Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Do Your Civic Duty

I often hear people scheming and sharing ways to get out of jury duty. Heck, I even did it myself a few months back (in my defense, though, it was during school). Certainly, jury duty in Baltimore City is hardly oodles of fun: city employees are largely rude and often incompetent. So, I can totally understand not wanting to miss a day of work to deal with such annoyance and incompetence for a meager $15 or $20. However, after gaining a better understanding of the criminal justice system, I now implore those seeking to get out of jury duty to fulfill their civic duty.

Baltimore City (and likely other large urban areas) is filled with people who feel they, themselves, or someone close to them, have been wronged by the criminal justice system. Whether it be getting roughed up by a city cop, a family member getting a harsh sentence from a judge, or otherwise, city cops, State's Attorneys, and judges are not looked upon with favor by the city-folk. So, what happens when all of us law-abiding citizens without chips on our shoulders weasel our way out of jury duty? A: juries filled with people just looking to acquit, to "get back" at the "system." City juries regularly acquit open-and-shut cases...not necessarily because the State did not meet its burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but because the jurors are getting their retribution against the criminal justice system (termed "jury nullification").

The brother of a good friend of mine from high school was murdered in Patterson Park two years ago after laying in a coma for nine months. The prosecution supposedly had a strong case against the thugs who committed the murder. However, fearing a jury seeking retribution against the system (which would acquit), the prosecutors were forced to offer the thugs a plea deal. Perhaps if less people tried to get out of jury duty, juries would be more heavily infused with people willing to look a a case with an open mind, as opposed to folks eager to acquit. I know it is less than convenient, and likely a miserable experience. However, by fulfilling our civic jury duty, we have the chance to remedy the joke that our city's criminal justice system has become.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Time for a Culture Change

A few weeks ago I attended the sentencing hearing of a local, well-known, politically connected, business man from Baltimore County that defrauded individuals and banks over a number of years to the tune of $32 million dollars. What made his story bizarre was that, while he lived lavishly off of the fruits of his crime, he also established a number of charitable organizations that were doing a lot of good for the community. A modern day Robin Hood of sorts. Anyway, the scene was quite tragic. As to be expected, a number of people spoke on his behalf: various people he had helped out along the way, his daughter, and his wife. When these people spoke, they spoke as if they realized that their friend, father, and husband, was going to be heading to jail for a long period of time. Most of them sobbed the way through their speeches, speaking about what a great person the defendant was. The courtroom was packed with friends and family, many who could be seen sobbing during most of the sentencing hearing. The mood of the courtroom was quite sad; again, while he clearly was a horrible man for defrauding innocent people and institutions of millions of dollars, it did seem as if this guy was a good man, a good father, and a good husband, and the actions of those in the courtroom reflected this.

Contrast this with another sentencing hearing that I attended this week. This was a 24-year old guy from the streets of Baltimore being sentenced for a distribution of cocaine charge. Because he was considered a "career offender" (two prior drug offense charges), the sentencing guidelines were between 22 and 27 years for this charge. The only people there to support him were his girlfriend, his mother, his aunt, and his children. The mood in the courtroom was noticeably different from the prior proceeding that I had attended. Whereas the prior defendant had a serious look on his face, and broke down during allocution, this thug sat slouched in his chair, leaning back, often smiling and laughing. And while it have been that his children did not fully understand what was going on, I found it telling that they were essentially running around the back of the courtroom as if it were a playground. His mother, aunt, and girlfriend, while not joking around, sat there with an expression not very different from someone sitting in church or synagogue - just there because we have to be, and not because we want to be.

The problem, as I see it, is one of culture. For people that live on the streets of Baltimore, going to jail, even for long periods of time, is simply part of life. Mothers are accustomed to seeing their babies serve time, girlfriends accustomed to having their children see their baby-daddy through the visitation glass at prison. Those associated with the first defendant were not accustomed to seeing a beloved friend, father, and spouse, go to jail. This was evident by the demeanor of all in attendance at that sentencing. Their culture is not one of crime, violence, and incarceration. Until the culture of the streets - one in which it is "OKAY" to shirk all civic and familial responsibilities while rotting in jail - changes, this city, and others similarly situated where remain breeding grounds for criminals; one in which the children have little chance of contributing anything to society.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Parshas Metzora 5768

וְהֶעֱמִיד הַכֹּהֵן הַמְטַהֵר, אֵת הָאִישׁ הַמִּטַּהֵר--וְאֹתָם: לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
” The kohein doing the purification, shall place the man undergoing the purification and the [aforementioned] items, before Ad-noy, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”

" At the Nicanor Gate, and not in the [outer] court itself". - Rashi

The Torah tells us while the Kohein is performing the sacrifices associated with the purification process of the Metzora, he may not enter the court itself, but must wait at this "Nicanor Gate." The Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov in his Shemen haMor explains why the Metzora must wait specifically at the gate named after Nicanor.

He brings down the story involving Nicacor from the Gemara in Yoma (38a). The story goes that Nicanor traveled to Egypt to buy a pair of doors for the Beis haMikdash. On the boat ride back to Israel there was a horrible storm on the boat, and it was in desperate danger of sinking unless those aboard the boat dumped some weight into the ocean. Initially, they took one of the doors made in Egypt, without protest from Nicanor, and pitched it into the ocean. However, after getting ready to throw the 2nd door overboard, Nicacor grabbed a hold of the door and said, "if you're going to throw the door in, then you may as well throw me in." Upon displaying this Mesiras Nefesh, the wicked storm calmed and the boat made it back to Israel. As they were unloading the one door that had managed made it, the workers noticed something on the underside of the boat - the 2nd door had miraculously traveled with the boat's current all the way back to the holy land.

This story provides a tremendous amount of Chizuk, as there are certainly plenty of times in one's life, that, for whatever reason, it just doesn't seem like anything good is forthcoming. Whether it be because something bad happened to us and we think that we'll never recover from it; or whether something good happened to us and we lament not being able to attain that again - we should look at the story of Nicanor and realize that just when it seems like something negative is sure to come our way, Hashem comes through for us.

This is what the Metzora is likely thinking after his ordeal - after having a skin disease and going through the arduous atonement process; he is likely to think that he'll never be able to attain his original place with the Jewish people. However, the Kohein makes him wait by Nicanor gate to remind him, that just as Hashem came through for Nicanor when it seemed as if his mission had failed, Hashem can come through for the Metzora, and for all of us.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bris Speech

The following was the speech I gave at the Seudas Bris following the birth of our son.

וְהָאֵשׁ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ תּוּקַד-בּוֹ לֹא תִכְבֶּה, וּבִעֵר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עֵצִים בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר; וְעָרַךְ עָלֶיהָ הָעֹלָה, וְהִקְטִיר עָלֶיהָ חֶלְבֵי הַשְּׁלָמִים. ו אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ--לֹא תִכְבֶּה.

“The fire on the altar shall be kindled with it it shall not be extinguished. The kohein shall burn logs upon it each and every morning and arrange the burnt-offering on it and burn upon it the fats of the peace-offering. A continual fire shall be lit on the altar; it shall not be extinguished.”

The verses in this coming week’s parsha that speak about the fire which was lit on the Mizbeach cite the words “Lo Sichveh”/ do not extinguish twice. There is the idea that Hashem did not waste words when he gave over the Torah to Moshe, and in this vein, Rashi explains that one who extinguishes the fire that is lit on the Mizbeach had violated TWO negative prohibitions; one for each of the instances that the Torah says “Lo Sichveh”. We must examine this idea a bit deeper to understand why the Torah was so strict that it mandated two prohibitions for extinguishing the light that remained lit on the Mizbeach.

The Talmud Yerushalmi in Yoma quotes an opinion that says that this fire on the Mizbeach remained lit “af b’maasaos”, that is, it remained lit even when the Jewish people were traveling throughout the desert. However, another question lingers – since the Jews were not using the Mizbeach while they were traveling, why did they need this Aish, this fire, to remain lit, even when not in use?

Rabbi Yosef Greenwald says that here, there is a profound lesson that each of us should apply to our own lives, but first mentions that the word “TORAH” in the Tanach is frequently called “AISH”, so in our analysis we can substitute these words interchangeably. Rav Greenwald says that the Aish haTorah/ FIRE OF TORAH is something that is undoubtedly with us when we are learning and when we are davening. However, it is not enough that the Aish haTorah be lit in our lives only when we are engaged in spiritual pursuits; it must also be with us when we are engaged in the mundane. That is, we must take the Aish haTorah that is burning when we are engaged in the spiritual realm, and somehow infuse that in the rest of our lives, whether that be in school or in the workplace – somehow continually maintaining our connection to Yiddishkeit in any way possible, at all time. This is why the Torah was so strict in mandating TWO prohibitions for extinguishing the flame on the Mizbeach – that which the Mizbeach stood for, regardless of whether it was actually being used at a specific time, needed to permeate the lives of the Jewish people.

In fact, we see this idea in the timely story of Purim. The rabbis tell us that Esther, who was in Achashverosh’s harem for a number of years, was sure to maintain her connection to Judaism while in her stay at the palace. The rabbis comment that Esther appointed 7 servants, one for each day of the week, so she would know which day she was to observe Shabbos. However, the commentaries ask – did Esther not know how to count? She simply could’ve counted the days and known when Shabbos was that way. One beautiful answer that I saw was that if Esther would’ve only had 1 servant, and that one servant would’ve seen her acting differently on 1 day of the week (on SHABBOS), they would’ve become suspicious of her actions, and possibly reported them to the king of her being Jewish. However, in appointing seven DIFFERENT servants, for the servant who worked every Shabbos, Esther was acting no differently, and therefore, would arouse no suspicion. Thus, we see that, even while in the royal harem of Achachverosh, Esther was very calculated in making sure that she maintained a connection to Judaism.

Rabbi Kosman, the Rabbi in Frederick, often says that there is no such thing as a coincidence. It’s no coincidence then that man after whom we named our child, Yaakov Yerachmiel Hammermesh, my wife’s grandfather, fully embodied this approach to Judaism. Yaakov Yerachmiel lived in one of the most horrible times in Jewish history. The eyes and ears of anyone subjected to the Holocaust sensed things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst of enemies. One would think that even if the body would be able to recover from such experiences, certainly the mind would not – that is, it would be expected that such a person would lack Derech Eretz let alone even act humanly. However, as evidenced by his children and his grandchildren, it cannot simply be by accident that they inherited his gentle Kavod haBriyos and his Derech Eretz. Yaakov Yerachmiel raised a family that, even though rooted in the most troubling of times in Jewish history, had strong Jewish values. His experiences tested his faith in ways that none of us, God forbid, should ever know from, yet his resolve to pass Yiddishkeit onto his family is apparent to anyone that knows them. Just as it was the Jews’ responsibility to keep the Aish of the Mizbeach lit at all times, it is now our job as parents to kindle the Aish haTorah at all times for our son. Peggy and I thank all of your for coming out tonight and we know that if our son is surrounded by the same friends, parents, and grandparents that we are so lucky to have in our lives, then Yaakov Yerachmiel Laz will become a Jew that Yaakov Yerachmiel Hammermesh would’ve been proud of.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Losing YOUR Religion

Reading Jewboy's post about something in the orthodox world that saddened him reminded me of a New York Times article that a friend forwarded me a few days ago.

The article speaks about an Orthodox rabbi serving a 27-year sentence in an Otisville, NY federal penitentiary (where, I'm told there is at least 1 Daf Yomi Shiur) for fraudulently obtaining more than $4 million. Oh, and we're not talking about not-paying-your-taxes $4 million, we're talking collecting-money-for-a-fake-lottery $4 million. He is suing the Bureau of Prisons for the right to be able to pray outside of his cell. He claims that he cannot pray inside of his cell because of the presence of a toilet, and in doing so, he would be violating Halacha.

Thank G-d, we live in a country where we can pray where we want, when we want. We live in time period that is arguably the best for Jews in recent history. But, how do we obtain these liberty and freedoms? It doesn't come for free; it comes with the price of obeying the rules of this country. You steal money from innocent people who think that they can win money in a lottery - a clear violation of the laws of our land, yet you claim that you're owed protection from those same laws? Sounds like some real chutzpah to me.

I'm sure Rabbi Samet would scold me for speaking Lashon Hara. I'm sure Rabbi Samet could run circles around me in learning. But, I have to imagine that I have one up on him in the eyes of Hashem; after all, I didn't swindle $4 million out of anyone. I fail to understand how these people can be so Machmir in all aspects of life, but when it comes to money, they feel that they can do whatever they please. TAXES?! Who pays taxes? To a Goyishe government!? The hypocrisy in which these people live their lives is astonishing.

I would like to believe that Hashem doesn't as readily accept the prayers of people who live their lives seeped in such hypocrisy as he does mine and yours. Rabbi Samet - you know how you go about being able to daven whereever you want? A: Don't steal $4 million from innocent people and it wouldn't even be a problem in the first place. Deal with it.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Parshas Terumah 5768

דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.
“Speak to the B'nei Yisrael and have them give Me a terumah-offering. From every man whose heart impels him to generosity shall you take My terumah-offering.”

This week’s parsha starts off by talking about the different donations given to the Mishkan. The Torah starts off by talking about a person who gives Terumah, but uses the phrase “VAYIKCHU li terumah”, literally, when you TAKE for me Terumah. If the Torah is talking about one who is GIVING terumah, why does it use the seemingly opposite word “TAKE”? The famous answer from the Beis haLevi goes something like this…

The only things that we really “own” in life are those that are eternal. Sure, we have cars, homes, fancy things – but none of these items are eternal, so our ownership of these things is limited. However, when one takes something like money, which is not eternal, and gives it to Tzedaka, the money has transformed from something fleeting into a Mitzvah – something eternal. Thus, we see that “Vayikchu li Terumah” teaches us that when we give Terumah to the Mishkan, we have transformed this money into something eternal, and therefore, while we are technically giving to the Beis haMikdash – in reality, we’re really TAKING something for ourselves…we take that transformation of the fleeting money into an eternal merit.

Chazal in the Medrash to Parshas Bo tell us that, “More than the money that the Ba’al haBayis gives to the poor person, the poor person gives to the Ba’al haBayis.” How is this so? Typically, in a Tzedaka situation, we view the Ba’al haBayis as the giver and the poor person as the receiver. However, in light of what we read above, we see that really these distinctions aren’t so clear; the poor person, while receiving the money, is really a “giver” in the sense that he enables the Ba’al haBayis to do a Mitzvah – and the Ba’al haBayis, while giving the money, is really a receiver in the sense that he reaps the reward and merit for his gift.

One final example where the distinctions between giver and receiver are not so clear: the Gemara in Kiddush tells us that for a marriage to be valid, the man must give the ring to a woman. However, there is one exception where the marriage can be valid if the woman gives the ring to a man: if the man is an “Adam Chashuv/important person.” The gemara explains that while it seems like the man, in this case, is receiving something and the woman giving it, that isn’t the case. If I bring a gift to the President, and he accepts it, I will get great joy out of this. So too in our case above; the woman, by giving the ring to a very important man, while technically a “giver” in that she gives the ring to the man, is, in reality, a receiver, because she gets the joy out of knowing that the very important man retains her present.

I think the lesson to be learned is an obvious, yet profound one. We see it in marriage and in friendships alike – the only time we get anything from a relationship, or from life in general, is when we give, or put work into that venture. The more work we put in to maintain these relationships and to achieve things in life, the more benefit we will receive from them. Again, while it seems that we are the “giver” in the sense that we are putting all of this work in, we learn from the second Pasuk in this week’s parsha and throughout Chazal, that the one who wants to receive anything must be a giver.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Parshas Va'era 5768

וְשָׁרַץ הַיְאֹר, צְפַרְדְּעִים, וְעָלוּ וּבָאוּ בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבַחֲדַר מִשְׁכָּבְךָ וְעַל-מִטָּתֶךָ; וּבְבֵית עֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמֶּךָ, וּבְתַנּוּרֶיךָ וּבְמִשְׁאֲרוֹתֶיךָ.

"The river will swarm with frogs. They will emerge and come into your house, into your bedroom, and on your bed, into the houses of your servants and your people, into your ovens and into your kneading bowls."

The Gemara in Pesachim (53b) says that the frogs jumped into the ovens when they were hot (presumably killing them), as this is the only time that the kneading bowls were by the ovens. Further, the Gemara there tells us us that Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah, in their act of Mesiras Nefesh in jumping into the fiery furnace learned out a Kal v'Chomer from the frogs in the above verse. Namely, that just has the frogs, which were not commanded in the Mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem jumped into the ovens and gave up their lives, all the more so, they reasoned, that they were obligated to jump in the furnace.

The Shagas Aryeh fails to understand the Kal v'Chomer, being that the basis of it is that the frogs were not commanded to jump into the ovens; however, the verse, by saying that "They will emerge and come into your house...", is specifically commanding them to do so - as such, the premise of the Kal v'Chomer is destroyed. However, the Gra (who was reported to be about 7 years old at the time), explained to the Shagas Aryeh that while there was a command to the frogs to jump into the ovens, the verse also lists other places that the frogs could've jumped (i.e. the house, bedroom, bed, etc.). Therefore, each individual frog had the choice where to go. As such, it would've been very easy for every frog to think to himself, "Yeah, I'll go into the bed...I'll let the next sucker be the one who gives up his life." Nevertheless, we see that, at least among a good number of the frogs, they rejected this mindset and opted to give up their lives. Thus, we see that while they were commanded to go into the ovens, they were also given the option of entering other places; and it was this choice that Chananya, Mishael, and Azaryah learned their Kal v'Chomer from.

The lesson to be learned here is that we shouldn't habituate ourselves to constantly choose the easy path. Of course, that doesn't mean we should spend this New Years Eve jumping in the closest furnance we can find. However, constantly taking the easy-path is a cop out and we often reap less reward later in life than we would if we would've put more effort in initially (הזורעים בדמעה ברנה יקצרו). Further, it's easy, like the frogs could've done, to rely on others to do our work for us. We should learn from the plague of the frogs that we shouldn't leave our responsibilites to others and that putting in more work initially will pay off in the long run.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Not-So-Important Law School Review Session

In most of my classes we’re having some sort of “review session”, whether it is taught by the professor or by the teaching assistant. Now, how they fit a semester’s worth of material into 2 hours is beyond me, and I’m of the firm belief that if a person really NEEDS to attend the review session, they probably aren’t going to do very well in the course. But, alas, I will probably attend my review sessions, even though whatever grade I get in each course will likely have nothing to do with whether I attend one of them.

Now, scheduling a review session is very difficult. While we’re divided up into sections, there are a good number of people, including myself, that are in different sections for different courses. So, whatever time is made for the review is likely to be changed three times due to another review session at the same time, or something of the likes. So, to alleviate this problem, my contracts teaching assistant scheduled the review session for that course for next Saturday.

“OH MY GOSH HOW AM I GOING TO MISS THE REVIEW SESSION,” I heard another Shomer Shabbos person say. Well, first of all, I really hope that person wasn’t depending on a review session that attempts the impossible task of going through hundreds of hours of materials in 2. That said, ideally, it would be nice to go to such a review session, just to firm things up. So, why don’t I e-mail him and make him switch it, after all, Saturday is the Sabbath and I can’t drive on the Sabbath?!

Why? I’m a firm believer that we, as Jews, should try to call as little attention to ourselves as possible. Would I likely be able to get him to switch the review session? Sure. Am I likely to piss him, the professor, and the rest of the students in my section off that would need to change their plans for me, all because of a largely inconsequential review section? Guaranteed.

Obviously, if you need to miss class for holidays - and for certain grave injustices, there’s nothing you can do – you gotta speak up. But, I also believe that sometimes you gotta “take one for the team.” Listen, not to sound like the little oppressed Jew that’s looking to everyone for sympathy, but historically, things haven’t been so great for the Jews. We are arguably living at one of the most auspicious times for Jewry in history. We are thriving in America with little-to-no outward persecution, and we have the State of Israel. If I were the one making decisions for the Jewish people, I’d want this “State of the Union” to last as long as possible. Calling attention to ourselves for a largely inconsequential review session would piss many people off, and we don’t want to be known as the type of people that piss people off.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bathroom Exit Doors

I fail to understand why there are any exit doors to bathrooms that are "pull-doors". You would think that in a school of higher education, where people have been through 16+ years of school, they would understand the health consequences of a failure to wash hands. But, even in law school, I'd say that 20% of the people (well, men) that use the bathroom don't wash their hands. Thus, when they leave the bathroom, their urine and bacteria get all over the handle to the exit door. And I, who just finished washing my hands, must subject myself to this. All exit doors should be "push-doors", that way I can use my elbow or backside...parts of the body that are less likely to transmit the bacteria to myself or others.

Usually, I wash my hands, dry them, and use another paper-towel to open the door. But, where this isn't possible, I usually either go for the top or the bottom of the handle...places less likely to have been touched as frequently by those nasty people. Can anyone tell me the logic behind having pull-doors for bathroom exits?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Succos Torah

Law school is kicking my ass. I was hoping to put something new together for this year, but it just doesn't look like it's going to happen. Luckily, I really like last year's D'var Torah. CLICK HERE TO READ.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rosh Hashana Thoughts

I found myself sitting in shul on Rosh Hashana, wishing I was a Reform Jew. Not because I wanted to drive to shul, and not because I wanted to sit next to my wife. The reason is because, comparitavely speaking, they care more about Rosh Hashana than I do. To the Reform Jew that may go to shul only a few times a year, taking off work and school for Rosh Hashana is a big deal. In a sense, their experience of Rosh Hashana is probably more like what it is supposed to be than mine: Rosh Hashana, to them, is the pinnacle of the Jewish year. Unfortunately, for me, in the routine of living every day as an Orthodox Jew, it is and was not.

Now, I think the problem lies in me more than it lies in the "system". That said, as I see it, when you live life 365 days a year as an Orthodox Jew, constantly trying to remember to daven 3 times a day; checking that bag of chips to make sure it has a Hechsher (but not Triangle-K, of course!); patting my head on the way to school to make sure my head is covered, it's only a bit natural that Rosh Hashana can get caught up in the mix of things. After all, the day before Rosh Hashana I was a frum Jew, and the day after Rosh Hashana I was still a frum Jew, so what's the big deal if I slack a little on Rosh Hashana? I found myself with these exact thoughts in shul on the first day of Rosh Hashana.

I suppose this is my test, as I sure it is many others' test in Judaism: to find meaning in the often mundane routine that is Orthodox Judaism. This test will be even harder for me over the next 3 years, as I give my best shot at law school. With more time, the test to find meaning in things is aided by daily shiurim, chavrusas, and other time for individual learning or reading. For me, the week leading up to Rosh Hashana consisted of spending most of my waking time in the library and with the only free time I had trying to catch up with my wife on how her days had been going. Erev Rosh Hashana consisted of school from 9:15-6:10pm. After rushing home to shave and shower, I found myself in shul on Rosh Hashana. The Sifrei Chaim and Meisim (Books of Life and Death) were open in front of me, and I couldn't help but think that the "Two-Times-a-Year" Jews all over the world were more properly prepared to file in from of Hashem like "Kivnei Maron" than I was.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Parshas Ki Seitzei

Sorry, no time for anything this week. CLICK HERE to read last year's Dvar Torah.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Parshas Shoftim 5767

To see last year's Dvar Torah, CLICK HERE.

Adapted from a shiur given by R' Baruch Simon.

לא תַסִּיג גְּבוּל רֵעֲךָ, אֲשֶׁר גָּבְלוּ רִאשׁנִים--בְּנַחֲלָתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּנְחַל, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלהֶיךָ נתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

“Do not move back the boundary of your neighbor that the first [settlers] determine in your territory that you will inherit in the land that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you to inherit.” (Sefer Devarim, 19:14)

Literally speaking (at least according to Rashi), this verse teaches us that we shouldn’t move boundaries dividing our land form our neighbor’s. The Ramban says that this verse is specifically referring to the tribal borders of Eretz Yisrael. He continues to explain that by moving these borders of Israel one is, in a sense, undermining the Hashgacha of Hashem in the Gorel/lottery system used to divide the land.

The Sifri, who the Ramban actually quotes in his notes on this idea, adds further. He says, lets assume there is a machlokes on a certain matter between R’ Elazar and R’ Yehoshua, and one holds that the certain item is Tahor, and the other says Tamei. You, however, forget the exact ruling and switch up the opinions of who says which. In this case, says the Sifri, you have violated this prohibition, as you have moved the “boundary” of their rulings. The Arizal explains here that within every Halacha that Moshe gave to the Jews, he gave 49 reasons that it should be permissible and 49 reasons that it should be forbidden. Every person, when ruling on this matter, will have a natural inclination one way or another. Thus, to switch up the rulings of R’ Elazar and R’ Yehoshua is more than just a brief mental lapse; according to the Arizal, you’re switching up their entire “Shoresh haNeshama” that lead them to rule in the way that each did.

Similarly, it says in the Avos d’Rav Nosson that if someone learns for 6 months without reviewing and a person comes to ask them whether something is permissible or prohibited, the person making the ruling will switch up the ruling. That is, if the Halacha really is that the thing is permissible, the person who doesn’t review will say it is prohibited; and vice versa. It goes on to say that one who learns for 12 months without review will come to switch up which opinion says what. That is, if R’ Elazar is the one who the Halacha goes in accordance with, the person making the ruling will say it in the name of R’ Yehoshua. The question here is obvious: when thinking about Halacha, we obviously forget the source for the Halachos (who it is quoted in the name of) that we learn before we forget the Halacha itself. So, why, according to this, do we forget the Halacha first?

The answer given is that after 6 months, you’ll forget the Halacha, as this is a mere detail. It happens to be that nowadays who said what a detail to us is also. However, if you really understand the person that is saying something, you’d realize that what they say isn’t a detail; rather, it’s helping to get a better understanding of the essence of that person. For example, regarding my friends, I am likely to forget specific details about things that happened between us, but am I less likely to forget the type of person, in general, that he is.

The lesson here is that when we get to understand people, we realize that everyone’s essence is different. There’s no mitzvah to try to make everyone the same in our minds. Regarding ourselves, we shouldn’t be upset by the fact that we don’t fit into a cookie-cutter mold that it often seems that the community is trying to fit us into. Or, regarding others (and our children), we shouldn’t expect everyone to be like we are or to try to mold our children into some mold that we have envisioned for them. To say otherwise would be like saying the opinion of R’ Elazar in the name of R’ Yehoshua.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Parshas Re'eh 5767

To see last year's Dvar Torah, CLICK HERE.

Adapted from a shiur given by R' Baruch Simon

כָּל-הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר יִוָּלֵד בִּבְקָרְךָ וּבְצֹאנְךָ, הַזָּכָר--תַּקְדִּישׁ, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: לֹא תַעֲבֹד בִּבְכֹר שׁוֹרֶךָ, וְלֹא
תָגֹז בְּכוֹר צֹאנֶךָ.

“Every firstborn that is born in your cattle, and in your flocks---a male--- you must consecrate to Ad-noy, your G-d; you may not work with your first-born ox, or shear the first-born of your flocks.” (Sefer Devarim, 15:19)

The Bechor (firstborn) sacrifice is unique by virtue of the fact that it attains its status of “Hekedesh”/consecrated by simply being born. When the animal passes through the mother’s womb, it is automatically consecreated; Chazal refer to this type of sacrifice as “Kadosh M’eilav”, loosely translated as “inherently holy”. This differs from all other Karbanos which become consecrated only after verbally declaring that animal should be Hekdesh.

Rashi, quoting the Mishna in Arachin, wonders why, if the Bechor is consecrated automatically, does the Pasuk tell us that “you must consecrate”. Why do we need to do anything if it is inherently holy? Furthermore, there is an explicit Pasuk in Parshas Bechokosai (Vayikra 27:26) that tells us that a person SHOULDN’T consecrate the first-born…what gives?

Rashi, quoting the Mishna in Arachin, answers according to the Rabbanan, who say that the Pasuk in Bechukosai which says that a person shouldn’t consecrate the animal means to tell us that we cannot consecrate it for something else. We are therefore prohibited to bring this animal as a sin-offering because it already has the status of a Bechor. However, our Pasuk which tells us to consecrate the animal is telling us that even though there is inherently holiness by virtue of the fact that the animal was born, nevertheless, we still have a Mitzvah to verbally consecrate the sacrifice like any other.

This is actually an entire Halachic sugya in Nedarim. The Gemara there discusses which types of utterances make a Neder into a valid one. The rule is that if someone says that they want to “make this apple assur to me like a Karbon Chatas”, that works, as one can use an utterance of something that needs a verbal declaration to make it assur. However, regarding something that doesn’t need a verbal declaration to make it assur, one couldn’t use that in an Neder utterance. Thus, if one says that they want to “make this apple assur to me like pig”, it is no good, as pig is assur to us even without verbal declaration. The question arises, what about Karbon Bechor? On one hand, we could say that it is like making a Neder with a Karbon Chatas, because, as our Pasuk tells us, even a Karbon Bechor needs verbal consecration. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it is like making a Neder with a pig, as the Karbon is assur to us as soon as it is born, even without verbal consecration, like a pig.

When we look at this idea, it is a bit bizarre. Why do we have do verbally consecrate the animal if it is inherently holy? Furthremore, by other Karbonos, if we don’t verbally consecrate them they are 100% permissible for us to eat; this is not the case by Bechor – even without our verbal declaration they are already Kadosh. The Sefer Yeraim and the Smag suggest that while it has inherent holiness, we still are obligated to show some sort of Chavivus/endearment to the Mitzvah.

The underlying message here is that anything that has Kedushah or is meaningful in life requires effort. Things that happen by themselves often have little value. This is evidenced by the fact that the Torah can’t handle us, in the case of Bechor, to be inactive participants. Rav Schachter points out a Meshech Chochmah which examines why, when the Shofar blew at the end of Matan Torah, could anyone ascend the mountain. He answers there that while Matan Torah was surely an awesome event, what made it awesome was our active partnership in accepting the Torah. It wasn’t simply the Hashem was giving us the Torah, but rather, we were receiving it. Once we had received it and were ready to be on our way, the mountain lost its awesomeness and anyone could ascend. Whether it’s the beginning of a new school year or just the beginning of a Yom Tov season, we should realize this lesson that whatever we wish to accomplish can only be attained through our active partnership in whatever it is that we’re doing.