Sunday, 26 April 2009

MITZVAH: Mikvah Project - "Purity with Dignity"


A few months ago, we set up an innovative Mitzvah project - the Mikvah Project - "Purity with Dignity".

It's all about encouraging women (and men obviously) to follow the laws of Family Purity, and aiding those who already do to be able to immerse in a Mikvah at no cost.

With the prices of everything always on the rise, being able to fulfill certain Mitzvot involving financial costs becomes even more challenging.

While many (to this day) still think that immersing in a Mikvah is free of charge, (having been told this by many women via email), this is in fact not true. Mikvah costs including building and maintenance, water etc., excluding the costs for the Mikvah lady amount to hundreds of thousands of Rands (Dollars). To cover these costs, women must pay to be able to use the Mikvah each month.

Our project has launched successfully in Israel with us having already helped tens of women each month, and even paid off the debts of two who owed substantial sums for having immersed for much time without paying.

We are happy to say that we now have one Mikvah in South Africa who has joined us in this project, and we are excited to be able to work with them, aiding women who cannot afford Mikvah costs, to be able to immerse at no charge, no debt - "Purity with Dignity"

If you would like to contribute to this very holy Mitzvah, please be in touch with Rav Eliyahu:

Or see 

Friday, 17 April 2009

Parshat Shemini: Teaching Torah Correctly. A Picture is Worth 1000 Words...


If the saying that says that a picture is worth a thousand words has any real meaning, can one imagine the value of the original item contained in the picture itself?!

We live in a world of sight (amongst our other senses.) When it comes to pedagogic teaching methods, if we're going to really succeed in teaching someone else about something, there is simply no better way of doing it than by actually showing them what it's all about.

It brings to mind the strangeness experienced by so many at school level – and higher education, where the professor walks into the room, rambles off the biggest words they can think of, then gives the students a thick textbook to read, and not only expects them to have understood all the terms, but to actually practise what they were supposed to have learned.

The Torah is not a text book – though many "greats" apparently think it is. The Torah is a code of rules of living life. It's filled with such practises as wearing Tefillin and Tzizit, setting up Mezuzot on doorposts and a variety of other special commandments such as how to immerse vessels in a Mikvah for "koshering" purposes, or for that matter – how to even build the Mikvah to begin with! What of the laws of killing an animal before being permitted to eat it?! In fact, the majority of Torah law is based upon real physical things – that require sight in order to know what it's all about.

Let's take the keen Talmudic student. He is ready to become a rabbi. He works through some serious material, learning about the laws of meat and milk for example – and then some laws dealing with how to kosher meat by salting it. He may also learn the laws for Shechting (slaughtering) an animal too – and a variety of other important laws related to ritual law. After all, if he is going to be a rabbi of a community – he might need to know how to rule in these matters to help the community fulfil Jewish law correctly! Eating is going to be a big concern of the community – so he'll really have to know everything from how to slaughter an animal – to salting the meat – to a variety of problems that may arise through people accidentally finding themselves in the situation where some milk splattered on top of the meat (or was accidentally cooked with it – a prohibition of the Torah.)

Does the student actually know anything about the problems of milk and meat mixing? What of salting the meat? And what of slaughtering the animal?! He may well be able to recite completely off by heart the Talmud folio he is currently on… the commentaries written about it and have a clear grasp of the language used to describe how to kill an animal. Does he however actually know anything about the practical? Does he even know what the different parts of the animal are? Has he *seen* the animal even?! Or has he simply recited by rote – everything dealing with the animal?

In fact, while the student may be considered a learned scholar, it would be the rare individual to think of such a student as a real expert in Jewish law – without knowing if the student has actually practised anything he has learned.

Sadly in our day and age, there is simply a lack of qualified people ready and available to teach these things on a practical level. Most teaching is done via a Talmud page with the student attaining his certification and qualification from simply regurgitating the material off by heart. In the eyes of the teacher – he is truly a Talmid Chacham – a wise and learned student. One may even wonder if he is really honest enough with himself to realise that with all his knowledge – he may know very little!

Life is about doing, about seeing and knowing how things work. Not simply by reading a text book and being qualified to deal with life from whatever is learned from it.

The famous story is told concerning the great Rabbi Akiva who began learning Torah at the age of 40 to become the greatest of Torah giants. All Torah that we have today – both revealed and hidden – have as their roots – the teachings taught by this very special giant of a man. Yet at 40, he knew almost nothing of what Torah was all about. So much so, that this story is even more worthy of being recorded.

Rabbi Akiva found himself in a deserted area one day. As he was travelling, he noticed a body lying on the ground. Upon closer inspection, he realised there was no life in it. A dead body… in need of burial. Rabbi Akiva was no fool when it came to the laws of burial. He also valued the honour of the body. After all, what kind of honour would it be to bury a body in the middle of nowhere? It was bad enough that the body had ended up here all by itself. The best would be to take it immediately to an honourable graveyard and bury it with the honour due it.

And so, Rabbi Akiva took the body himself to the nearest graveyard and began to bury the body, giving it the honour due it. On doing so, he was berated by his teachers. "Do you not know about the Meit Mitzvah?" they asked him. A Meit Mitzvah is a body that has died somewhere with nobody there to take care of it and where nobody knows anything about it. The law is that it must be buried at the very point that it is found. Of course, Rabbi Akiva – being especially feeling towards others, a man of kindness, realised though that this simply was not honourable and so did the very next best thing by taking it to a proper graveyard for burial.

The truth is that on the surface, Rabbi Akiva did nothing less than the best for this body. Yet, something was missing. As Rabbi Akiva himself testified after this incident. The element of Shimush (serving Torah scholars) was missing! While he had learnt about the importance of giving honour to a dead body (which he did with excellence!) he did not actually see how others before him had treated such a situation. Had he seen it, he would have realised that the Mitzvah that he had, had nothing to do with honouring the body by burying it in the graveyard, but in fact by honouring it more by burying it exactly where it was!

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then the actual implementation of seeing something being done in person must be far beyond this. Such is the way that Torah must be taught always.

Learning the laws of the prohibitive mixing of milk and meat is fine. But if the Rabbi will never actually demonstrate to the student what can be (at least with very good diagrams!) or second best to allow the student to ask – and ask and ask, and if the rabbi will not have patience to deal with the student's constant queries and difficulties, then the teaching he will be doing to his student will be more of an intellectual exercise, which may simply be a waste of time.

If the student learns about the laws of cleaning vegetables for kosher purposes but never actually cleans them himself, he will be about as smart as he was before he had learnt the material! And while regurgitating the laws of slaughtering an animal – or building a kosher Mikvah may make the student smart… they will go nowhere if the teacher is not ready and prepared to actually show the student what it's all about.

He may ask a variety of questions to the student, challenging him with rhetoric and logic, but without the student actually seeing the law in action – the student will remain forever lost, never having understood one word of Torah.

But don't be surprised. These ideas were not my own.

In Parshat Shemini, Moses is commanded by G-d to teach the Jewish people the laws of which animals are fitting for kosher consumption and which are not.

Moses – the humblest and greatest of all men – does not simply inform the Jewish people by naming the animals… he takes things one step further. How many animals could there be in the world? How many birds in the sky, fish in the sea, and creepy crawly creatures upon the Earth?! Wouldn't it just be good enough for Moses to list them all?!

In Parshat Shemini – Leviticus 11:1 and onwards, G-d commands Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and tell them that *this* is the Chaya (animal) that you may eat. Rashi (the famous commentator on Torah) points out: This is in the language of "life" (i.e. the word Chaya is related to the word Chayim meaning life) – for if not for this, the text could have said "Behema" – which also means animal (Mizrachi.) Since the Jewish people cleave to G-d and are fitting to be living, therefore separate them from the impurity and decree upon them commandments…)

Rashi then continues to point out: This teaches us (i.e. from the fact that the verse says clearly that "this" is the animal that you may eat, it implies an action of pointing to something) – that Moses held the animal and showed it to the Jewish people (saying) this you may eat, and this you may not eat. Even all the swarming fish in the sea, he held up every single specimen and he showed them. And so too with the birds… and so too with the creepy crawly creatures.

Rashi points out clearly that the directive to Moses was not simply to *tell* the Jewish people what they may or may not eat. It was not good enough to simply let them know the names of the animals. The reason is obvious. It may well be that Moses knew the names of every animal, what they looked like and why they were Kosher or not, but not every single person was able to simply know via intuition which animal Moses was talking about. Better for Moses to actually point to the animals individually and show them exactly what was kosher and what was not, and in this way teach the Jewish people exactly what was permitted and what was not.

Moses teaches us all an important lesson – especially when it comes to teaching Torah (if not everything else in life as well.) It is not enough to debate for hours on end over texts wondering if one has grasped the material well enough to pass a written exam. Rather the teachers must teach the student well enough – and clearly enough, so that the student does not only know the material in his head (like a walking encyclopaedia), but rather that he actually grasps the physical aspect of the concept as well, so that when it comes to implementing a law (or the like) the student will actually know what to do.

Learning how to slaughter an animal through one thousand pages of text may be beneficial. But it does not compare to the reality of actually seeing a qualified slaughterer perform the slaughter. Learning how to salt meat to make it kosher through another thousand pages of text and a confusing exam, may well test the students intellectual abilities, but it compares as nothing when placed with the real situation of finding meat waiting to be salted and not actually knowing how to handle it and just how much physical salt to actually use (how to wash the meat, how to soak it and how to clean it afterwards etc.) Learning how to build a kosher Mikva via thousands of pages of text may do well for implanting in the student the ability to know the basic ideas of the structure of a kosher Mikvah – but does it compare at all to the teacher physically showing the student what a Mikvah looks like, the pipes used and how the water is actually brought into the Mikvah?!

Because Torah is life (see Rashi above), and the Jewish people represent life itself and must cleave to life – it is fitting that every Torah teacher internalise these concepts, so that when the time comes to share what Torah is all about – to a student who finds theoretical concepts difficult to grasp – the teacher will actually be able to show the student what it is all about. Not just in words. Not even in pictures – but for real, in this physical world that we live in.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Pesach - A Time "Four" Reality

(Picture by Shoshanah Shear
reflecting the Exodus from Egypt
and what we were freed for.)

On Pesach evening, we will be reading from the Haggadah. This perfectly formulated ordered book is said to include the very secrets of the entire world. It seems like a conglomeration of totally disconnected points. Yet to the discerning eye – and of course the seasoned Torah scholar, the story of the Exodus – the Jewish people's leaving the land of Egypt to go towards true freedom, the Land of Israel with the Torah itself – is perfectly told, no matter how it looks on the surface. For this reason, perhaps, the Haggadah is the chosen method of sharing the story – rather than, for example, simply opening the book of Exodus and reading it from beginning to end.

Today, in fact, there are so many Haggadot available that just about every great Torah scholar who has ever lived has his very own Haggadah. You'll see Haggadot with pictures of the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad) on them, Haggadot with pictures of Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky (the Steipler) on them, Haggadot with a variety of other great Torah scholars, Tzaddikim and giants – each apparently having written his own Haggadah. Of course, this is not true. Rather these Haggadot simply contain many of the teachings that these giants shared about the Haggadah and hence these Haggadot are named after them – so to speak.

The novel ideas found in the Haggadah are so many that were one to begin collating every Haggadah available and publishing just one complete version – would mean nothing less than a Guiness world record for the largest book in the world! It's no wonder that the Haggadah speaks of the importance of reciting this story on the night of Pesach, "Even if we were all wise people, understanding people, even if we all knew the entire Torah, even if we were all old… still we would be obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt… and all who tell more – that one is praiseworthy!" And much to tell – there certainly is.

It is a sad point in our day, when so many feel that the recital of the four questions fulfils one's obligation – if one manages to even get that far. In fact, so many are already such experts in the "old" traditional story of the Exodus – that the night of Pesach may be no greater than a night of eating a few unleavened pieces of bread (reluctantly), if they will actually be at the table at all.

With so much to share, I'd like to take just one snippet in the Haggadah with the hope that those reading this will think through a central idea that the Seder highlights – that Pesach highlights and that of course the Haggadah itself highlights.

On Pesach – the Haggadah says – one does not fulfil one's obligation until one says three things "Pesach, Matza, Maror". In fact these three things are the keys to the entire Seder. They represent the essence of what being Jewish is really all about. They represent the way of the world, and there is much to say about what each of these really is.

Pesach – the Passover sacrificial lamb represents the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery. When the Temple stood, this lamb would be the lamb prepared for the main meal. It represents everything we're hoping for today – true freedom. Our not being able to eat it is surely a sign of the sadness of where we are at today – being unable to have a Temple and truly connect with G-d and experience absolute G‑dliness. Those who would know what this feeling is, would certainly do nothing less than observe every one of the 613 commandments without blinking an eyelid. The fact that so many lack the appreciation of the Mitzvot is about as good a proof as any that our loss of the Temple, means our loss of freedom – of knowing who G-d is, and connecting with Him. Naturally the Paschal sacrifice was the very thing that the Jewish people were heading towards with their leaving Egypt, as they prepared these lambs four days before leaving Egypt, an absolute insult to the Egyptians who worshipped these animals on a daily basis. Yet, they were helpless to stop the Jewish people from continuing with their plan of leaving the land of Egypt.

The Matza represents our having left Egypt in a hurry. The Jewish people fled Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to wait for the dough to rise. Matza represents this enthusiasm which we each need to keep with us when engaged in the commandments of the Torah. Those lazy and not wanting to learn or do, are true slaves to the world around them – not realising that there is a task ahead to refine this world. This must be done with haste!

The Maror represents the bitterness of the Jewish people that they underwent while in Egypt. It was not a pleasant state to be in, and we must forever remember what true slavery feels like. Once again, today we are faced with the eating of Maror on a daily basis, though most seem to enjoy the taste. The lives we live without the Temple – are lives without much meaning – save for those moments when the treat of Torah learning and practise takes us out of exile and brings us directly back to G-d. Those eating real raw "chrain" – with their eyes shedding tears as the burn goes right through their systems – should do well to remember that this is the real state of affairs for the soul today. A life of Maror is certainly not a pleasant one, and one from which we must all run from as fast as we can.

Running from Egypt – the Matza and Maror – must be with the sole goal in mind of that Paschal lamb – true freedom with the Temple and an overwhelming influence of G-d's presence being felt around us continually. What a goal to strive for and desire and pray for continually.

But still, there is a problem with the above points. The Haggadah tells us that anybody who does not say these three things on Pesach does not fulfil his/her Pesach obligations. Yes, these three things represent the crux of what Pesach is all about. But for ONE thing…

Pesach is not about threes. It's about fours! On Pesach, we ask four questions. We drink four cups of wine. There are four expressions used in the Torah to declare our freedom. Actually as one works through the Haggadah the number 4 stands out again and again – except of course for here! The Haggadah speaks of only three things. One is left to wonder what exactly is missing!

The numbers 3 and 4 are both highly significant (as all numbers are!) We know that the Jewish people have 3 forefathers and 4 foremothers. Why?

The number 3 can be compared to a stool that one may sit on. It has three legs. One sits comfortably on the chair, and it supports one. Yet, the truth is that with a bump in the wrong direction, the stool will topple over. 3 works well. But when it comes to true sturdiness, 3 is unacceptable, and we need something with 4 legs. A proper dining room chair will have four legs. A table will have four legs.

The number 3 can certainly work… but four? Four is better! It somehow just keeps the support of something so that even a kick won't knock it over. It will still stand strong.

Indeed 3 speaks about a fantasy world of what can work… but doesn't really. 4 speaks about a world of reality. At the end of the day, while the 3 legged chair will get the job done, it is the four legged chair that will be the most widely used.

Our 3 forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, likewise represent a world of fantasy. There is something missing in all of their lives, something which only the foremothers are able to latch on to. While the forefathers are living in worlds of fantasy, the foremothers live in the world of reality.

Abraham's life ends up with him being comfortable having a child through a woman other than his wife (i.e. Hagar.) While intrinsically the boy born of this relationship – Ishmael – could be a good son, the truth is that something goes terribly wrong with him and his descendants who continue to fight with the Jewish people to this day. Yitzchak – the son born to Abraham and Sarah is really the only son that should have been born, but due to circumstances, things turned out that Ishmael was also born. Abraham loved Ishmael too – after all, he was his son (and his eldest at that!) Yet Isaac was the son born to his true wife – Sarah – who he had truly longed to have a son with.

When Sarah saw that Ishmael would be a problem for her son Isaac, she told Abraham that the boy must be sent away. Abraham – due to his love for the boy, was not happy with the decision and wanted to let the lad live with them and be a part of the Abraham dynasty. Sarah wants him out!

Naturally we see the truth of Sarah – and the problem that Abraham faced. Abraham lived in a world of fantasy – one where even an Ishmael can live harmoniously with his "brother" Isaac. Sarah saw the truth – the reality. In this physical world filled with physical things (and weapons too!) Ishmael can simply not live with Isaac. How true Sarah's feelings were, and how false were Abraham's insights into what Ishmael would become. Of course, Abraham was on a stature of spiritual holiness that nobody in today's generation can understand. His insight into his son was not for nothing. To him, Ishmael had some very beautiful qualities – and for this, he loved him. But that is the world of fantasy (a world of truth in the spiritual realms) – not reality! Sarah – the woman, saw the reality.

Isaac on the other hand had two sons who shared a common goal – to work with each other. Esau was to be involved in work, while Jacob studied Torah. What a noble thing for brothers to do – working together for each other's good. Isaac loved Esau, even more than he did Jacob. Yet Rebecca loved Jacob more.

The truth is that Esau did have an important role to perform and he was certainly a great student of Torah… only he had a bad side to him. He enjoyed killing others in cold blood, stealing from others, and raping those who pleased him to rape. What with all the realities of Esau's life – the life of Jacob – a man studying Torah all day was far more pleasant in the eyes of his mother Rebecca. Yet Isaac was no fool either. What he saw in Esau were some very special qualities (aside from his killing, robbery and raping!) In the Torah of Chassidus, one can truly see the good side of Esau and there is much to learn from him.

In the world of fantasy – of course, Esau was and is really a very good man. It's just that when his soul comes into this physical world, it leashes itself out in every physical manner it can think of! But, if he is a son of Isaac – he must surely be someone very special. Isaac knows that. Rebecca does too… but she's real. She realises that Esau will never share with his brother Jacob, and while the team of brothers may be a good thing in the world of fantasy (the spiritual realms), in the world of reality (this world – the physical) – Esau will simply run off with the goods, leaving Jacob to fend for himself! Being in the tents of Torah won't help him pay his bills much – and Rebecca realises this. That is why she arranges things so that Jacob receives the blessing from Isaac – the one "due" for Esau.

The fantasy man – Isaac, lives in world of fantasy goodness. Wonderful. But in the world of reality – the world of women (who bring things into this world in a very real way, not leaving the exalted thoughts of Torah to pay the bills…) is a world of reality. Esau can simply not get the blessing. It must go to Jacob!

Apparently our forefathers were similar, and Jacob – even with his own difficulties, did not see what would happen to him – making him make the same mistake!

When Jacob fell in love – it was with Rachel. He wished to marry her and was actually going to go through it all, until her sister Leah ended up getting mixed in to the ceremony due to her father Lavan's intervention. Could the marriage have been diverted? Certainly. The Torah teaches that it was in fact Rachel herself – who gave over the special wedding signs she had arranged with Jacob before – to her sister Leah, so that when they met under the Chupah, Jacob would think he was marrying Rachel. The scheme worked, and come what may – Jacob was destined to marry Leah first.

Shouldn't Rachel have simply kept quiet and let Jacob marry her first? She loved him too! Why did she do this?! Without going into detail, let us consider just one point which we can meditate over for years and never get to appreciate even then! Even with the tremendous self-sacrifice of Rachel, it was to Leah that the blessing went to be the mother of the Moshiach. Leah's fourth child – Judah – would be the father of Moshiach. Had she not married Jacob, one wonders – if in the cosmic sense of things – if indeed Moshiach would have come through Rachel. After all, it seems, G-d wanted the Messiah to come directly through Judah – who was to be born to Leah.

More than this, the entire mystery of going into Egypt and coming out again was based upon the order of marriage of the two sisters. After all, Joseph became the youngest son (save for Benjamin at the time) who would be tormented by his brothers, sent into Egypt and then become viceroy and be responsible for saving Egypt and many other lands too, and ultimately bringing real redemption for the entire Jewish people. Had Joseph been born first, the brothers would not have behaved to him as they did (he would now have been the eldest son!) which would have meant that he would not have gone down to Egypt. And of course, when the famine did eventually come, there would not be a Joseph in Egypt ready to save the entire Jewish people!

Rachel of course – with her Divine inspiration knew this. Jacob did not. In the world of fantasy – Jacob's world, things could work out well by marrying Rachel first. But in reality, this just could not take place – not in a physical world filled with impurity and much more.

3 represents the men – caught up in worlds of fantasy – where much can be, but what with a 3 legged chair – a slight kick and it can all fall down! The number four represents women who ground everything into reality – into the physical world. This is why we have 3 forefathers, and 4 foremothers. This is a short insight into our great Fathers and Mothers.

Pesach is a night of fours – except of course for the THREE things we must say. What then of the fourth?!

This is exactly the point… the fourth thing is just this. There are three things that one must SAY to fulfil one's obligation. The fourth thing is speech – of actually doing and saying something. One can fantasize about Matza, Pesach and Marror as much as one wants to. One can come up with the best and deepest thoughts about each of these things. But without actually making something of them (leaving them simply in the air literally) one does not fulfil one's obligation.

Life is not about philosophy, of thinking about things – no matter how lofty they are. Life is about doing, of making something happen because of speaking and because of doing. Fantasy works well when people want to simply show how great they are, but the reality of life is far deeper, it's about speaking things – to put into action.

The Seder is not about some story that happened thousands of years ago that we already all know (from the many years we've been through it before.) It's all about doing it again. Of saying everything again. Of eating the Matza and Maror again!!! Just like Torah too, which is about doing everything again and again. There is never enough of it, and each time there is something new. But it is only when we put ourselves into Torah and Mitzvot that we actually begin to see just how much is involved.

There is no getting out of it. This is the physical world, a world of reality. A world of four. A world of speech and action. Being at a Seder is simply not good enough. It's about doing everything, the right way – completely from beginning to end. It's about speaking it out and learning what Torah and G-d are all about – and of course what a Jewish soul is. What it means to be a slave (as we should know only too well) and what it means to be truly free – something that can only happen with the holding on to the Torah and her commandments.


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