Sep 05, 2023
The WebYeshiva Blog
Aug 29, 2023
The Truth is Out ThereBy 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 nationsAt 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 TorahWith 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 TorahThere 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.
Aug 22, 2023
The Real YouBy 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 HaKenWhile 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 struggleTaking 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 selfBeyond 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 messageSociety’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.
Aug 14, 2023
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 kingIn 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 possessionsThe 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 domainsIn 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.
Aug 07, 2023
You are LovedBy 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-mutilationThe 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?