To the Matchmaker

The dramatic thing about this story is that it starts with an oath. Abraham causes Eliezer to swear that he will not bring a Canaanite bride to Isaac.

Why was such an oath necessary? Eliezer was Abraham's servant. Servants are supposed to follow orders without having to swear about everything. Secondly, why does Abraham not cause him to swear that he will bring back a wife from Abraham's family in Mesopotamia? The emphasis of the oath is on Eliezer NOT bringing back a Canaanite girl! Why the negative?

Finally, fundamentally, why was Abraham so opposed to a Canaanite girl? Eliezer himself had a daughter who was of the right age. It stands to reason that she was a very good girl, considering who her father was an in what house she had grown up. The reason given by the rabbis is that the Canaanites are the descendents of Ham, who was cursed by Noah. Abraham is the descendent of Shem, who was blessed by Noah. "Blessed should not cleave to cursed."

The Or Hachaim puts words to this argument. After all, he reasons, Abraham was blessed. He was given the ability to confer that blessing upon others, and all that are in his family are recipients of blessing. Shouldn't all of this blessing be enough to negate the curse of Noah?

Furthermore, Abraham's family in Mesopotamia are no great shakes. We are talking about idolaters and cheaters. In fact, according to the midrash, Rebecca's father Betuel dies by ingesting poison that he had intended for Eliezer! Rebecca's brother, Laban, is a legendary manipulator who harbors ill intentions towards Jacob and his family. Are these people really a better source for a wife for Isaac than the family of Eliezer, faithful servant of Abraham?

The answers to these two questions are foundational for every matchmaker. The first question, why was Eliezer tasked and not Isaac himself, can be answered by a clichéd but true fact: no two people are created alike. Every single is their own unique personality. Isaac, as can be seen throughout his life, is a passive person. He is a great Tsaddik, but he does not innovate or initiate. Therefore, Abraham does not trust him to find his own partner.

In relationships, there are different dynamics. Some seek a parental figure, while others look for someone whom they can nurture. Still others are looking for a sibling or a friend or a playmate. There are many nuances in relationship seeking, but these are the main categories. Isaac, as a more passive person, would naturally gravitate towards a motherly figure. This is born out by the Torah, which reports that "Isaac brought her into his tent, he loved her, and was comforted after his mother."

As a side note, we should note that Isaac loved Rebecca only after he brought her into his tent. Love, in this verse, is a verb. It is not something that one "falls into." It is, instead, something one must do to succeed. Attraction is like the sign outside of a restaurant. It'll get you in, but what you order on the menu will either leave you happy or sick to your stomach. The success of a matches dependent on what happens after the canopy, not before.

This understanding of the importance of each individual's psychological and emotional makeup points us to the answer to the second series of questions. In short, ideology can be changed fairly easily. Character, however, cannot.

The Canaanites were cursed because of the character of their grandfather, Ham. His was a character of selfishness, lack of responsibility and lack of concern for others. A normal child, upon seeing his father in a degraded state, would rush to restore his father's dignity. Ham, on the other hand, not only failed to do so, but (according to a midrash) sterilized his father! To be capable of such an action one must have a deep corruption in one's basic character. That is the source of the curse, and that is the character trait that exhibited itself in Ham's descendents who dwelled in Sodom and Gomorrah.

So while it is possible that a Canaanite can be an exemplary citizen, there is no guarantee that good character will survive to the next generation. And, considering that Isaac is a more passive person who needs a mother figure, it could be Isaac who becomes corrupted rather than the bride who becomes inspired.

So Abraham understood that ideology can be changed easily. The idolatry of his family did not concern him, since he knew that kindness was deep-rooted. Even though Betuel and Laban were no great paragons of virtue, they were the exceptions in the family. What's more, it is eminently possible that their opposition to the family of Abraham is born of their fear of Abraham's monotheistic faith threatening their comfortable idolatrous lifestyle. They weren't bad people, but they did bad things out of a sense of panic.

And, at the end of the day, they enable the match of Isaac and Rebecca as well as the future matches of Jacob, Rachel and Leah.

The medrash tells us that when Isaac brought Rebecca home, four things happened. Four things that had been present when Sara was alive and disappeared with her death, returned with the entrance of Rebecca. There was a cloud on the tent, there was a blessing in the dough, the doors were always wide open, and a candle was lit from the eve of the Sabbath to the next eve of the Sabbath. What do these four things mean?

The cloud symbolizes the Divine Presence. This rested upon the tent as long as three crucial things were in place. My teacher, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, explains these three things. 1. The home had to be one of mercy. The Sabbath is a day of peace, a day of living together in harmony. When the Torah prohibits fire on the Sabbath day, the Rabbi's comment that this includes the fires of fighting an argument. This is what it means by the candle being lit from Sabbath to Sabbath, meaning that the spirit of peace of the Sabbath pervades the entire week. This comes from the character trait of mercy. 2. The home has to be one of modesty. The sages tell us that the one who is truly wealthy is the one who is happy with his lot. This is what it means by a blessing being in the dough. The family feels blessed with whatever it is they have. This is the character trait of modesty. 3. The home has to be one where kindness is prevalent. The sages tell us that we are to always have our houses open for the relief of those who are in need. This is what it means by the doors being open all the time. This comes from the character trait of kindness.

These character traits are the opposite of the heritage of Ham, Canaan, and the Sodomites. Abraham teaches every matchmaker that interests and ideology may be an external factor in a match, but the true energy lies in compatible character traits. "The way of the world (good character) comes before Torah," say our sages.

Lot and the most important character trait

There are three main stories involving Lot. The first is when his shepherds argued with Abraham's, resulting in Lot moving down to the lush, but sinful, city of Sodom. The second is when Abraham rescued Lot and the Sodomites from four mighty kings that had captured them. This was a brilliant military victory where Abraham, with just a few hundred soldiers, defeated four powerful armies.

The most significant story, however, is how Lot was rescued on the eve of Sodom's destruction. When we think of an individual being saved from a cataclysm, we think of Noah. It must be that Lot had a certain virtue that raised him to that same level. What was it?

The Torah tells us that Lot was saved after God remembered Abraham. The Ramban suggests that Lot did not possess sufficient merit to be saved by himself, so the merit of Abraham was needed to save him. Abraham had extended much effort to rescue Lot from those kings. Perhaps God was doing Abraham a favor, so he should not feel that all his effort was in vain.

Rashi, however, quotes the rabbis who explained that Lot had actually done a great deed for Abraham. When Abraham had first arrived in the holy land, a famine drove him, his wife, and his nephew down to Egypt. Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him to take his beautiful wife, so he requested that she tell them that Abraham was her brother, not her husband. In this fashion, even if Sara should be taken away, Abraham's life would be spared.

The Rabbi say that Lot knew this plot and allowed it to go forward, not revealing the truth to the Egyptians. It was this merit that saved him from the destruction of Sodom. Some ask, however, why this act was so meritorious? After all, what would Lot gain by telling the Egyptians that Sara was Abraham's wife? An answer is given that, at that time, before the birth of Isaac and Ishmael, Lot was Abraham's heir. Had Abraham been killed, Lot would come into a large inheritance. Nonetheless, he put his own self-interest aside and protected his uncle.

This will be a key an understanding just why Lot was rescued, and why his stories have much to teach us. The most important character trait is here. Let us delve further.

A fourth story involves Lot's daughters and this same trait. After Sodom was destroyed, Lot and his daughters fled to a cave. The daughters were convinced that, once again, humanity had been destroyed and they were the sole hope for the future. The older daughter suggested that they get their father drunk and then become pregnant by him. So it was that they became the progenitors of the nations of Ammon and Moab. The question is, was this a good deed that they did or not?

There seems to be a divide among the rabbis on this question. They are critical of the immodesty of the older daughter, and critical of Lot who may have been aware of what was happening. Others, however, see Divine Providence in their actions, and praise them for their deeds. On what does the argument rest?

The Torah says that the daughters feared that "there is no man to come to us as the way of all the world." Some rabbis interpret this to mean that they believe that the world of been destroyed, just as in the days of Noah. Others, again, are more critical and say that these daughters knew that there were humans elsewhere, but feared that none of them were worthy to be their husbands. They just weren't as good as their father, so...

Let's follow the first assumption, that they really believed the world had been destroyed. And let us contrast that with the experience of Noah and his sons after the flood. After the flood, Noah, perhaps suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, becomes drunk inside his tent. His son, Ham, sees him in his nakedness and does something. What did he do? One opinion is that he raped his father. The other is that he sterilized him. In either case the action he took would not lead to having children.

In the case of Lot, the story is reversed. The daughters get the father drunk specifically in order to have children! What is the difference between the two cases? Perhaps the most important character trait a person can possess: Responsibility. The success of the human experiment depends upon the victory of Responsibility over Selfishness.

Lot was an average person. As a matter of fact, his choice to dwell in Sodom indicates that he was a below average person on the moral scale. But he had one overriding character trait which gave him tremendous merit. His sense of Responsibility showed itself time and again. Responsibility means being concerned about, and ready to act upon, the needs of others, of society, of the world. Lot put his selfishness aside in order to protect his uncle Abraham.

What's more, Lot refused to turn away strangers from his home, even though the welcoming of such guests was considered a terrible crime in Sodomite society. When the mob descended upon his house after he had welcomed two guests, he protected his guests at all costs. He was even willing to put his two daughters at the mob's mercy to do so. (Some question how Lot was ready to do such a terrible thing. Perhaps he learned it, according to his own understanding, from Abraham's willingness to endanger Sara's chastity to preserve his own life at Egypt. Perhaps he understood that rape is the lesser evil, and life must take precedence. Whether he was right or wrong is the subject of a different discussion.)

The same can be said about Lot's daughters. They felt an overriding responsibility to continue the human race, despite how distasteful the method available to them was. They looked at what happened between Ham and Noah and decided to do the opposite. They provided the wine, they ensured that the children would be born.

And, as a result of these unions, who was born? The nation of Moab, the nation that gave us Ruth the convert. Ruth took responsibility for her mother-in-law Naomi, and as a result, the line that gave us King David and will ultimately bring us the Messiah came into being.

Yes, Responsibility is the character trait that will save the world. Selfishness, the trademark of Sodom, is what destroys the world. The Jewish nation has always felt a tremendous responsibility to improve the lot of humanity. We, as individuals, must be proud of that character trait and strengthen it in ourselves for the benefit of all.

The Real Sodomy

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divinsk asks why Sodom seems to have been treated unfairly in comparison to Nineveh. In the book of Jonah, the Hebrew prophet comes to the sinful city of Nineveh, a non-Jewish city, and warns them that they will be destroyed in 40 days. Immediately, every resident of Nineveh, from the King to the simplest peasant, is wearing sackcloth and fasting in repentance. Why, asks Rabbi Meir Simcha, were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah also not warned? Why were they not given a chance to repent just like Nineveh was?

There is a Mishna in which the teacher, Rabbi Johanon Ben Zakai, sends his five disciples out to discover "the path that a man should choose." The five students return with five answers. A good eye, a good friend, a good neighbor, someone who sees the consequences, and a good heart. Rabbi Johanon chooses the final answer, "because all the other answers are included in it."

He then sends them to discover "the path that a man should distance himself from." The answers include: an evil eye, a bad friend, a bad neighbor, someone who borrows and does not repay, and a bad heart. Again, Rabbi Johanon prefers the all-inclusive "bad heart" response.

I believe that this Mishna could easily refer to the people of Sodom. Our sages paint a picture of a town where no charity, no kindness is allowed. "What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours." On the surface, this seems reasonable, but in truth it is evil. The Torah says of the people of Sodom, "They are bad and sinful to the Lord exceedingly." "Bad," in Jewish parlance, refers to separation, division, disunity. A person with a bad heart views every other human with suspicion and jealousy, or, perhaps even worse, with complete lack of care or empathy.

Rabbi Meir Simcha answers his own question by claiming that Sodom, indeed, had been warned. The shape of that warning, however, differed from Nineveh. God sought to deliver the best possible warning, that would have the greatest chance of being accepted. And there was another agenda: to ascertain whether there were at least 10 righteous people in the city. Remember, God had promised Abraham that if that were the case, he would not destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So when and how did the people of Sodom received their warning and their last chance to repent? The warning was delivered by Lot, Abraham's nephew who resided in Sodom. The Angels told Lot to inform his sons-in-law of the impending destruction of the city. He was to convince them to leave town, together with himself and his family. In other words, this was a test of their character. Here was a family member, clearly with their best interests at heart, urging them to save their lives. All they had to do was leave town for a day. What was their response?

"And he (or 'it') was like a joke (or 'joker') in their eyes." That was it. They failed the test. Had they passed it, adding them together with Lot and his family, there might have been those 10 righteous people needed to save the whole town.

Why did they fail? Because they had a bad heart. Henny Youngman's doctor would proclaim that they could not stand. You see, a person with a bad heart automatically rejects other people. The fourth response for Rabbi Johanon's students calls for one who "sees the consequences." This could be translated as meaning "one who looks at the products, and not the producer." A person should always look at the message, and not reject it just because the messenger is distasteful to him.

The people of Nineveh, clearly, were in possession of great hearts. The most unlikely messenger was sent to them, the religious Jewish prophet Jonah. How could he have any influence in Nineveh? And yet, he uttered one simple sentence: "40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed." It was like pushing a button. The entire city repented completely! Their hearts were wide open, they looked at the product, not the producer. They were willing to change.

In Sodom, however, their hearts were so closed that even the best messenger – their own family – became a "joker."

The moral of the story, is that the real sodomy was the small minded closed heart of an entire city that had gone bad. We need to have our own hearts checked, to make sure that we rejoice when others succeed, that we jump to help when we hear of someone in distress, and that we truly feel that other people are the blessing of our lives. If we have those things, even though we may not be perfect in other aspects, we can be sure to see God's blessing.

The most important relationship

There are two Rebukes in the Torah. The first one, at the end of the book of Leviticus, is read on the penultimate Sabbath before the holiday of Shavuot. It is limited in scope and structured in groups of seven. There are seven levels of transgression listed at the beginning, and God repeats variations on the phrase, "if you shall be contrary, I will torment you sevenfold for all of your sins," seven times.

That Rebuke concludes with a prophecy of redemption. "I will remember the covenant of your forefathers…"

The one in Deuteronomy, however, begins with one general sin: "And if you do not listen to the voice of the Lord your God to guard and to do the commandments and rules which I command you this day…" As the frightening descriptions of what will befall the people should they reject the Torah continue, there is no further reference to Israel sinning or to a sevenfold punishment as retribution for those sins. It is simply a chaotic mix of calamity after calamity. There is disease, there is war, there is famine and drought. On and on it goes, and when we get to the end of it, there is no optimistic final note. "God will return you to Egypt and you will be sold as slaves there to your enemies yet no one will purchase you."

Why these differences from the first Rebuke? And how is this an appropriate preparation for Rosh Hashanah?

Immediately prior to the Rebuke, the Israelites are commanded to make a pilgrimage to the area of Shechem where the twin Mountains of Gerizim and Eval are located. Half of the tribes are to ascend Mount Gerizim and the other half are to ascend Mount Eval. The Levites are then to recite the blessings and the curses resulting from observance or nonobservance of the Torah which the people are to affirm.

Now, the Israelites entered the land from the East and were quite some distance from Shechem. There are plenty of locations where two adjacent mountains could serve the purpose much closer to where the nation was camped. Why make them make the journey into the heartland for this ceremony when they will need to return to the Jordan Valley the very same day?

The answer to all of these questions lies in the three main relationships that every Jew must have: 1. To God. 2. To the Land of Israel. 3. To each other – the Jewish nation. When one or more of these relationships are lacking, bad things happen. But not all bad things are created equal, and not all of these relationships are of equal influence on the others.

Many commentaries view the two Rebukes as referring to the two destructions of Jerusalem and the Temple. Our rabbis tell us that because the sins of the first Temple period were known explicitly, their punishment was made explicit and finite. That exile lasted only 70 years, similar to the first Rebuke which has a clear beginning and end.

What were the sins that led to that first destruction? Our sages tell us that they were idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual corruption and adultery. The Torah itself implies that violation of the Sabbatical Year was a sin which brought about exile. Other teachings of the rabbis point to a cessation of learning and a disrespect of Torah scholars.

All of these things imply a rupture in our relationship to God (the idolatry and dismissal of Torah study) and to the Land of Israel (profaning of the sabbatical year). With all of these things, it seems that Jewish peoplehood remained intact. Although the people were sinning, they were still proudly Jewish and did not turn their backs on each other. (The sin of bloodshed may be referring to the assassination of Gedalia or other high profile murders that did not reflect a general abandonment of Israeli nation.)

The second Rebuke, which parallels the destruction of the second Temple, implies a violation of the third critical relationship of the Jew, his membership in Israel. This is a much more serious offense. If the people are still united, there is always hope that they will repent their sins against God and His Land. If they are not, if their identity becomes erased, how will they ever return?

Why did the Israelites have to go all the way to Shechem for the blessings and curses? One Rabbi suggests that it was to follow in the footsteps of Abraham who went to "The place of Shechem" upon his entry to the land. I would like to suggest that they went to the area where Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. This was the scene of the greatest moment of Jewish disunity, an event that would spiritually haunt the people well into the future.

When Jews do not have each other, they also do not have God or their Land. They are left to the vagaries of a hostile and uncivilized world. The second Rebuke is random, terrifying, unending.

But there is a small light at the end. "You will be offered for sale to your enemies, yet no one will purchase you." A Jew may seek to forget his Jewishness and exchange his nationhood for some other nationality. God is telling us that such an abandonment can never succeed. "They will not buy you." The Jew can never become a full Spaniard, Frenchman, Russian, Englishman or even American. He will remain a Jew, and because of that he will never lose hope to reconnect and be restored.

Perhaps this is why the first Rebuke in Leviticus is phrased in the plural tense. The Rebuke of Deuteronomy is addressed to the individual. If he has cut himself off from his people, he is all alone. But when we are together, no matter how bad the moment, we can quickly return to "The covenant of the forefathers."

The secret of Rosh Hashanah is reestablishing relationships. The most important of those is our relationship with our nation and our Jewish identity. When we fix that, the sages tell us that "the previous year and all of its curses shall end, and a new year with all of its blessings shall commence!"

Take the incense test

Two things would happen to the Levite guard who fell asleep on watch. He would be beaten by a stick and his clothing would be burnt. The latter punishment is a unique one! Why burn his clothing?

Korach, a wealthy and influential Levite, rebels against Moses and Aaron. He gathers around him 250 members of the tribes of Levy and Reuben to support him in his attack on Moses. They complained that,"The entire congregation is holy so why do you raise yourselves up above them?" In other words, Korach is seeking the high priesthood and his 250 cohorts are seeking the right to serve in the Tabernacle as Kohanim, even though they are not.

Moses then instructs them all to bring incense as a test to determine the justice of their argument. He warns the people of an additional punishment, a miracle involving the earth opening up and swallowing Korach and his immediate partners Datan and Aviram, should God deem their rebellion to be false. The end result was that Korach, his family and his friends, were indeed swallowed up. At the same time the 250 men who had brought the incense in hopes of gaining the status of Kohanim were consumed by fire and died.

The people then complain that Moses has killed God's people! Some commentaries explain that Moses was culpable because he did not warn the 250 incense bringers that doing so carried with it the danger of death. Moses had warned Korach about the earth opening, so why not warn the 250 about the fire that may come from the incense?

God is displeased with this accusation against Moses and smites the people with a plague. Moses immediately dispatches Aaron with incense, the same material, which then stops the plague and saves the rest of the people's lives.

Why, though, is their claim incorrect? Why did Moses not warn the 250 people? Maybe some of them would have refrained from bringing the incense and thus been saved.

Furthermore, one could ask what exactly was wrong with 250 people wanting to be Kohanim? They saw their brothers serving in the Tabernacle performing holy tasks and wanted to have the same opportunity! They desired sanctity, it would seem.

The question centers around the role of the Temple incense in this whole story. The first time we encounter the danger of bringing unauthorized incense was back in Leviticus when Nadav and Avihu died while bringing "a strange fire which was not commanded them." They brought incense. The people saw that incense brought improperly can bring punishment by fiery death. That was their warning. The 250 people should have known that what happened to Nadav and Avihu would happen to them.

And it is the same incense which Aaron used to stop the plague and to save lives. So what is the nature of this incense?

It has a few qualities worth noting. First of all, it is silent. It communicates through aroma, not through words and speeches. Our sages teach us that the incense atoned for evil speak. "Let something which is quiet atone for a sin which is committed in whispers." The incense gives expression to what is happening on the inside of a person, not just the outside.

Secondly, the incense has the aspect of unity. It is not made of one aromatic spice but rather 11 ingredients. Some of them are bitter on their own but add sweetness when combined with others. Our sages compare the galbanum spice to the sinners of Israel who, nonetheless, must join together with all of their nation to create the sweetest aroma. The incense represents unity.

Unity comes about when each individual does not look at him or herself as important because of who they are but because of what they do in the world. When elections come around, some candidates spend time and money telling you how qualified and smart they are. Others will focus more on what they plan to do. Does somebody want to be president, or do they want to lead the nation? Those are two separate things and that is a critical question.

When we focus on who we are as opposed to what we do, we create the conditions that lead to great division. Identity should come through actions and contributions to the world, not through ethnicity or social status or association or any external factor. If I am important for who I am, then others who are similar to me become a threat. Notice how Korach does not say "Let us be Kohanim as well!" Instead, he says "Why should you exalt yourself above the congregation?" Moses and Aaron should step down is what he is saying.

This is what the incense tests. Nadav and Avihu were exceedingly holy and their sin was that they knew it and sought to cement that status by bringing their own unique incense. The incense destroyed them. The 250 Kohain wannabes were not seeking the opportunity to do holy work, they were seeking the status of being Kohanim. The incense revealed what was inside them and destroyed them.

This is why the clothing of the sleepy Levite would be burned. If he were truly committed to honoring God by providing honor guard for the Sanctuary, he would never allow himself to doze. If he is just interested in the honor himself, then his clothing symbolizes that. That is why it gets burned: to teach him that it is not who he is that matters but rather what he does.

When a person is focused on doing good they will rejoice when others do good as they do. There will be unity. When they focus on being important, they will feel threatened and resentful towards other people deemed important. When we focus on contribution, not identity, we will contribute unity to the world.

Tradition, Values and Societal Change

The transfer of authority from Aaron as high priest to his son Elazar involve a miracle. The symbol of the transfer was the giving to Elazar of the priestly garments. Normally, when a person gives his clothing to another, he takes off the outer garments and then the inner garments. The other fellow waits to put on the inner garments and then the outer garments. But in this case, Elazar put them on in reverse order. Everything that Aaron took off, Elazar immediately put on. Thus, it would seem he was wearing the undergarments on the outside!

And so a miracle occurred, and when Elazar emerged from the cave where Aaron was to die, the clothing reversed itself. Many commentators question the need for this miracle. Why not let Elazar wait a few more seconds to put the clothing on in the proper order?

One answer I saw was quite satisfying. This was done to stress the importance of continual tradition. There should not even be a moment's break. Somebody must be wearing the garments of the high priest at every second. Tradition must be embraced with energy and vigor, not in a lackluster fashion. It would not be appropriate for Elazar to sit around waiting, he must eagerly grab the vestments of the high priest in order to keep the tradition continuous.

We can learn a lot from babies. A young child may become attached to a doll or a blanket. I warn you, do not try and take that doll or blanket away! You will see how powerful the toddler can become. Especially when bringing the child to a new framework, day care or a nursery, it is important that the child bring the doll or blanket with them. This is call they "transitional object." It provides a tremendous sense of security, and allows the child to move with confidence into unfamiliar surroundings.

This is the role of tradition. The traditions may be as seemingly unimportant as a recipe for Haroset on Passover, or as central as how you pronounce the Hebrew prayers. In any case, connecting to the tradition of your fathers and grandfathers creates a tremendous sense of security. This is, after all, who we are. Tradition may even supersede a better halakhic practice. Case in point:

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once gave a detailed explanation as to why it is halachically preferable to sit down during the Kiddush prayer on Sabbath. Some have the custom of standing for that prayer, and Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that this was not the proper opinion.

The next Sabbath, the rabbi was staying in the Yeshiva. At the Friday night table, he recited the Kiddush standing up. His students came to him completely puzzled. Didn't the rabbi just tell them a few days before that it is better to sit for the Kiddush? "What can I do," responded Rabbi Soloveitchik, "this is the tradition of my fathers."

Now, mind you, standing or sitting for Kiddush is not a violation of Halakha. Nobody can say that they have a tradition to violate the Sabbath! But when faced with a question of a better halakhic practice or a tradition, tradition wins. This is because tradition connects us to Mount Sinai. Tradition connects us to the Jewish people in the Jewish faith. Tradition is the security blanket that lets us go boldly into a changing world, remaining ever young.

I think there is another significance to the reversed transferal of garments. At some point, the baby out grows the blanket. Does this mean that tradition is only important when a person is young? Not at all. What it means is that the tradition becomes internalized. The baby is no longer holding the blanket, because the blanket has become part of the baby's person.

There are two parts of a tradition. The external part is the physical action of the tradition, the preparing of the food, the performance of the ritual. The internal part is the security and connection to Judaism that the tradition brings. I believe that the outer garments of the High Priest represents the physical fulfillment of the traditions. The inner garments represent the emotional and spiritual connections.

At first, Aaron gives over the outer garments, the external symbols of tradition. Elazar grasps these and brings them to his flesh. Then he receives the inner garments, the emotional and spiritual dimension of tradition. These do not immediately touch his flesh, they remain outside of him. But as he continues to fulfill the physical elements of tradition, the emotional connection grows and comes closer to his flesh. Finally, he is wearing the clothes in order.

And once he has the external clothing on the outside, they become available to everyone else with whom he has contact. He thus continues to influence others to embrace the physical traditions of Judaism, which will, with time, become part of their person.

A responsible parent knows the time to pamper, and the time to step back. They know when the baby needs the blanket, and when to allow the child to proceed without it.

The children of Israel required water. After 40 years in the desert, they were getting close to the point of entering the Promised Land. When there well ran dry, they complained, and God told Moses and Aaron speak to the rock "and it shall give forth water." Moses, however, did not speak to the rock, but rather hit it with his stick. God immediately punished him by decreeing that he would not enter the Land with the people. What did he do that was so terrible, especially if it worked?

Years before, when the Israelites had just left Egypt, there was a similar need for water and a similar mini rebellion. At that time, Moses was commanded to hit the rock in order to bring forth the water. So Moses simply repeated what he had done successfully a generation before. So terrible?

Yes, because it was the equivalent of forcing the grown child to take his security blanket with him. When the Israelites were new, they needed to be taken care of. They had just emerged from slavery, and were easily frightened and insecure. They were putting on new traditions, but still lacks the internal connections and security they needed. So when they needed water, Moses achieved it from a top-down perspective. He hit the rock, and the rock obeyed.

Similarly, when the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites, it was God who commanded Moses to put Joshua in command and to stand on the high place raising his arms. Again, a top-down response to a challenge. Moses and Joshua lead, the people follow.

But now, a new generation has already grown up, and their underwear is on the inside. They have internalized the blanket, they are secure and connected. All Moses needed to do was to speak to the rock, to show it respect and allow it to bring forth the water on its own. And, similarly, after Aaron passes on, the Israelites are attacked by Canaanites. This time, however, Moses and Joshua are not even mentioned in the fight. Instead, the Israelites themselves swear to destroy their enemy. They have, indeed, grown up and changed. Moses no longer needs to hold their hand, no longer is needed to be their leader.

And this is the historical process of the Jewish people. The peak of prophecy was Moses, but throughout the generations it declined. At one point, prophecy stopped altogether. That's not because the people were bad, it's because the people were growing up.

We have a responsibility to keep our traditions alive, and to keep our faith the young and vibrant. By embracing the physical traditions, the foods, the melodies, the special ways to fulfill the commandments, we start the process by which are inner security and connection becomes stronger. By embracing the old, we become renewed.

Our generations may look different, and may inhabit different worlds, but we must be grounded by tradition. Then we will be able to go forth into unfamiliar surroundings and find the proper way to continue fixing the world.

How to Move a Mountain

In the book of Numbers, the people of Israel are poised to enter The Holy Land. In order to best prepare to conquer the land, they request that Moses, the leader, send some spies in advance. Moses is pleased that the people are preparing to take possession of their homeland, and agrees to the people's request.

The result is a tragedy. 10 of the 12 spies bring back a devastating report, frightening the people into giving up on their dream of The Land of Israel. "We saw giants there, and we were like little bugs in their eyes. We cannot conquer the land." Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, tried to change the people's fears into optimism. Based on the commentary of Rashi, here is what they said:

"Is that all that Moses has done for us? Did he not split the sea as we left Egypt? Was he not God's messenger and assistant, helping us get the manna in the wilderness? We can certainly conquer the land, and even if Moses told us to go at the moon, we could do it!"

It didn't work. The people sat down to cry, and that date became a day of national mourning -- the ninth of Av, the date of the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. God decreed that that entire generation should pass on in the desert, and only their children would enter the Holy Land. Until then, 40 years down the line, the Israelites would wander in the desert.

It's among the most difficult stories in the Bible, both emotionally, and intellectually. After all, Joshua and Caleb were right! If Moses, acting as God's chosen messenger, was able to split the sea, why should the Israelites be afraid of large Canaanites? Egypt was the dominant empire of the age, and they proved no match for the children of Israel and their God. Why the fear?

Playing devil's advocate, I will also ask why the extreme punishment? Why 40 years wandering, and why give a dark legacy to the ninth of Av? After all, the people were in a panic! It wasn't a premeditated sin like the Golden Calf! When a person hears that is going to be attacked by giants, it is reasonable for him to be afraid, is it not?

The answer is, if you are the Jewish people, it is not reasonable to be afraid. Being brave, taking action despite the seeming impossibility of the mission is the very essence of the children of Israel. Without it, their national purpose will never be achieved. Israel is compared to a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. The situation seems impossible, but it is exactly what is required. The most destructive emotion to a person's sense of mission is the emotion of fear. And often quoted Hasidic rabbi said, "All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is never to fear!"

Fear bypasses logic. Panic causes a terrible mistakes. We love watching superheroes function with tremendous calm in situations of tremendous stress and danger. Deep inside our hearts, we yearn to have that courage and be heroes. God created each and everyone of us to be a hero, to not be afraid of changing our lives and our world. Think about the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. They held off the overwhelmingly powerful German army, with small arms and guerrilla tactics alone, for nearly a month! That small band of starved Jewish fighters kept the Germans on the field longer than the entire Polish army had at the beginning of the war.

That's heroism, and that is the definition of the people of Israel. We must be a nation of heroes. The symbol of our mission was the Holy Temple, the place where Heaven and Earth met. What happens there? The spiritual perfection of Heaven enters the physical and imperfect world. It then elevates all who come in contact with this Divine Heavenly Presence. The spirit is always more powerful than the body. That is the core of our belief.

If you do not believe that the spirit is more powerful, then the presence of giants in the land of Canaan will indeed induce fear. And fear, as we have said, closes the heart to any reasoning. Moses's accomplishments notwithstanding, the people were afraid and would respond to no argument. Thus, they discarded the power of spirituality. Without that, they could never hope to accomplish their mission.

Great accomplishments come from asking a simple question: How to do it? Not "can it be done?" An attitude of "why not?" is the most can-do attitude, and shows tremendous spiritual power. So instead of suffering silent desperation, we should realize our tremendous mutual power to change, to make what our true essence demands of us come to be.

The Wild World Went Wrong

There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud regarding the blessing that God gives when the people follow His Torah. "And I will cause the bad animals (i.e. dangerous ones) to cease from the land." Rabbi Yehuda opines that they will migrate elsewhere. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my) will relocate, and there will be no animals to fear in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, claims the animals will all remain, but cease to be dangerous, in the spirit of "The lion will lie down with the lamb."

Ramban endorses this view, and brings a number of supports. The main one is his claim that animals, by their very nature, are NOT carnivores at all. In the creation story, God says that he has given the animals the "grasses and vegetables" to eat. Only after the flood did it become permissible for humans to consume flesh. All creation, in its natural state, is vegetarian.

So what changed? Man. Man introduced violence into the world. Man cause a ripple in the peaceful fabric of life. Man corrupted the animals. Honi the Circle maker once encountered a venomous creature. Honi touched it, and it died. He explained to his amazed friends that, "It is sin that kills, not the animals." Man has a transformative power over nature, and this power is exercised by man's moral behavior.

What is the deeper meaning of this debate between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon? Why does one see the animals leaving, while the other sees them being transformed?

After the flood, man became permitted to eat meat. Why this change? Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, in his book "Spirituality," questions why a person would hate someone they had never met or known. Why is there something called "Sin'at hinam," baseless hatred?

It is because of the subconscious. The subconscious functions with the assumption that the part equals the whole. Thus, if one aspect of a person triggers a negative response, e.g. someone I just met has the same family name as a bitter enemy, we immediately develop a subconscious dislike of that person. It isn't fair at all, but it is how we work. What is needed to be done is for the conscious to overrule the subconscious.

There is a technique called "sublimation." This means taking a bad urge and channeling it into an accepted activity. Someone with an inner hostility, for example, might be great at sports, rather than working as a hit man. In these cases, the subconscious continues to exist, but the conscious channels it in a healthier way.

That is why God allowed man to eat flesh, in order to sublimate his violent subconscious urges in a healthier way. In an ideal world, however, the subconscious is transformed. And as man goeth, so goeth the wild kingdom. Sublimation is important, but it is a compromise. It is not a transformation. That only comes when Israel becomes completely committed to God's Law and morality. Then, the world is truly transformed.

Thus, Rabbi Yehuda is dealing with the world as it is. The best we can hope for is sublimation, and thus the "bad" animals will have to leave. Rabbi Shimon sees a perfect world, and thus claims the animals will change, because man will change. We will all be as Honi the Circle Maker.

Rudy Giuliani, New York's famous mayor, stopped crime in many areas through a policy of "zero tolerance." He denied what his predecessor had done when there were the Crown Heights riots, namely, to let the rioters vent their anger for a couple of days. Rudy believed that such venting is not sublimation at all, but rather an invitation to bloodshed. Instead, zero tolerance teaches us an important lesson:

Sublimation is when you divert a bad urge to an acceptable expression. It is NOT allowing a little bit of bad behavior in the hopes it will prevent worse behavior. It is not a compromise in that sense, it is a redirection. You can launch a campaign, you can give speeches and work for justice, but you may not throw a single stone.

So with us. Even sublimation means to change the behavior, not to accept small quantities of it. If done well, sublimation can lead to transformation. That is the goal of Torah. We sublimate - the Torah allows something in every area of human drives - in order to eventually become transformed. We work towards rebuilding our subconscious to desire the true and the good.

Jewish Time Management

There are many commandments in the Torah that show the power of time. For instance, the Biblical penalty for lighting a fire on the Day of Rest, the Sabbath, is quite severe. Yet, if you light a fire ONE SECOND after Shabbat is over, you are not only not committing a sin, you are probably doing a mitzva, a commandment, called Havdala, or seperating the Sabbath from the weekday.

Wow, one second! The one who brought a Thanksgiving offering to God in the Temple had to eat the meat from that sacrifice within that day. If he left it over, it was considered a sin. Think of it: same action, wrong time, equals sin! The only difference is the time.

That is because time is a PHYSICAL property. In fact, it is the most important ingredient in any action. Without time, nothing moves or happens. The world becomes a still-photo, or sculpture. In other words, everything is dead without time moving it.

But that is only half the story. The real power comes when we realize that time, like all other physical properties, has unique characteristics. Not all minutes are created equal. Some have more potential for certain actions, while other times are more propitious for other actions. King Solomon was being quite literal when he said, "There is a time for everything and an hour for every pursuit under heaven."

The Biblical commentator, Seforno, stresses that God seeks us to achieve perfection in all we do. Excess is not perfection, neither is insufficiency. Time is the most important ingredient in perfection, to know how to use time to its utmost. When one brings a Thanksgiving offering, he colors the time with the potential for closeness to God. Failing to complete that process, waiting to finish consuming the sacrifice, destroys perfection and is a sin.

The Sabbath is a time that is unique in its power for spiritual renewal. Performing weekday labors on it and profaning the day constitute the destruction of potential for perfection, and are a great sin.

And the opposite is true. Using time spiritually, seizing the moment and integrating our lives with it lets us taste perfection again and again. The Jewish day, the Jewish week and the Jewish year are filled with minor and major occasions, showing us the color of time. By aligning our lives to that, we can harness the true secrets of effectiveness, spirituality and perfection.

Israel The Righteous, Leprosy and Hatikvah

The section of the Torah we read this week deals with the laws of leprosy. A person who develops a white patch on their skin, with white hair in it, Is considered impure, and must wait outside the camp until he is healed. If, however, the whiteness spreads all over their entire body, he is considered ritually pure. The commentaries jump up and down about this strange law! If, they reason, when only part of the leper's body has the white patches, is he considered impure, then when his entire body becomes white he should certainly be considered impure!

The famed Chofetz Chaim offers a powerful explanation. God sends a message to someone who needs to hear it. A person who has only partial leprosy may convince themselves that they are not so spiritually ill. After all, most of their body may be clean. Thus, they will not be motivated to repent. The Torah then requires them to be sent out of the camp pending an improvement. Being sent out of the camp, into solitary existence, forces introspection and repentance.

But when a person has reached the bottom, they don't require such messages to know that they must repent. Therefore, the person who becomes 100% leprous, will be in such a state of mind that they do not need to be sent to solitary. They have hit rock bottom, they know that it is either repent or die.

This helps me understand a very difficult concept in the world: the suffering of the righteous and the prospering of the evil. The rabbis explain that a suffering righteous person is not 100% righteous. (A righteous person who is prospering is, however, 100% righteous). On the other end, a prospering evildoer must be less than 100% evil.

This still seems illogical. Why should a mostly evil person have a far better existence than a mostly righteous person? Rather, our sages explain, this calculation is all in preparation for The World to Come, when all accounts are set straight. The mostly righteous person has some sins to expiate, and so God brings suffering upon him in this world, so that he will arrive unblemished at The World to Come. Conversely, the mostly evil person still has some good deeds to his credit. God rewards him in this world, so that he will pay for his evil actions in the afterlife.

If, however, we are dealing with people in the gray areas, where is the dividing line? I would speculate that it is in the person's heart, and in what contribution they make to humanity. A war criminal who helps his neighbors and is philanthropic should be shunned as a leper and punished for his crimes. A comedian who brings cheer and joy to millions, but cheats on their taxes and on their spouse, should be respected and loved for the good things he does, and censured (and prosecuted, if appropriate) for the crimes he commits.

There are many public figures who have contributed so much to the world, yet have personal flaws that have also hurt people. The laws of Lashon Hara teach us that telling something negative about another, even if it is true, is forbidden. Why? Because the person who hears such talk will judge the entire person based on that one negative aspect, and shun their humanity entirely. I believe that is wrong. Whether it be a political leader, brilliant film director or a legendary entertainer, we do not need to throw them out with their misdeeds. The great Rabbi Moses Feinstein was asked about a certain Rabbi who wrote music, yet behaved in seemingly inappropriate ways at times. Rabbi Feinstein responded that, "a melody does not become impure."

Such a person can, indeed, be considered a righteous person, albeit not 100%. We must be very careful before we throw out some of the wonderful people who have made our world a better place. Yes, some of their personal deeds may be disgusting and evil, and there is no tolerance for such actions. But, as King David says, "The sins shall perish from the earth, and they (the sinners) will be evil no longer."

So Israel is not perfect, but it is most certainly righteous. The incredible amount of goodness that Israel creates and contributes to the world is the proof. Does she occasionally pursue bad policies? Have there not been moments when Israelis have done shameful things? Certainly. You may disagree with our government policy at times, as most of us do, but you must cherish and love Israel, one of the greatest forces for good in the world.

Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, was a song with plenty of controversy. It remains scrupulously secular, with no mention of God or the Divine Providence that helped bring our nation back to life. The composer was not a legendary poet, famous composer or spiritual leader.

Contrast that with the alternative national anthem, that lost by just one vote in the 1933 Zionist Congress, the Shir HaMaalot made famous by Cantor Yoselle Rosenblatt. Here was a song with words by none other than King David himself! And the melody, composed by a Cantor named Minkowsky and sang by the pious Cantor Rosenblatt, had every element of holiness you could ask for. It was the equivalent of a 100% righteous person.

And yet, Hatikvah won. Perhaps this was also Divine Providence, to encourage us to embrace the very human of us, and strengthen the good within us. Perhaps our focus should not be on worshiping those that are perfect, but helping perfect those that are not. Perhaps we need to stop judging, and start loving.