Letters April, 2021 - Part II

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“Love your friend as yourself”

Reader: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). I personally go with the commentary of Rashbam and the Ohr Hachaim respectively: “If he is wicked you need not love him, as even God hates him as we know from Proverbs 8:13, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil,” and Psalms 139:21 “You know I hate those who hate You, etc.”  What is your interpretation?

Rabbi: This refers to your actions, not feelings. What you dislike, don’t impose on others.  But Torah cannot legislate feelings, only actions.  Ibn Ezra says, "Its meaning is that one should love that which is good for one’s neighbor as he does for himself."

“The Death of the Righteous Atones”

Reader:  I am a new reader of your site. From an article I found “Why does Tzaddikim atone for all of us?” by Rabbi Elchanan Lewis, I have a question about the excerpt below:

How can the death of a Tzaddik become a Kapparah [atonement]? Answer: Tzadik is not a personal individual who impacts only himself, he is a public figure who impacts everyone around him; the loss of a Tzadik is, therefore, a public loss, not individual or family. The Tzadikim are not here for themselves, but for others - this is how they live their lives and this is how they also die; Just as death serves as an atonement for the deceased himself, the departure of a Tzadik does so for his community. 

I find this affirmation strange: How could a man—even a just man—be an atonement for another man or for a community? It reminded me of the foolishness of Jesus. 

Willmes Gomes, Brasil

Rabbi: True, Jesus’ death didn’t magically atone. It was a feel-good notion that was adopted, as was the remainder of that false religion.

 But this rabbi’s words above concerning the death of the righteous atoning—which is true—does not explain how this atonement works. Talmud Moade Katan 28a states: 

Rabbi Ami said: “Why was the Torah portion that describes the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the red heifer? To tell you: Just as the red heifer atones for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin.”  Rabbi Elazar said: “Why was the Torah portion that describes the death of Aaron juxtaposed to the portion discussing the priestly garments? This teaches that just as the priestly garments atone for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin.”

Moade Katan says that not only do sacrifices atone, but the priest’s garments atone. How so?

First, we must define “atonement.” This refers to God’s forgiveness of a sinner. But God grants forgiveness only to one who regrets his ways and commits to never returning to his sin. What generates one’s remorse for sin? When one sacrifices, he takes an animal life in place of his own. This is why he confesses his sins on the animal’s head. He accepts his wrong and that a life is required as payment, but God accepts the animal in his place. Killing the animal is man’s demonstration that his own life should be taken. He feels remorse, repents, commits to not sin again, and God forgives. 

Why is it only the death of the righteous that atones for the community? It is because when one sees that even righteous people die, they draw an argument to themselves that they “certainly” have greater cause for death through their greater sins. The death of the righteous evokes self-refection and repentance,  it also causes us to reflect on the righteousness of such people. This reflection leads us to value their perfections and copy them. It’s not magic: if one does not apply this lesson, the death of the righteous in no way atones for him. The priest’s clothing atone because his garments are designed around ideas. His breastplate carries the 12 Tribes’ name. The priest’s act of bringing the tribes names—all of Israel—before God in Temple, embodies the recognition that all Israel wish to draw near to God. The nation seeing this is aroused to embody drawing to God in their actions, which God sees and forgives.  

Dialogue on Astrology 

Jewish Astrologer: This week, Venus aligns with Saturn and thereby their energy empowers your greater decisiveness. 

Rabbi: 1000 years ago Maimonides wrote a letter to Marseilles rejecting astrology (mesora.org/LettertoMarseille.htm) There is no evidence that stars/planets affect man. Maimonides critiqued astrology defenders citing King Solomon, “The simple believes everything” (Prov. 14:15). And Jeremiah 10:2-3 reads, “To the ways of the nations do not learn, and from the signs of the heavens do not fear...” 

Let us use our minds and follow even greater minds as quoted above.

Reader: Right, so I’m not going to argue with Maimonides. But he wrote things that are advised by many rabbis not to read. I definitely think we're above the stars like Hashem said to Abraham, but when there's a full moon my entire body feels it.

Rabbi: No intelligent Rabbi says one should to avoid any type of knowledge. Such advice you received stems from a threat to one’s own notions. And what your body feels is psychological, because the full moon exists “every” night....it’s just not fully illuminated from our vantage point.

Reader: Right, so the specific one I was implying was Guide for the Perplexed...many rabbis are categorically against reading that book, but I completely agree with his other teachings. 

Not sure if what I'm feeling is psychological…you could be right, but I think nature effects us to some degree, and if that's the case, the stars and moons would play some role too. I think when one is without God he is entirely dependent on nature, hence why Hashem said we are above the stars because. When we connect [to God], that changes.

Rabbi: Objects cannot affect us at a distance, so any changes in yourself cannot be physical, but psychological. There’s no other possibility. And Guide to the Perplexed is a great book, definitely get it. I have been reading it for decades. Knowledge can’t hurt you, bit ignorance can. Rashi on Deuteronomy 18:9 teaches us to study false religions to know what to answer others. 

Reader: I get what you're saying and I pride myself in being logical but I still leave some room for possibility.

Rabbi: The philosophers and rabbis used their minds, they arrived at definite conclusions, just like Abraham who arrived at the conclusion that idol worship is false. He did not leave any room for the other possibility. If on the other hand, one does not exclude an opposing view, one has not acquired any knowledge.

Reader: Great point! However unlike idols and things man made, the stars the universe and everything in nature was God made and for a purpose.

Rabbi: I disagree. Regardless of the topic discussed—be it man-made or nature—arriving at a conclusion is “knowledge.” But leaving room for alternative possibilities means the mind is not convinced of anything...the mind has not “learned.” Topic is irrelevant. One can err about things without purpose like idolatry, and he can also err about the purpose is of God’s creations. And astrology is a great error about astronomy.

Reader: What if the conclusion is wrong?

Rabbi: What our mind says must be true, is what we must follow. Abraham didn't say, “Maybe I am wrong about God vs idolatry.” We don’t say, “Maybe right is left.” 

Why God Made Man Last

Reader: Torah says, “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days…” (Lev. 12:1).  Rashi comments:  “R. Simlai said, ‘Even as the formation of man [in Genesis] took place after every cattle, beast and fowl when the world was created, so too, the law regarding man [women’s ritually unfitness] is explained after the law regarding cattle, beast and fowl’” [the previous Torah section discusses permitted and forbidden animals, followed here by laws concerning man].

My question is this: What is Rabbi Simlai’s parallel between Genesis and Leviticus, between man’s “creation” occurring after the animals and man’s/woman’s “laws” following the animals? 

Rabbi: Man’s purpose is to study God’s wisdom, explaining why man alone was granted a soul, an intellect. God completed all other creations before man would be created. In this manner, “the table was completely set,” i.e., creation was now a complete picture, ready for man to explore God’s wisdom. But had man been created prior to the animals, or prior to any other creation, what man would witness would be an incomplete universe; his conclusions about God’s will must then be wrong. Every earthly creation intends to reveal to man another aspect of God’s will; the sum of all creation presents man with a total “accurate” picture. To arrive at an accurate understanding of God’s will, man must be created after all else. Had a carpenter created a house without doors, people would not view the house as a shelter, as the inside is inaccessible, preventing a person from gaining shelter indoors. One’s understanding of the house would be wrong. Only once the house is completed with doors, do people accurately assess the house’s true purpose. Similarly, man was created after all other creations so he might properly assess God’s will, which can only be grasped through studying a complete set of creations. 

Rabbi Simlai parallels creation to Torah laws. Just as man’s accurate grasp of God’s will in nature requires all creation to precede man, so too, all laws preceded man’s laws to again indicate that to understand man’s laws, we must see those laws within the full context of a complete Torah system. Laws concerning man are part of a totality, without which, our grasp of our laws would be incorrect. For example, had laws of ritual slaughter not existed, man would be missing the element of God’s mercy over animals. Man would then have an incorrect view of God’s command of human mercy. Had sabbath not existed prior to man, man would not value proclaiming creation through resembling God’s rest each sabbath.    

A complete natural system was set prior to creating man, thereby offering man an accurate picture of God’s will. Similarly, a complete Torah system preceded man, as man’s laws make sense only within the context of all other Torah laws.

“Feel Good” Sayings are Bad

Rabbi: People post self-help and encouraging sayings. Yesterday, I read this one:  “If your path is more difficult, it is because your calling is higher.” 

Such baseless placating notions, imagining “powers” guide our decisions, are self-destructive. Such sentiments prevent a suffering person from essential introspection, and correcting harmful thinking and actions which ruin lives. Thereby, they forfeit self-improvement and remain unhappy and unsuccessful.

Gambling & Smoking

Reader: While I enjoyed the Jewishtimes 55 Q&As, could you bring a Torah source for why smoking and gambling are permissible. Yes, one cigarette does no harm, but a lifetime of smoking will kill a person. I am curious as to why you think smoking is allowed. Many thanks.

Turk Hill

Rabbi: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot CM II:76) strongly discourages smoking, but he writes that since many people who smoke do not suffer any health problems, and most who smoke are not endangered by it, one may say that smoking is permitted because “the Lord watches the simple.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein said gambling is not openly prohibited, but is repulsive and not productive. (Igrot Moshe, Orech Chaim 4:35).

Chok (statute)

Reader: I was reviewing your essay on the Red Heifer and would like to comment on your quote from Rabbi Chait below:

Rabbi Israel Chait once distinguished between Mitzvah and a Chok. Mitzvah is a law which a person would arrive at with his own thinking, such as murder and stealing. But Chok is a law that man would not arrive at on his own, such as wearing black boxes (tefillin), resting on Sabbath as a way of recognizing God, or laws of kosher. However, this does not mean that these laws do not share the same brilliance as every other law. Chok is distinguished from mitzvah only in the fact that man would not have innovated such a structure, but not that they are bereft of great wisdom.

The idea in general is a good one but there is a problem with your terminology. A Chok is a type of Mitzvah. As I remember Rabbi Chait explaining there are 3 types of Mitzvos (as referenced by the wise son's question):

1) Eidos-testaments: such as Tefillin and Mezuzah whose purpose is to testify to an idea i.e. Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus),Yichud Hashem (Unique Oneness of God) and Ohl Malchus Shamayim (the acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven).

2) Mishpatim-justice: laws whose purpose is obvious with respect to upholding a just society i.e. prohibitions against theft and murder.

3) Chukim-statutes: i.e. Sair LeAzazel and the Para Aduma.

It is not that one must abandon investigating an area such as a Chok because it is in some way lacking in Hashem's wisdom. It is filled with wisdom and should be studied like and other area. But, in a sense, the Chok partakes of the highest level of observance in the sense that man must subdue his own wants, desires and reasons for serving Hashem and must simply accept Hashem's will. [Since many chokim are difficult to understand, one’s performance displays greater subjugation to God’s will.]  This notion applies to all areas of Torah, Chachma and observance of Mitzvos.

One must distinguish between observance and pursuing wisdom and knowledge. We observe all Mitzvos because they are Tzivuyei Hashem (Commandments of God) irrespective of any idea or understanding that we might glean from them.

For example the Gemara in Maseches (Tractate) Shabbos discusses some of the ideas about Tefillin. One such idea is that the Tefilin-Shel-Rosh (the frontlet) is meant to be a type of crown. This is why it is acceptable to wear Tefillin for the purpose of beautification (Noy) on some occasions. When we combine the idea of the crown with the position of the box we can see the preeminence of the importance of Wisdom (it is placed on ones head by ones mind), Torah, knowledge of Hashem, reflecting on the Unique Oneness of Hashem and Yoke of Heaven. The frontlet contains four Parshiyos (segments of Torah) that reference these primary ideas.  See also Nachmanides on Shemos 13:16 for several beautiful detailed explanations of Tefillin.

Pure Halachic Torah judaism

Reader: Shalom Aleichem Rabbi Moshe, Today's Q&A in the Jewishtimes was great. I really enjoyed the part about the shlissel challa. It brings joy to the heart the way you insisted and demonstrated in following the truth. It is rabbis like you who are a light unto the nations. Even though Torah judaism is the only religion, it is very unfortunate that it has been tainted with unwanted paganic, superstitious beliefs. Be'zraat Hashem let us continue to fight against false beliefs and get rid of them, following the pure halachic Torah Judaism that the our prophets taught us.

Mark Stanley Gomez

Vetturnimadam, Tamilnadu

Rabbi: Thank you, Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim