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Parshas Tazria: Tzaras — Why We Need Doctors Now

Outside Israel fell a week behind because the 8th day of Pesach fell on Shabbas. You’ll catch up with a double parsha next week. For the dvar on Shemini, please visit TalkTorah for the connection between snakes, kashrus, the yetzer hara and Egypt.

I’m surrounded by brilliant doctors who grew a bit alarmed when I mentioned that the holiest of people don’t require medical care. Tazria, which focuses on the disease of Tzaras, is the perfect parsha to explore this issue further.

Summary: Tzaras is not leprosy, nor a known illness. It is a spiritual illness solved only by spiritual rectification. Back when we were extremely sensitive to our connection to Hashem, it afflicted us when we slightly deviated, as a sign to encourage us to return. Strangely enough, we should be so sensitive to the importance of our close relationship that we desire Tzaras to return.

My Rabbi taught that when your wife is angry at you or acting in a way that upsets you, the correct response is to deeply reflect and notice that problem in yourself. What seems like an affliction on the surface is actually a sign to return to the close connection you previously shared.

I hope your Omer continues to be an inspiring adventure of growth.

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman

Parshas Tazria: Tzaras — Why We Need Doctors Now

First things first: Tzaras is not leprosy (Sforno, introduction of Tazria). It is not a known disease. And at least since the destruction of the second temple, it no longer exists.

What’s the proof Tzaras is a spiritual disease, not a known physical one?

1. If some contagious affliction were involved, such that the afflicted is required to be separated from others, “how could one explain that when the affliction strikes a house, it must be emptied of its contents before the Kohen examines it so as to avoid having to declare its contents contaminated? Would not the objects in the house have also been contaminated by the agents of infection?” (Munk, Vayikra 13:12, 14:36).

2. Why would the Torah dedicate an entire chapter to Tzaras if it was only a health concern, and completely ignore the far more common natural dangers of poisonous plants, wild animals and epidemics?   

3. The mere existence of the warnings as theoretical possibilities serves the purpose for which they were intended. In fact, the Talmud confirms tzaras on clothing and houses never occurred (Sanhedrin 71A). Clearly, if the disease mentioned in such detail never occurred, we cannot be simply speaking of a natural disease.

4. There is neither impurity of afflictions of Tzaras nor their purification except by the word of a Kohen, a spiritual leader. The Israelites had medics in their camp but they didn’t treat Tzaras (Rashi, Vay. 13:2). Furthermore, in the words themselves, the afflicted shall be brought to Aaron, the Cohen — the gematria (numerical value) of אל אהרן = 287 =  (doctor)רופא

The Spiritual leader in this case is the only one capable of doing the healing. It’s up to the teacher of the people to reveal the moral cause of their affliction and guide the guilty person back to the right path (Toras Kohanim, 14:35). That’s also why he checks in weekly; in order to give the person time to make a true accounting of his deeds and repent for them.

The Torah points to Tzaras afflictions as a classic example of the spiritual causes at the root of many illnesses. Even Rambam, the Physician of the royal court of Egypt, emphasizes that the best medication is based on ethical values, for it then tends to re-establish the union between spiritual and physical forces (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:27).

The language reveals the essence of the disease and its cure

The language of נגע צרעת , Tzaras affliction/disease can be rearranged word by word into ענג + עצרת, Shabbas and Festivals. The language of Oneg/ענג is of celebration. Let’s break these letters down to reveal their depth.

The letter ע/ Ayin, means eye, or to examine deeply and think about something.

The letter נ / Nun, refers to free will, as a final nun is a long line, stretching from the middle ground to the lowest ground. You can choose to connect to the line or ignore it.

The letter ג/ Gimmel, refers to giving, as in Gimilut Chasidim, doing good deeds, giving to others.

An ענג is when you think deeply about your actions, then you connect them to your free will, and the result is an act of giving. This is worthy of celebration.

A נגע is when you disconnect your free will from careful thinking, apply it in the world and affect others with it, and only afterward use your intellect to rationalize your actions. This is an affliction, which hurts you and the world.

There are two roads open to us, that of tying our thoughts and actions to proper moral behavior and those of rationalizing our inappropriate actions. Correct actions are celebrated, improper ones must be corrected by humbling oneself to a Cohen, a spiritual leader.

So why doesn’t Tzaras still exist?

It was a spiritual affliction only for Jews already at extremely high spiritual levels, for those extremely sensitive to errors and distances in their relationship with Hashem and the Mitzvot. Just as an expert will notice slight deviations in their field that a lay-person wouldn’t, so too a sensitive Jew would notice his slight disconnect and correct it. We know that a rocket into space, if launched a fraction of a degree off or a few seconds behind schedule, will not reach its destination, even though the casual observer noticed no difference. When we reached a state where our disconnects were so great that we would no longer be able to pinpoint which area of defection the Tzaras emerged to correct, the Tzaras no longer served its purpose and went away.     

As strange as it sounds, we should desire Tzaras. The Zohar refers to it as יסורין של אהבה, a chastisement of love. It’s a sign of how much G-d desires to be close to us, that even the bad that happens is meant to return us to the greatest good.

My Rabbi taught that when your wife is angry at you or acting in a way that upsets you, the correct response is to deeply reflect and notice that problem in yourself. What seems like an affliction on the surface is actually a sign to return to the close connection you previously shared.

Why we need doctors

In our world today, we need doctors and although we pray and believe that the power of recovery ultimately lies in G-d’s hands, we recognize the great distance between where we are and where we’d like to be. Almost nobody is at the level where their bitachon in Hashem can justify not seeing doctors.

Rambam understood that although the ideal state is to be so connected that the Kohanim provide the cure, not the doctors, in our times, and for thousands of years, the doctors are vital for our survival and among the most important professions. Love your doctors, for they give us the strength to live healthy lives.

But one day, may we hope to once again reach this even higher level, when we feel so closely connected to Hashem that we can attribute every deviation in our lives to a specific disconnect, and in correcting our moral stumbles, reach a level of love and joy unprecedented in our days.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

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Parshas Shemini: Defeating the Yetzer Hara — The Connection between Snakes and Egypt

Parsha Shmini summary: Frightening deaths of Nadab and Abihu for drunkenly bringing offerings. We also get the laws of keeping Kosher

Chametz represents the yetzer hara — the source of physical desires that promise joy but actually bring an endless source of discontentment.

We make matzah today only because of the mitzvah attached to it — thus, when we eat it, we truly feel the primary reason is not to satisfy our stomachs but to connect to Hashem and our Jewish identities. In so doing, we replace our natural physical desires with desires for growth.

Have a Fantastic Passover!

-Ari Melman

Defeating the Yetzer Hara: The Connection between Snakes and Egypt

Vayikra 11:42 states, “All that goes on it’s belly [גחון]…of every creeping creature that creeps upon the round, you may not eat them, for they are an abomination.” The word גחון has an enlarged vav/ו in the text. Rashi explains that the word also means, “a snake. The term means bending low, for it goes bent low and fallen on its stomach”. The vav is a straight line, mimicking the orientation of a snake, without legs or extensions.

As we know from the Garden of Eden, the snake also represents the yetzer hara, the lure of physical desire. At the end, the snake is punished — “Upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life (Gen. 3:14).” Chazal wonders why this is a punishment — after all, Adam must eat “by the sweat of your brow”, but the snake is constantly surrounded by food, literally living in his sustenance. Many worms and snakes even lay eggs inside fruit and grow inside the fruit, literally living inside their sustenance (R. Bachya). Shouldn’t being surrounded by your food, without too much work, be a dream come true? Isn’t that what Eden was?

To emphasize this even more, when G-d tells the Jews about Israel, he contrasts it with Egypt. In Egypt, the Nile provided all the water you needed, whenever you wanted. But in Israel, you will be completely dependent on the rain, or else you will experience famine and drought. Is such poverty really a selling point?

Here’s the answer: After G-d bans Jews from eating creepy crawlies, he explains, “For I am Hashem Who brings you up from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you; you shall be holy, for I am holy (Vayikra 11:45).” Rashi explains, “In all verses that refer to G-d taking Israel out of Egypt, it is written, ‘I brought you out’, but here it is written, ‘who brings you up’. R’ Yishmael taught ‘had I not brought Israel out of Egypt for any reason other than that they do not make themselves impure through creeping things, as do the other nations, it would have been sufficient cause for them to have been redeemed, and abstaining from creeping things is an elevation for them.’”

   When all of our physical needs are provided for, we have a much easier time denying G-d’s presence.

R. Zev Leff tells the story of a 17-year-old who had recently attempted suicide. Why? His rich father was about to remarry, but the new wife would only agree on the condition he boot out his son. So dad handed his son two keys, one to a penthouse apartment, the next to a sports car, and a credit card. His parting words to his son were, “Treat yourself, but never try to contact me again.”

This boy was the most miserable person R. Leff had ever met, even though he had his whole life provided for him. But he was missing the most important component: love. His father’s gifts were the exact opposite of love — ‘I’ll give you everything you need now, so that I never have to see your face again.’ This was Hashem’s punishment to the snake — you so completely opposed me, that I’ll give you everything you need now so as not to have a relationship with you.’

Eretz Yisrael is completely dependent on rain for survival — thus, in every season, we must tap into our connection with Hashem and request help from Him to continue. This reminds us of our true desire, our true source of joy — feeding the soul, not the body.

The Bilvavi writes that the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, but desire. The yetzer hara feeds off the sadness we feel when we slip up, when we sin, and hedges on that to create more desire. If a person breaks a diet and has a small piece of cake, the yetzer hara grows most powerful when it convinces the person they might as well eat the entire cake now that they broke their diet. But the desire for cake won’t bring happiness — it can only bring more desire. What brings happiness is removing the desire and returning to the state where your happiness wasn’t conditional on externals. True happiness is built only on a strong sense of self, purpose, and connection to Hashem, internal measures that nobody and no thing can take away.

That is our blessing — we must work hard to achieve this state, we must toil “by the sweat of our brow”, but we can have a constant connection to Hashem, a constant joy.

May we be blessed to leave Egypt in our minds, to not be among the snakes too comfortable in material comforts, but rather in a constant state of joy, with friends, family, and Hashem.

Have a Fantastic Shabbas and Passover!

-Ari Melman


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Parshas Vayikra: Humility, Servant Leadership, Produces the Greatest Results

Before we begin the new book, finish the book of Exodus with a funky song: Pick One Mitzvah

Pesach’s right around the corner, and a new book’s begun. Spring’s coming in, and the birds are singing G-d’s praises. I wish you all well!

Main Dvar’s Summary: The word Vayikra is the language of affection, demonstrating that closeness to Hashem is accessible to any Jew who breaks selfish desires to connect with the truth of Torah. In our relationships and in our connection to Torah or any big ideas, the greatest way to receive the most is by making yourself a giver. Be motivated by the drive to connect, to help, to learn and grow, and eliminate to the best of your ability, objections rooted in amassing power, short-term delights or guilty pleasures. The pleasures of Torah are refined and rewarding, and are drawn from internal reflection and growth. But that deep internal reflection is actually the spark Hashem placed inside us, the call of G-d Himself. May your relationships blossom and the world shine brighter from being near you.

Heed the call, and awaken your greatest self.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Revisit past lessons from the parsha at talktorah.wordpress.com/ 

Parshas Vayikra: Why G-d Requires Either Old Turtledoves or Young Doves for the Olah Offering

Brief Thought: When one brings Hashem an olah-offering of fowl, he must “bring his offering from the turtledoves (old only) or from the young doves” (Lev. 1:14). Why only old turtledoves or young doves? Why not young turtledoves or old doves? Rashi hammers this point home by explaining that Turtledoves must be, “Mature ones, not young ones” and young doves must be “young ones, not mature ones”. Rashi screams out for understanding.

Luckily, Rabbeinu Bachya explains, the pshat/simple explanation is that turtledoves, once they commit to a partner, are faithful to that partner forever, even if the partner dies. Likewise, Klal Israel is forever loyal to Hashem, even if His presence becomes hidden or bad times occur. On the other hand, old doves quarrel heavily and become jealous, a trait that begins in youth and worsens over time. Thus, we symbolize in our offering that we want the closest most loyal connection, after a turtledove has proven loyalty. Alternatively, we want to minimize quarrel, before it becomes so negative that the relationship becomes broken.

He then explains the Kabalistic level — turtledoves are equated to water, itself equated to Chesed, a flow of lovingkindness. Doves are equated to fire, itself equated to Din, the constraint of judgement. We want as much connection and lovingkindness as we can get, so the older, the better. But we want as minimal and controlled a fire as necessary, so the younger, the better.

Jealousy (קינא), one of the three basic negative traits (along with כבוד / honor and טיבא taiva/selfish desire) is the only one that can be elevated on the mishkan for positive purposes. Gemara Horayos 10B explains the Torah forbids bringing offerings of leaven or honey but requires bringing salt in all meal-offerings. The Sefer Hachinuch writes honey represents base physical desire/taiva because it’s a sweet tasting food. Leaven is haughty because it rises up.

The Chasam Sofer explains that when G-d split the waters of heaven and earth, the lower waters also wanted to go up and so G-d imbued them with salt to go up. Their jealousy was for greater connection to Hashem. This can be a major motivating force for growth.

Rabbeinu Bachya concludes by saying that turkeys are never allowed on the alter, because they are sexually promiscuous. Thus, we see a clear purpose of the olah offering emerge — whatever aspects of our world we can use to have a closer connection must be amplified, whatever causes us to separate must be removed. And that tricky gray area, jealousy, must be used, but with caution.

May you be blessed to overflow with lovingkindness and have just enough jealousy to accomplish all your dreams.

Great Shabbas!

Ari Melman

Summary: The word Vayikra is the language of affection, demonstrating that closeness to Hashem is accessible to any Jew who breaks selfish desires to connect with the truth of Torah. In our relationships and in our connection to Torah or any big ideas, the greatest way to receive the most is by making yourself a giver. Be motivated by the drive to connect, to help, to learn and grow, and eliminate to the best of your ability, objections rooted in amassing power, short-term delights or guilty pleasures. The pleasures of Torah are refined and rewarding, and are drawn from internal reflection and growth. But that deep internal reflection is actually the spark Hashem placed inside us, the call of G-d Himself. May your relationships blossom and the world shine brighter from being near you.

Heed the call, and awaken your greatest self.

Parshas Vayikra: Humility, Servant Leadership, Produces the Greatest Results

The name of a book represents its central theme. בראשית speaks of beginnings, שמות of establishing the Jewish people (their names), and now ויקרא speaks of G-d calling to us. The book of Vayikra used to be the first one taught to kindergarteners, and as the center book, is also the central book of the five. Bilvavi (Building a Sanctuary in the heart) writes that the primary obligation of our lives is to internalize G-d’s presence into our vision of reality — it’s not enough to intellectually believe in Torah or G-d, we must also feel the guiding presence and loving relationship throughout our lives. It’s fitting, therefore, that the book of Vayikra is dedicated to all the methods for us to individually and as a community connect to Hashem and bring Him into our lives.

Ultimately, that will include the crux of our behavioral Mitzvot — sacrifices, prayer, proper relations, kosher, Shmittah, family purity, lashon hara and many more.    

Let’s understand the importance of the word Vayikra (ויקרא). Rashi explains that the word Vayikra is the language of affection. G-d calls/vayikra to Moses three times: At the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:4), Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:3) and here, as Moses is introduced to the sacrificial service.

The Midrash expands that Moses, from his understanding of humility, felt unworthy for the mission of leading the Jews out of Egyptian slavery and repeatedly, at every refusal from Pharaoh and set-back burdening the people, wanted to withdraw from the attention and honor that go with leadership. Ultimately, he did all that G-d asked of him and upon delivering the Torah, prepared once again to move into the background. He never desired power for honor’s sake, even when at the top of his game. But G-d said to him, “I have one more task for you, surpassing all that you have done so far. Go and teach the people of Israel the laws of ritual purity and instruct them in the sacrifices.”

The noblest part of Moses’ trial only begins now. He now must use his prior experiences to shape a “kingdom of leaders/Kohanim and a holy nation”. The process of training the people morally and spiritually and teaching them the tools for self-growth and actualization are the eternal destiny of the Jewish people, beyond any single generation. This is the ultimate mission of every Jew, every parent, every spouse (Munk).

We can relate to this idea by examining life decisions in youth. As children, we begin fully dependent on our parents and teachers and are generally incapable of true individual greatness. Frequently, our early attempts at expressing change and growth go awry (such as when Moses killed the Egyptian who was killing the slaves, which forced him into hiding). We later build up our individual talents as individuals, and with the help of G-d, succeed in affecting growth and change (the Makkot/Plagues and Exodus). We then must subdue our own individuality and stature to Torah and follow the path of the just, ensuring that all our actions and thoughts are for the sake of creating harmony and unity and beauty, rather than giving in to self-centered desires (receiving the Torah). Now, we may think we’re complete, but the real journey only now begins. Now, we are ready to get married, to bind ourselves to giving to another, to pass on Torah and create living Torah in the world. All the previous steps of our development were building to this ultimate stage of life.

The Aleph/א in this third mention of ויקרא is written smaller. Rashi explains that ויקר, how Balaam is called, refers to language of transitoriness, as the word ויקר means “happened”. Balaam knew when to come to be able to talk to G-d, whereas Moses waited for G-d to come to him.

Sampson Raphael Hirsch explains that this language is to prevent misrepresentation as some kind of revelation in Moses, rather than to Moses. While many others have “imaginary visions of a so-called ecstasy, or simply as an inspiration coming from within a human being…a contemporary phase in the history of the development of the human mind”, this is not so. G-d alone is the speaker, and Moses purely serves as listener, and vessel.

It is only possible to listen perfectly if we remove our own biases and impressions first. Otherwise, we will always interpret what we hear to fit our own ideologies. Moses is the perfect model of humility precisely because of his dedication to being a perfect listener, a true vessel for Torah, without implanting his own desires on G-d’s system. This is the highest mark of a Jew, and characteristic of our gedolim/great Torah scholars — people that have so removed their own egos and personal biases that they should be judging purely from a place of Torah knowledge. Thus, humility is not shying away from the spotlight, but developing yourself to the point where you’re the ONLY proper person to be in the spotlight — the only person who can be in the spotlight without deriving any personal benefit from the glory.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt’l would straighten his coat and hat before coming home, as if about to enter an important meeting. He explained to his questioning student,

“When you’re going to be standing before the Shechinah, you have to look respectable.  I’m about to enter my home, and it is written, ‘A man and his wife, if they merit it – the Shechinah is there with them.  Therefore, I am now about to stand before the Shechinah.”

‘At his wife’s funeral, he said that even though it’s the Minhag to ask one’s wife for mechila/forgiveness, he knew for sure that he had NEVER done anything that made him require mechila! Rav Tauber connected the two stories – because of his approach to marriage via the Shechina, he could treat his wife so well that he never upset her!’ (told to me by Yehonasan Gefen)

Moses felt that G-d simply happened upon him, that he was nothing. G-d had to reassure Moses, telling him his task had really just begun, and all the refinement and trials that got him here had ensured his obligation to serve in the spotlight. If anyone else tried for the role, if anyone but Rav Auerbach claimed he’d never hurt his wife, it would have been arrogance. Coming from such a pure spirit, it was the greatest show of humility.

A midrash explains that the bit of ink Moses didn’t use to make the א normal sized, G-d pressed the leftover holy ink on his forehead. This made Moses’s face shine so brightly he needed to wear a mask, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant…Moses placed a mask on his face. When Moses would come before Hashem to speak with Him, he would remove the mask until his departure” (Ex. 34:29). Moses’s radiating displays of greatness emerged from his desire to remain out of the scenes, to nullify his honor as much as possible.

The NYT bestselling business book “Good to Great” emphasizes that the most successful CEOs practice this attribute of humility, servant leadership. By bringing out the best in those around you, and communicating your desire for the team and mission to succeed more than your personal bank account, people remain inspired and achieve their best.

In our relationships and in our connection to Torah or any big ideas, the greatest way to receive the most is by making yourself a giver. Be motivated by the drive to connect, to help, to learn and grow, and eliminate to the best of your ability, objections rooted in amassing power, short-term delights or guilty pleasures. The pleasures of Torah are refined and rewarding, and are drawn from internal reflection and growth. But that deep internal reflection is actually the spark Hashem placed inside us, the call of G-d Himself.

Heed the call, and awaken your greatest self.

May you be blessed to grow in humility, maximizing your growth and contribution in the world without a need for honor. May your relationships blossom and the world shine brighter from being near you.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman