• September 24, 2023
  • 9 5784, Tishri
  • פרשת ויחי

The WebYeshiva Blog

We are So Close

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin We are so close. The Torah assures us that teshuvah and closeness to Hashem is extremely accessible and is something that is completely within our grasp (Deut. 30:11-14). “It’s not in heaven… and it’s not on the other side of the sea… For it is very close to you (“כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד”), both in your mouth and in your heart to accomplish.” There is another place where the Torah says that something is “כִּי־קָרוֹב”, close to us. In Parshat Beshalach, in describing the route the Jews took to leave Egypt, the Torah states that God did not allow them to pass through the Philistine territory, “כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא” – “because it was close” to the Egyptian border (Ex. 13:17-18). Hashem was concerned lest the Jews become frightened by the Philistines and turn back to Egypt. Rabbi Yitzchak Yungerleib was a Hassidic Rebbe in the town of Radvil in western Ukraine in the early 19th century. He noted this connection and suggested that a Jew should keep both verses in his heart. On the one hand, spiritual closeness is very much within everyone’s grasp. The Torah is free to all to study and to draw inspiration. At the same time, there are many pitfalls in this life, and it is very easy to get distracted and waylaid by the vicissitudes and allures of the physical world. God Himself is rooting for us, always hoping that we’ll make the right decisions, and not fall into the hands of the “Philistines.” This is why the Torah states, “וְלֹא־נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים”, which can also be translated as “God is inconsolable (לֹא־נָחָם) when His children go down the Philistine path.” How does Hashem try to divert us from the Philistine path? The next verse in Parshat Beshalach states: “Hashem instead turned the nation toward the desert.” When one feels that sense of humility and loneliness, devoid of ego and arrogance, but rather barren and desolate like a desert, this is a sign that that one is on the right path.

Making ourselves vulnerable

We are approaching these Days of Awe. In order for them to have meaning for us, we ought to make ourselves somewhat vulnerable. We should acknowledge our shortcomings and the fact that we don’t have answers to everything, nor do we completely have our lives together. We should also acknowledge that while teshuvah is very accessible, we often neglect that access, and much to Hashem’s chagrin, choose the Philistine path, which sometimes seems like the more convenient path. I would add that there is something unique about the “כי קרוב” in our text. It doesn’t just say here that our access to Hashem is close; it says “כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד” – it is VERY close. While it’s true that we are also at risk of succumbing to the allures of this Philistine world, the Torah testifies that we are even closer and have more access to the truths of the Torah and to the teshuvah process, since they are already “בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ” – in our mouths and hearts. Rabbi Moshe David Valli, a student of the Ramchal, noted that there are many things that are “close.” You can have a neighbor who lives right next door. Our family members are even closer to us than our neighbors. We are even closer to our spouses than other family members. But the closest sense of kinship that we have is with the Divine Presence that is so close, that it rests in our mouths and hearts. There is a constant gnawing within us to seek out the truth and to see past the veneer of this world. The Torah acknowledges that we were all created with that inherent hunger to seek out a close relationship with Hashem.

Small adjustments, minor corrections

Because of its closeness, the teshuvah process is a very small step and we don’t have to travel far outside of our comfort zones. The story is told of Rabbi Yerachmiel of P’shischa (d. 1836), who was once sitting with his students. He related to them that he owned a watch that had stopped working, and none of the watchmakers could figure out what was wrong. He decided to take it apart himself. He removed all the gears, wheels, and switches, and they all seemed perfectly in order. He finally discovered that the tiniest spring in the watch was slightly bent. All that had to be done was to bend it back into position, and all the gears started to move once again. The students understood that their rebbe was alluding to them that sometimes, our internal springs are bent out of shape. Instead of having to replace all the parts, it’s sometimes the tiniest little adjustment that must be made in our lives to fix everything else that isn’t working. Because the solution is so close, all it sometimes takes is a small correction to our hearts to bring us back into alignment with our Yiddishkeit, our fellow man, and our God.

The call of the shofar

There is something else that is described as “כִּי קָרוֹב” in the books of the Prophets. In the book of Yoel (2:1), the prophet proclaims: תִּקְעוּ שׁוֹפָר בְּצִיּוֹן וְהָרִיעוּ בְּהַר קָדְשִׁי יִרְגְּזוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־בָא יוֹם־יְקֹוָק כִּי קָרוֹב Blow the Shofar in Zion, blast the noise in My holy mountain. Let all the inhabitants of the Land be frightened, for the day of Hashem is coming near (“כִּי קָרוֹב”). This is echoed in other verses, such as an Obadiah 1:15, that the day of Hashem is near, when Hashem will take His revenge on our oppressors and bring the Redemption. As we prepare for the Shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah, let’s recall that the “Day of the Lord” is coming, and what a great and awesome day it shall be. May our Shofar blasts this year bring us to the ultimate “Day of the Lord” at the time of our Redemption, bb”a. Wishing you all a ketivah v’chatimah tovah, a joyous and blessed new year.
Parshat Hashavua

The Truth is Out There

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin The Torah commands that upon entry into Eretz Israel, the Jews were to take large stones and erect them on the eastern border. They were to inscribe the entire Torah on these stones, and according to the Mishnah (Sotah 7:5), it was translated into 70 different languages in order for the other nations approaching the borders of Israel to understand the text. Ostensibly, this was to post the “rules” for visitors entering the Land, so that any foreigner would know what was expected of them when visiting the Jewish homeland. The Torah states that in addition to writing the Torah text on the stones, the stones needed to be coated with some kind of plaster or mortar, called “סיד” (or “שיד”) in Hebrew. There’s a debate in the Talmud (TB Sotah 35b) as to the relation between the writing and the plaster. Rabbi Yehuda says that the scribes chiseled the Hebrew text onto the bare stones and then plastered over the surface. Rabbi Shimon says that first the plaster was applied, and the scribes used a stylus to inscribe the text onto the soft plaster.

A message to the nations

At face value, Rabbi Shimon’s opinion makes eminently more sense. What would be the point of inscribing words onto stones that would then be covered by plaster? How would visitors to Eretz Israel gain access to the now hidden text?! Rabbi Yehuda responds to this challenge: “HKB”H endowed the other nations with additional wisdom (Heb.: “בינה יתירה”) to know exactly what to do. When their scribes came to the border, they peeled off the plaster, transcribed the text underneath, and brought the text back to their respective countries.” We are still left scratching our heads at Rabbi Yehuda’s Chelm-like depiction. Why conceal the Torah text, only to provide the visiting nations some miraculous knowledge to peel off the plaster? Why not display the Torah’s text out in the open? We might offer quite simply that R. Yehuda was concerned about the honor of the text, and did not feel that it would be appropriate for such holy scripture to be “out in the open,” subject to erosion and abuse. But I believe that there’s a deeper explanation, in that this whole exercise was a learnable metaphor for the other nations of the world. To explain, let’s look at another passage of Talmud, the only other place in the Talmud (both Bavli and Yerushalmi) where someone is depicted as being endowed with this “בינה יתירה”, additional wisdom.

Women were created with "binah"

The Mishnah (Niddah 5:6) discusses the age at which a child has the status of an adult for particular laws. It states the well-known principle that a girl becomes “of age,” or Bat Mitzvah, when she reaches the age of 12. But a boy does not come of age until his Bar Mitzvah at age 13. Why, asks the Gemara (TB Niddah 45b), does it take a boy an extra year to come of age? Rav Chisda cites a verse from Eve’s creation (Gen. 2:22): “וַיִּבֶן יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהִים׀ אֶת־הַצֵּלָע” – “The Lord God ‘built’ (Heb.: “וַיִּבֶן”) the flank of man’s body into the woman, and brought her to Adam.” In addition to the word “וַיִּבֶן” implying “building,” it is also a derivative of the word “בינה,” discernment and wisdom. Women were created with greater wisdom (“בינה יתירה”) than men, and this is why a girl matures faster than a boy, and is thus held responsible for her actions at a younger age. Why did God create woman with a greater “binah”? The verse indicates that it has to do with her relationship to her male counterpart. Perhaps God was aware of the impending curse that would befall Eve, dooming women to be “subservient” societally and physically to their husbands (this has been the case for most of human history; thankfully, the social disparity between men and women has been reduced substantially in recent generations). We have a principle in Judaism, “אין הקדוש ברוך הוא בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו.” – “God does not set up His creations for failure.” That is, if an individual being is created with some disability or disadvantage, Hashem will compensate for that disadvantage by endowing the individual with an enhancement that allows for success despite the handicap. For example, it has been scientifically demonstrated that people who are blind have enhanced abilities in their other senses. It may be that Hashem, recognizing the disadvantages that women would have in dealing with their male counterparts, granted women an intellectual advantage, giving them a greater insight into the human condition, and infusing them with a certain intuition about life that men simply lack. From the very inception of woman’s creation, the imbalance was evident, and thus Hashem compensated for it accordingly. As Harry Belafonte sang, “That’s right, the woman is smarter,” and this is why girls become savvy a year before boys.

Universal message of the Torah

With this same principle, that God does not set up His creations for failure, Hashem wanted to symbolically show the other nations of the world that even though they were not at Mount Sinai, they were still not completely disadvantaged. The Law given at Sinai contains within it not only a specific message of behavior for the Jewish people, but also the universal messages of morality, ethics, and the imperative for man to look beyond himself in seeking a purpose for living. Unfortunately, for reasons known to God, the other nations were not directly privy to this wonderful revelatory gift. Hashem’s response to this handicap, to the nations visiting our borders, is this: Finding purpose in an existence that often seems chaotic and unfair is very difficult. You may suffer from the angst of not having the answers to so many questions about existence. If you had been granted the Torah directly, these questions might have been more easily answered. Realize, however, that the Torah’s message, while containing universal ideas, is still concealed with plaster, a “closed book” for the non-Jew. So many aspects of the Torah are meant to be practiced and studied by Jews alone. I, God, nonetheless grant you an enhanced wisdom to know how to plumb the depths of this Jewish text, and bring it back to your own culture to provide answers for how to live a life of purpose and meaning. Don’t think that just because you weren’t at Mount Sinai, the Torah’s ideas are inaccessible to you. You’ve been endowed with a great sense of intuition, with a growling gnawing in your gut, and with an unrequited curiosity that will draw you to the borders of Eretz Israel. Don’t be satisfied until you have overturned every rock, and chipped away at the occlusive plaster that conceals the truth contained within the Jewish nation.

Universal access to Torah

There is so much concealment of truth in today’s world. The more we advance technologically, the more we have access to information. But that access has also been our curse, since so much information is completely unfiltered, haphazardly mixed with half truths and lies. We believe, however, that as occlusive as our current society is, as much as it conceals the hidden nature of God and our reality, the truth can still be accessed by real truth-seekers who are prepared to chisel away at the facades of our modern society. Both Jew and non-Jew alike have this opportunity to arrive at the universal truths of the Torah. Part of the responsibility of the Jewish people is to erect, metaphorically, those large stones on our borders and allow access, whether by lesson or by example, of the universal aspects – the ethics, morality, and kindness – of the Torah. The greater the confusion that is out in the streets, the greater the responsibility it becomes for those who possess the truth to share it. King Solomon said (Pr. 25:2): “כְּבֹד אֱלֹהִים הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר וּכְבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר” – “It is the glory of God to hide something, but it is the glory of kings to discover it.” That which Hashem conceals, He provides the opportunity for those worthy “kings” to discover. May we all merit to discover the truths of ourselves and our world and share it with others, so that we can finally envision the Redemption that is all around us, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

The Real You

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin Our parsha is famous for its apparently disjointed mitzvot that seemingly have little or nothing to do with each other. We will point out a series of three mitzvot that present with this mysterious juxtaposition. In ch. 22, we find the following series:

v. 4: You may not stand idly by when seeing your friend’s donkey or ox falling down on the road due to its uneven load. Help your friend readjust the animal’s load and help the animal regain its footing.

v. 5: No woman or man may cross-dress. Transvestism is forbidden by the Torah.

v. 6: When you happen upon a nest with eggs or chicks, you must send away the mother bird before taking her offspring for yourself.

Shiluach HaKen

While there is no apparent connection between these three commandments, a comment by the Abarbanel on the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen, sending away the mother bird, is very revealing. He understands that this mitzvah is a symbolic representation of something that occurs within each human being over the course of a lifetime. We are composites of body and soul, and over the course of our lives, our soul feels imprisoned by the body. Our bodily desires draw us to indulge in physical activities that are completely distasteful to the soul, to the point where the soul feels sullied by being dragged along through life to participate in these activities. The soul’s desires, on the other hand, are to engage in spiritually beneficial and virtuous activities. The soul constantly yearns to be liberated from the body and return heavenward. When the Torah tells us to free the mother bird, it is representing this ideal that we try our best to liberate our soul from the shackles of physical imprisonment. We can do this while alive, by following the soul’s desires instead of the body’s, that is, by doing good acts instead of indulging our desires. By doing so, we are able to harvest the product of the soul’s yearnings, the spiritually beneficial acts of a life well spent. We keep the product of those efforts for ourselves for all eternity. This is represented by keeping the eggs or the chicks of the liberated mother bird.

The body and soul struggle

Taking the mitzvah in this light, we see that the Torah is addressing the dichotomous nature of man, and his constant struggle between body and soul. With this, we might better understand the first mitzvah in our series: When you see a person’s donkey or ox, his beast of burden, struggling under its load, help your friend out. When you see that a person’s body is prevailing, that his priorities are more hedonistic than spiritually driven, help him or her with their struggle. Realign their sights, and help them from buckling under the tremendous allures of peer pressure, societal pressure, and the desires of the flesh. Help your friend move forward in a healthy relationship with his body, so that he can feed his physical needs without collapsing under them entirely. This leads to the next mitzvah in the series, the prohibition against cross-dressing. In recent years, this practice has been all the rage in the news. It’s part of the “woke” culture that allows every person to define exactly who and what they wish to be. One’s gender, it is argued, is not defined by one’s birth biology, but rather one’s mental and emotional state. It’s certainly true that some biological males have feelings of femininity and some biological females have feelings of masculinity. Beyond the very binary gender of one’s biology, there’s greater fluidity and nuance in one’s psychological “gender”. So why does the Torah prohibit cross-dressing? Firstly, there is a very real concern, as Rashi states in his commentary, that allowing men to dress as women may lead to licentiousness, when men can enter women’s washrooms and locker rooms and use this as an opportunity to exploit the opposite gender.

The true self

Beyond that, there is a fundamental ideological mistake in practicing transvestism. If the mitzvot contained in our section address the difficult balance between body and soul, it’s important to realize that the body is not the main forum for establishing one’s true identity. My body, with all of its unique characteristics and flaws, was given to me by G-d via my parents’ genetics and other factors. I may be dissatisfied with my hair, my eyes, my nose, or other parts of my body. Especially for those with disabilities, there is every reason to be dissatisfied with one’s body’s shortcomings. Certainly, when modern medicine allows us to repair the broken or malformed parts of my body, I should take advantage of modern medical amenities. But in the end, my body is not the real ME. My true self is contained in the metaphysical and the spiritual, and that it is the part of ME that I should strive to focus upon, cultivate, and develop. One who cross-dresses, regardless of that person’s genuine motivations, is in effect not only rejecting G-d’s choice of physical gender for themselves. Because they are displaying who they are through dressing of the body, that person is also declaring that the main part of who they are as an individual human being is their body, not their soul. The continuity of the verses for these three mitzvot can now be appreciated as three facets of the same theme, that of emphasizing the soul over the body: Helping your friend’s struggling “animal”: We all struggle with our physical desires and vices. Don’t just take care of your own struggles; help your fellow human being with his or hers, too. Cross-dressing: Don’t define your true essence by your bodily manifestations. Accept your body as a shell of the real you, which is your spiritual essence. Regardless of your mental or emotional state, maintain your body in the way G-d gave it you, and then focus on and nurture your soul. Your feminine or masculine identity will emerge naturally in your soul without you having to dress up your body artificially. Send away the mother bird: Liberate your soul by freeing it from the fetters of your physical desires. By listening to your soul’s inner stirrings and acting upon your lofty spiritual calling, you will be able to reap the sweet fruits of a life well lived, the “eggs” of the “mother bird.”

Sharpening the message

Society’s new “wokeism” allows every person’s identity to be as fluid as they like. But this runs counter to this ideal of the duality of the human condition and the primacy of the soul in that hybrid composition. When we look at ourselves in the mirror and see only our exterior as our defining persona, then we are losing touch with the Torah’s message that the most “real” part of who I am is my soul. Instead, we should embrace and celebrate the body that was given to us by Hashem, while at the same time placing our main focus of interest and effort on the good deeds and altruistic efforts in life that are reflections of the soul’s influence upon us. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to hear the messages of the Torah amidst the din of social media and societal pressure. Our current culture has all but erased the spiritual essence of man. For these High Holidays, our goal should be to rediscover the muffled voice of our neshama, crying to be heard and recognized. May this effort usher in new blessings and redemption for the coming year, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

Be the Ruler!

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin What is the definition of a true leader? At the beginning of the third essay of the Kuzari, this is the very question that R’ Yehuda HaLevi had the Khazar King ask the Rabbi, but in a circuitous way. The Khazar King asked: “Tell me how saintly Jews behave.” The Rabbi responded: “A saintly person is one who is concerned with his country. He provides all its citizens with their every provision and need. He leads them justly, does not oppress any one of them, and does not give to any one of them more than their rightful share. Thus, in his time of need they will come to his aid, and will rush to respond to him when he calls out to them. He can command them, and they will carry out his command; he can admonish them and they will accept his admonishment.” Puzzled with this response, the Kuzari challenges: “I asked you about a saintly person, not a leader!” The Rabbi’s answer is very telling: “The saintly person is a leader. All of his senses and attributes – both spiritual and physical – submit themselves to his command. He thus leads them just like a real world leader, as it says (Pr. 16:32), ‘He who rules his spirit is greater than one who captures a city.’ He has shown that he is fit to govern – that were he to rule over a country, he would preside over it justly just as he has done with his own body and soul.”

Appointing a king

In this light, it should not be surprising that a number of commentaries look at the Torah’s commandment to appoint a king over the nation (17:14-20) as a metaphor for appointing a ruler over oneself, a guiding principle that allows one to lead a life of discipline, dignity, and integrity. We’ll extract just a few points from Rav Chaim Vital’s extensive use of this metaphor. “When you come into the [Promised] Land…” There comes a point when we reach a certain age of maturity, that moment in your life when you realize you need to get serious and put aside all the distractions and entertainments of your youth. You will have “arrived” at the place you need to be in order to make important life decisions. “You will say, I shall appoint a king over myself, like all the nations around me.” You notice that your peers have started to get serious about life. Each one has immersed himself or herself into something that preoccupies the majority of their waking life, whether it be their job, raising a family, or some other pursuit. You will realize that it’s time for you to create structure and a life plan for yourself as well. Here the Torah admonishes us that we must choose our “king” wisely: “Appoint a king over yourself, one that Hashem selects for you. He must be from among your brethren, and you may not place a foreigner over yourself.” That is, there are many choices to make in deciding how you would like your life to be structured. Make sure that you choose the proper overarching principle that will guide your life decisions. That life code, or “king,” must be endorsed by Hashem, because it conforms to the values contained in the Torah. Don’t look at others’ choices, since their playbook may not be from the Torah. Don’t adopt a foreign value system, not “from your brethren,” to be the guiding principle of your life.

The king and his possessions

The Torah then commands the king to not have too many physical assets, and identifies three specific accumulations that the king must avoid: “He shall not amass too many horses… too many wives… too much gold and silver….” G-d is telling us: Even when you choose the right “king,” in that you have committed to live a life of Torah observance, this does not guarantee that your life will always be on the correct trajectory. It is possible to live a “frum” life that is distorted by too much of the following: (1) “Too many horses” refers to fun activities. Even Orthodox Jews love taking vacations, playing games, and other recreational activities. When done in moderation, that’s fine. But don’t overdo it, and don’t make those moments the main focus of your life. (2) “Too many wives” refers to physical indulgences, even with your own spouse, or even when everything is glatt kosher. Eat to live, don’t live to eat at the fancy destination restaurant, for example. (3) “Too much gold and silver” doesn’t need any additional interpretation. Be happy with what you have and don’t obsess over accumulating additional wealth. “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot” (Avos 4:1).

The king and a life of Torah

“When he ascends the throne, he shall write for himself a Mishneh Torah on a scroll, in the presence of the Kohanim.” The term “Mishneh Torah,” literally, a Torah of study, means a Torah that one can absorb and apply to their own life. Make sure the Torah you study has practical applications to you and is formulated and filtered in a language that speaks to you. Study that Torah in the presence of the “Kohanim” of your generation, the teachers and rabbis whom you respect, who will help guide you in applying the Torah’s teachings to your life. “It shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life…” Whatever you end up doing in life, whatever profession or vocation you choose, make sure that each and every day has some time carved out for Torah study. Whether it’s the Daf Yomi or even just five minutes of halakhah or mussar, reading from the Torah every day of your life will engender faith, a fear of G-d, and a commitment to continue following the precepts of the Torah through thick and thin. “[He shall do all this] so that his heart not become haughty over his brethren… and in order that his rule will be of lengthy days, for both himself and his children in the midst of Israel.” The key to a successful life is the trait of humility. Even when you’ve “made it” professionally or financially, don’t allow your successes to convince you that you’re any better than your peers. If you live by these principles, then both you and your children will live a long and happy life, and will do so within the Jewish community.

Ourselves as king or our domains

In my travels over the last several days, I encountered a large amount of homeless people camped out in the streets. There is currently a scourge in society of people who don’t feel that they have any purpose or direction in life. They’ve basically given up on themselves and have not been able to find any redemption to their lives or reason to live with that sense of self-respect or dignity. To me, this sight on the streets is the saddest of all human conditions. Society today has become so advanced; we’ve cured so many illnesses, and we’ve created so many luxuries and amenities that are within everyone’s grasp. But we haven’t succeeded in providing an overarching message of purpose and meaning within the life of the average citizen. We’d be so well advised to follow the Torah’s charge. Become the king or queen that you were always meant to be! As we inch closer to the High Holidays, let’s examine the infrastructure of our lives. Have we instituted the proper priorities for ourselves and our loved ones? Are we leading disciplined lives of purpose? At the end of our lives, we all want to be remembered as people who led lives with meaning and who set a proper example for their family and friends. That’s a true king or queen. May we ascend the throne of true royalty every day of our lives, and may this new year bring us to both personal and national Redemption, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

You are Loved

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin December 23, 1888 is one of the most famous moments in art history. It was on that day that a distraught Vincent Van Gogh “stepped into the bathroom and stared at his maniacal, menacing, hyena-wild reflection, rubbed his stubbled neck, lifted the razor and, grabbing his left ear, sliced it off in a silent scream, locking eyes with his reflection in the mirror.” Why did he do it? What led such a creative artist to become so destructive? Or, as fellow impressionist artist Claude Monet questioned, “How could a man who has loved flowers and light so much and has rendered them so well, how could he have managed to be so unhappy?” Theories abound. One suggests that Van Gogh had gotten into a heated argument with his roommate, artist Paul Gauguin, who claimed in his memoirs that Van Gogh had threatened him with a razor before turning the instrument on himself. Another speculation is earlier that day, Van Gogh received news of his brother Theo’s engagement, and was deeply concerned it would affect Theo’s financial support, which was crucial to the artist. Others suggest that he was simply an alcoholic and was suffering from the delusional and hallucinatory effects of either alcohol binging or alcohol withdrawal. Van Gogh is one of the most famous cases where tormented geniuses or sensitive artists have punished and mutilated themselves physically. There is even a modern syndrome coined “Van Gogh syndrome,” also known as Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI). In many instances the individual feels that this is the only way to cope with unbearable pain or stress. Other times, the individual feels they deserve to be punished for some misdeed or failure.

The mitzvah against self-mutilation

The syndrome is not new, and was around in the times of the Torah’s writing. It forms the basis of a mitzvah in our parsha, which prohibits self-mutilation during moments of distress (14:1-2):

 .בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא־תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת

 .כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּבְךָ בָּחַר יְקֹוָק לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה

You are children to Hashem your Lord. Do not disfigure yourselves, nor may you place a cut between your eyes over the dead.

For you are a holy nation to Hashem your Lord, and Hashem has chosen you to be His chosen nation from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.

If we look at the language carefully, we discover that the Torah seems to be providing two reasons for prohibiting self-mutilation, one at the beginning of the first verse, and one in the second verse: (1) You are Hashem’s children, and (2) You are Hashem’s holy and chosen people. What’s the difference between the two, and how do they serve as reasons for this prohibition?

A child's view

Sfornu and Ibn Ezra comment on the first reason, that we should look at ourselves as Hashem’s children in quite a literal sense. Firstly, when we were young children, often times our parents would do things that we didn’t understand. Their actions may have appeared cruel or unfair, but as we got older we realized that their actions were reasonable and correct. This is how we are supposed to look upon tragic events. We may not understand why these events happened nor why they are for the best, but if we view ourselves as Hashem’s children, not yet capable of understanding our Parent’s actions, we can more easily reconcile ourselves and endure the pain of the tragedy. Secondly, no matter what loss a person goes through, if they still have their parent, this is in itself a comfort. No matter how sad and empty the individual may feel, they may take comfort in knowing that their Father in Heaven is still there with them, supporting them and embracing them at every juncture, just as a father or mother holds their crying child in their arms to offer comfort.

The individual

This first reason for prohibiting self-mutilation is therefore directed at the truly distraught individual. Hashem is saying: Don’t do anything to harm yourself in order to drown out your pain or to punish yourself. First of all, you don’t yet understand how your own miserable state, even if brought by your own actions, is part of a larger plan that will work out in the end. Secondly, I am here with you to help endure your suffering. I still love you no matter what, no matter how much you think you may have failed, and I will always be here for you.

The nation

The second reason given in the Torah for prohibiting self-mutilation is completely different. Instead of Hashem offering consolation and reassurance, this second text charges us collectively as the Jewish people with a national duty. “You are a holy, chosen nation!” Your behavior sends a message to the entire world. If you mourn excessively to the point of self-flagellation, you are suggesting that God is not just and that life is wretched and miserable. This runs counter to your duty to be a “light unto the nations.” No matter what happens to you, no matter how much you are punished, persecuted and hounded, you must always hold your head high and let the world know that you are proud to be alive as a Jew. Even if you are crying bitter tears inside, never let the world see your unbearable pain, but rather suffer with dignity and moderation. Let the world hear the words, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” – “Blessed be Hashem, the true Judge!” Even when it’s hard for you to believe those words, it is nonetheless your duty to proclaim them so as to sanctify Hashem’s name throughout the world.

The needs of the many

The Talmud (TB Yevamos 14a) teaches, based on reading the words “לֹא תִתְגּדְדוּ” as deriving from the word “אגודות”, separate groups, that every Jewish community must try its best to create uniform practices for the entire community so that it does not appear that everyone is doing something different. What does this have to do with self-mutilation? It reveals that when it comes to human suffering, sometimes a Jew has to put aside his or her personal pain in order to project a national image of positivity, just like sometimes an individual has to put aside his or her personal religious preference in order to conform to the greater good of the community’s minhag. Both interpretations speak to placing the community’s priorities before the individual’s.) Everyone, without fail, experiences pain in life. Many of us have good and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with these painful and stressful situations. We have learned to laugh at our challenges, to decompress through physical exercise, education, music, and socialization. Others do not cope as well. In an effort to drown out the pain some over-indulge in various substances and activities that are self-destructive or hurtful to others.

You are never alone

To fulfill the directive to emulate God in everything we do, we must acknowledge the pain of others. Just seeing the other and reminding them that they are not alone can do wonders. You never know how much of a difference it makes in a person’s life just knowing that you are available to them when they need someone to lean on. The month of Elul is upon us. This is the time to realign ourselves with what we know to be good and virtuous. Let’s try and remember the opening words of this mitzvah: “בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם” – “You are Hashem’s son or daughter!” You deserve the best, and Hashem loves you no matter what. Don’t despair, and don’t punish yourself any longer. Arise and love yourself the way Hashem loves you. As bad as things may be, realize that life is such a gift. Had Van Gogh realized how appreciated he’d become for his contribution to art, he probably would never have harmed himself on that terrible December night. You may not be appreciated today for who you are, and you may not even feel terribly good about yourself. But never forget that Hashem loves you as His child, and will always be with you. You are loved, and you are never alone. May we all move forward together with confidence and optimism to greet the Redeemer, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
1 2 3 9