Monday, April 27, 2009

Ramban Says, “Make Aliyah Now!”

I am not in the habit of recklessly recommending to people to make aliyah - it is a very difficult transition to change from being an American to becoming an Israeli. Nevertheless it is impossible to ignore the significance that the single greatest piece of religious Zionist propaganda falls out on the week of Yom HaAtzmaut. I am sure that at least one of my faithful readers has realized that I am talking about THE Ramban on Parshat Achrei Mot, where he explains that mizvot aseh only "count" in Eretz Yisrael.

Dramatic pause for self-satisfied Zionist sigh of contentment.

VaYikra 18:25 states: The land became defiled, and when I directed My providence at the sin committed there, the land vomited out its inhabitants.

The Ramban begins by explaining the connection between committing an aveirah and being ejected from Eretz Yisrael. His explanation is based on his Kabbalistic cosmology - each of the 70 nations of the world has a ministering angel which acts as the Divine intermediary between that nation and HaShem. That means that all reward and punishment for that nation is delivered by that ministering angel.

The Jewish people are different; they have Eretz Yisrael as their Divine intermediary instead of an angel. This is the explanation of the pasuk - Eretz Yisrael punishes its inhabitants that sin, by forcing them to leave the land. Yet the reverse is also true - once Eretz Yisrael was given to the Jewish people, then they are rewarded by Eretz Yisrael. (You can go back to Parshat Noach and the episode of Cham, where he is punished by losing his land to the descendants of Shet - the Jews.) This type of reward could also describe the 2nd paragraph of the Shema - the Jews will be rewarded with rain in Eretz Yisrael because they are doing mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael.

Yet, the Ramban does not stop there - he states that mitzvot have a limited effect outside of Israel. For example then nation of Brooklyn is outside of Israel. When the nation of Brooklyn does a mitzvah, the angel of Brooklyn takes that mitzvah and then brings it to HaShem. The angel of Brooklyn then returns with the reward to the nation of Brooklyn. However, this angel gets to “take a cut” in both directions. That is to say, the positive mystical impact of doing the mitzvah, and the reward are reduced in the process of going from the nation to HaShem. The angel of Brooklyn is profiting from all of the mitzvot being done there, at the expense of the Jews. But, if you do a mitzvah in Israel, Eretz Yisrael brings that mitzvah straight to HaShem without reducing the mitzvah or the reward at all. When you do mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, there is no go-between angel involved in the mitzvah transaction at all.

The Ramban uses this statement about doing mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael to explain the Gemara in Ketubot 110b, which states,

“Anyone who lives outside of Eretz Yisrael, it is as if they have no God.”
According to the Ramban, you have no God outside of Eretz Yisrael because your mitzvot are going straight to your local angel. Whereas, when you live inside of Eretz Yisrael, your mitzvot are going straight to HaShem.

This Ramban is often misquoted and misrepresented (see earlier in this post!) to mean that mitzvot outside of Eretz Yisrael do not count. Rather, the proper pshat is that the Ramban means that the positive effects of the mitzvot are limited outside of Eretz Yisrael.

I highly recommend that you read the Ramban in the original Hebrew because I have certainly butchered him in my summary. Nevertheless, the bottom-line is that the Ramban in Parshat Achrei-Mot teaches us that HaShem REALLY REALLY wants us to live in Eretz Yisrael.

Chag Sameach.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Yom HaShoah – Too Many Yissurin

Yom HaShoah is coming and I wanted to mention a powerful idea by the Esh Kodesh. In Parshat Chaye Sarah (1940), the Esh Kodesh discusses the death of Sarah Imenu. He starts with Rashi’s comment that explains that the fact that Sarah’s death is recorded next to the Akeidah teaches us that Sarah died when she heard that Avraham was taking Yitzchak to Har HaMoriah.

The Esh Kodesh expands on this idea to teach us about the concept of Yissurin – difficult events. Chazal often talks about Yissurin shel Ahavah, that there are difficult events that come from a place of love in order to make us better people. However, the Esh Kodesh explains that there can also be too many Yissurin that can damage a person.

Yissurin can be compared to salt and food. Just as a small amount of salt enhances the flavor of food; so too, a small amount of Yissurin enhances a person. And just as too much salt ruins the flavor of food; so too, too many Yissurin can ruin a person. The Esh Kodesh concludes that if Sarah, who according to Chazal lived a life without sins, can die because of the overwhelming Yissurin that were connected with the Akeidah. Then certainly we can be damaged by too much suffering. For me, this is an appropriate message for Yom HaShoah.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chol HaMoed in Israel and Talmudic Ovens

I am really sorry to keep going on and on about how wonderful it is to live in Israel, but I had another wonderful experience today and I feel forced to share it with the blogosphere. (I will also mention that making Aliyah is the single most difficult experience in my life, and that includes studying Biblical Hebrew. So I do not want any of you to get the impression that every moment here is flowing with milk and honey.) Today the family went on a tiyul in Naot Kedumim, which is a large park filled with Biblical fauna and flora.

It was a great hike, and I really enjoy getting to see a range of Israelis out and about on Chol HaMoed. There were examples of exciting Biblical plants like hyssop (אזוב), which was the plant that was used to sprinkle blood on the doorposts in Mitrayim. And there were loads of pesukim from Shir HaShirim next to the appropriate flora. But I was bubbling over with excitement when I saw a great example of Talmudic ovens.

Anyone who has learned the halakhot of Bishul on Shabbat, or even Mishnayot Shabbat with the fancy picture book – has surely struggled to understand what exactly these different Talmudic ovens looked like. There was an archeological village that contained some examples of some of these ovens.

Here is a picture of the famous “double oven” (כירה).

The fire would have been below and the cooking pots would have been placed on the holes on top.

Here is a picture of the “bread oven” (תנור).

This oven was used to bake bread, and the dough would be on a pole and stuck on the inside wall of the oven to bake.

So if you are visiting Israel, make sure to add Naot Kedumim to your itinerary.

Moadim L’Simchah

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pesach Seder - Israeli Style

I am trying hard not to be too smug about the fact that I do not have a three day Yom Tov, and we went on a tiyul today instead of recovering from our second Pesach Seder. Ironically, the children were complaining about the fact that they only got one Seder at Pesach this year! I guess they were not the ones working their fingers to the bone to get ready for Pesach.

I discovered yet another wonderful aspect about living in Israel (WARNING - Shameless Zionist Plug), we used wine that was Kedushat Shevi'it at the Seder. That meant that it was assur to spill drops of wine for the makkot. I love it when halakhah wins out over minhag!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Achilah Gassah - The Halakhot of Eating

Achilah Gassah which can be translated as, "disgusting eating," is a halakhik concept that is defined by the legal parameters of eating. There is a question if Achilah Gassah saitisfies the halakhik requirements of eating. Now I hope that at least one of my loyal reasers is saying, "What in the world is a halakhik requirement of eating? It's really not that complicated - either I am eating or I am not!" Then I would have the opportunity to respond and say, "Wow that is a great question. But you should know by now that nothing is simple in the wide world of halakhah."

One of the interesting qualities of the halakhik system is that even simple actions like eating and drinking require precise legal definitions. Many of you may be familiar with the annual challenge to consume an olive's amount of matzah so fast that you might actually travel backwards in time. The reason for the need to quickly eat an unusually large amount of matzah is that people are trying to fulfill the legal requirements of eating. Most people would agree that eating a crumb of matzah would not accomplish the mitzvah of eating matzah. Thus it is reasonable to asy that there should be a minimum amount of matzah that you must eat at the seder. The only question in how much do you need to eat?

Chazal tell us that there is a halakhah l'Moshe m'Sinain (a very old halakhah) that in general, the minimum volume for eating is the volume of an olive. (כזית) I can hear your hearty laugh reverberating through cyberspace, "That is such a small amount of matzah, I have nothing to worry about on Seder night." Alas my poor friend, as I mentioned earlier - nothing is simple in the world of halakhah. The truth is that you must eat an olive's worth of lfour, which could be anywhere from a half a machine made matzah, to an entire box. Check with your LKR (Local Kabbalistic Rabbi) for specific guidelines. 

All of this brings us back to the topic of Achilah Gassah. The Gemara tells us that you cannot fulfill a mitzvah of eating with Achilah Gassah. So make sure that you are still a alittle hungry for the afikomen at the end of the seder. You don't want to finish your night of matzot and mitzvot with an act of Achilah Gassah.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

LKR - Local Kabbalistic Rabbi

Now is probably the busiest time of year for Rabbis - Barcuch HaShem that they don't charge by the sha'aylah. I want all of us to think of the following idea - don't just use your LOR (Local Orthodox {or Ordinary} Rabbi). Let us take this time of renewal and rebirth to try something a little different. Let us try and find an LKR (Local Kabbalistic Rabbi) to ask  sha'aylah. (By the way - if you find a good one, please let me know.) 

If you are feeling really brave, then you should ask the LKR an appropriate question like: How can I elevate my neshamah this Pesach? Think about it.

Chag Sameach