have a suit and black hat; everyone is at a different place. But we have to respect who we are enough to dress with class and dignity.

    TIMELESS LESSONS

    The Torah never refers explicitly to Shavuos or Rosh Hashana by their primary themes of the Torah and the day of judgement. Why does the Torah overlook this?

    The Kli Yakar explains that the themes transcend a particular moment.

    Torah each day is a new experience, bringing fresh understanding and enhanced insights with it. The Torah is on offer every day, and we choose through our actions whether to accept or decline. Calling Shavuos “Torah Day” is a disservice to our responsibilities.

    Likewise, is described as the day to blow the Shofar, because our actions are under scrutiny every day. We are accountable always. Calling Rosh HaShana “Judgment Day” is a disservice to our accountability.
     

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  • In the Diary

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

     

    Time management is more than management and larger than time. It is about life itself. God gives us one thing above all: life itself. And He gives it to us all on equal terms. However rich we are, there are still only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and a span of years that, however long, is still all too short. Whoever we are, whatever we do, whatever gifts we have, the single most important fact about our life, on which all else depends, is how we spend our time.[1]

    “The span of our life is seventy years, or if we are strong, eighty years,” says Psalm 90, and despite the massive reduction of premature deaths in the past century, the average life expectancy around the world, according to the most recent United Nations figures (2010-2015) is 71.5 years.[2] So, concludes the Psalm, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” reminding us that time management is not simply a productivity tool. It is, in fact, a spiritual exercise.

    Hence the following life-changing idea, which sounds simple, but isn’t. Do not rely exclusively on To Do lists. Use a diary. The most successful people schedule their most important tasks in their diary.[3] They know that if it isn’t in there, it won’t get done. To Do lists are useful, but not sufficient. They remind us of what we have to do but not when. They fail to distinguish between what is important and what is merely urgent. They clutter the mind with trivia and distract us when we ought to be focusing on the things that matter most in the long run. Only a diary connects what with when. And what applies to individuals applies to communities and cultures as a whole.

    That is what the Jewish calendar is about. It is why chapter 23, in this week’s parsha, is so fundamental to the continued vitality of the Jewish people. It sets out a weekly, monthly and yearly schedule of sacred times. This is continued and extended in Parshat Behar to seven- and fifty-year schedules. The Torah forces us to remember what contemporary culture regularly forgets: that our lives must have dedicated times when we focus on the things that give life a meaning. And because we are social animals, the most important times are the ones we share. The Jewish calendar is precisely that: a structure of shared time.

    We all need an identity, and every identity comes with a story. So we need a time when we remind ourselves of the story of where we came from and why we are who we are. That happens on Pesach, when we re-enact the founding moment of our people as they began their long walk to freedom.

    We need a moral code, an internalised satellite navigation system to guide us through the wilderness of time. That is what we celebrate on Shavuot when we relive the moment when our ancestors stood at Sinai, made their covenant with God, and heard Heaven declare the Ten Commandments.

    We need a regular reminder of the brevity of life itself, and hence the need to use time wisely. That is what we do on Rosh Hashanah as we stand before God in judgment and pray to be written in the Book of Life.

    We need a time when we confront our faults, apologise for the wrong we have done, make amends, resolve to change, and ask for forgiveness. That is the work of Yom Kippur.

    We need to remind ourselves that we are on a journey, that we are “strangers and sojourners” on earth, and that where we live is only a temporary dwelling. That is what we experience on Succot.

    And we need, from time to time, to step back from the ceaseless pressures of work and find the rest in which we can celebrate our blessings, renew our relationships, and recover the full vigour of body and mind. That is Shabbat.

    Doubtless, most people – at least, most reflective people – know that these things are important. But knowing is not enough. These are elements of a life that become real when we live them, not just when we know them. That is why they have to be in the diary, not just on a To Do list.

    As Alain de Botton points out in his Religion for Atheists, we all know that it is important to mend broken relationships. But without Yom Kippur, there are psychological pressures that can make us endlessly delay such mending.[4] If we are the offended party, we may not want to show other people our hurt. It makes us look fragile, vulnerable. And if we are the offending party, it can be hard to admit our guilt, not least because we feel so guilty. As he puts it: “We can be so sorry that we find ourselves incapable of saying sorry.” The fact that Yom Kippur exists means that there is a day in the diary on which we have to do the mending – and this is made easier by the knowledge that everyone else is doing so likewise. In his words:

    It is the day itself that is making us sit here and talk about the peculiar incident six months ago when you lied and I blustered and you accused me of insincerity and I made you cry, an incident that neither of us can quite forget but that we can't quite mention either and which has been slowly corroding the trust and love we once had for one another. It is the day that has given us the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to stop talking of our usual business and to reopen a case we pretended to have put out of our minds. We are not satisfying ourselves, we are obeying the rules.[5]

    Exactly so: we are obeying the rules. We are following the Jewish calendar, which takes many of the most important truths about our lives and, instead of putting them on a To Do list, writes them in the diary.

    What happens when you do not have that kind of diary? Contemporary Western secular society is a case-study in the consequences. People no longer tell the story of the nation. Hence national identities, especially in Europe, are almost a thing of the past –one reason for the return of the Far Right in countries like Austria, Holland and France.

    People no longer share a moral code, which is why students in universities seek to ban speakers with whose views they disagree. When there is no shared code, there can be no reasoned argument, only the use of force.

    As for remembering the brevity of life, Roman Krznaric reminds us that modern society is “geared to distract us from death. Advertising creates a world where everyone is forever young. We shunt the elderly away in care homes, out of sight and mind.” Death has become “a topic as taboo as sex was during the Victorian era.”[6]

    Atonement and forgiveness have been driven out of public life, to be replaced by public shaming, courtesy of the social media. As for Shabbat, almost everywhere in the West the day of rest has been replaced by the sacred day of shopping, and rest itself replaced by the relentless tyranny of smartphones.

    Fifty years ago, the most widespread prediction was that by now almost everything would have been automated. The work week would be down to 20 hours and our biggest problem would be what to do with all our leisure. Instead, most people today find themselves working harder than ever with less and less time to pursue the things that make life meaningful. As Leon Kass recently put it, people “still hope to find meaning in their lives,” but they are increasingly confused about “what a worthy life might look like, and about how they might be able to live one.”[7]

    Hence the life-changing magic of the Jewish calendar. Philosophy seeks timeless truths. Judaism, by contrast, takes truths and translates them into time in the form of sacred, shared moments when we experience the great truths by living them. So: whatever you want to achieve, write it in the diary or it will not happen. And live by the Jewish calendar if you want to experience, not just occasionally think about, the things that give life a meaning.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

     
    Footnotes:

    [1] For an excellent recent book about the way our behaviour is governed by time, see Daniel Pink, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Riverhead Books, 2018.

    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy.

    [3] See Kevin Kruse, 15 Secrets Successful People Know about Time Management, 2017.

    [4] Of course, Yom Kippur atones only for sins between us and God, not for those between us and our fellows. But it is a day when, traditionally, we seek to make amends for the latter also. Indeed most of the sins we confess in the long list, Al Cheit, are sins between humans and other humans.[5] Ibid., xxxiv.

    [5] Alain De Botton, Religion for Atheists, Hamish Hamilton, 2012, 55 – 56.

    [6] Roman Krznaric, Carpe Diem Regained, Unbound, 2017, 22.

    [7] Leon Kass, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, Encounter Books, 2018, 9.

     

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