A man had gone for a stroll along the river when he noticed an unusual and ghoulish sight: a skull floating on the surface of the water. His reaction was unusual. He reached neither for his cellphone nor for his digital camera.
Instead, he turned to the skull and uttered the following six Aramaic words: Ahl d'ateift aftfuch, v'sof mitofayich yitufun. Had he spoken to it in English, he might have said this: "You were drowned because you drowned others. And ultimately, those who drowned you will also drown." Less poetic in English, yet essentially the same point.
The reason he used Aramaic was because at the time the incident occurred -- some time toward the end of the Second Temple era -- Aramaic was not yet a deceased language. In fact, it was very much alive, especially among Jews who lived in Babylonia.
The man walking along the river had lived in Babylonia until the age of forty. He then migrated to the holy city of Jerusalem to study at the feet of Shma'ayah and Avtalyon, two brothers of Greek extraction, who had converted to Judaism and rose to become the leading Judaic scholars of their day.
The man was Hillel, the author of better known statements, such as "If I am not for myself who is for me", "What is hateful to you do not do unto your friend" and others. He was known for his profound knowledge and extraordinary patience. Like Moses, he was known for his humility; and, like Moses, he lived for one hundred and twenty years. According to kabbalistic tradition he and Moses shared the same soul.
Maimonides and the Skull
Another man by the name of Moses, Moses Maimonides, who lived some 1,000 years after the skull story, wrote the following in his commentary on Tractate Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers") where the skull story is recorded (paraphrased):
There are consequences to our actions -- consequences that reflect those actions. If you commit murder and drown others in a river to hide your crime, you will receive your punishment in the form of your crime. If you invent an unjust thing to benefit yourself at the expense of others, that unjust thing will ultimately be used against you. On the positive side, if you introduce something that benefits others, that thing will ultimately come to benefit you as well. In Hebrew it is called: midah k'neged midah -- measure for measure.
This is how Maimonides and other commentators explain Hillel's message.
Pharaoh vs. Moses round II
Maimonides' grandson, Rabbi David Hanagid, cites a tradition handed down by "the early ones" that the floating skull belonged to none other than Pharaoh himself. Hillel therefore told him: "Because you commanded that Jewish children be drowned in the Nile, you were drowned." It was specifically Hillel who confronted Pharaoh's skull, since as a reincarnation of Moses he was fit to confront Pharaoh.
According to this interpretation, says Rabbi Isaac Luria , the renowned 16th century Safed mystic known as "the Holy Ari", the second half of Hillel's statement is addressed not to Pharaoh but to the Jewish people: "Just as Pharaoh was drowned, so all persecutors of Israel will ultimately be drowned."
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, saw in the Ari's comment words of comfort to the tired soul of the exiled Jew, to the soul of one who feels that he or she is up against an insurmountable challenge, an impenetrable cloud of darkness. Hillel, the great leader of Israel, turns to this person and says: "If Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil, the man who cast fear even into the heart of Moses, so much so that G-d had to reassure him and say, 'Come to Pharaoh -- I will accompany you,' ended up drowned in a river, certainly all the Pharaohs of history, all the great serpents that tried and will try to drown you through physical and spiritual persecution --they will be drowned as well. For evil has no leg to stand on. Like smoke it obscures our vision for a time but must ultimately disappear."
Mocking the Poor
If that were all we could learn from Hillel's statement, it would be enough. But there's more. Here's another beautiful thought:
It seems strange that Hillel, the man of kindness, humility and impossible patience, would rebuke a dead man! According to Jewish tradition, one ought not perform any mitzvah in a graveyard. Doing so is considered "mocking the poor" (loeg la'rash), since those that dwell in the earth are no longer capable of performing mitzvot. Just as you would not partake of a gourmet dinner in the face of one unable to afford a slice of bread, so one should not show one's tzizit, for example, in the presence of those who can no longer fulfill that commandment.
Why, then, did Hillel, the man of kindness and humility, rebuke this poor dead person, who could do nothing with this rebuke?
The answer, says the Rebbe, is that when Hillel came across the skull of Pharaoh, he though to himself: "Why has G-d arranged for me to see this sight?" He then came to the conclusion that the time had finally come for the soul of Pharaoh to find peace. And by using Pharaoh as an example with which to teach a meaningful message, Hillel uplifted Pharaoh's soul and granted it the ability to find peace.
So what starts out as an innocent stroll along the river turns out to be a passage filled with meaningful lessons:
● What goes around comes around.
● Even the most formidable evil is transient.
● Everything that comes your way has a purpose and you should fulfill that purpose. Not always is that purpose apparent but we should at least take advantage of those situations when the purpose is apparent.
● Even a Pharaoh can ultimately be redeemed and should be redeemed when that time arrives.
The Second Exodus by Avigail Sharer We had just seven days to get out of Egypt.
Egypt: land of the sphinx, the pyramids, the Nile, and – until their sudden expulsion – the home of my mother-in-law and her family.
In the early 20th century, 175,000 Jews lived in Egypt; most had been there for generations, serving as lawyers, doctors, and businessman. They lived in affluence undreamed of by their Eastern European brethren.
With her olive complexion and cream silk scarf draped over her shoulder, my mother-in-law Bella Sharer is a beautiful picture of an Egyptian Jew. Her family lived in Cairo for generations; her grandparents are buried there.
"We lived in a huge apartment," she recalls. “Father was the breadwinner – he was involved in commerce, which sometimes involved him being away for months on end, as he traveled across the Sahara Desert. Once he went on a business trip to what was then called Palestine. He returned with a handcrafted etrog box, fashioned from olive wood, carved with a picture of Rachel’s Tomb. To me, these places were more of a dream than the Sphinx and the Pyramids, both of which were regular Sunday afternoon destinations.
"Going to synagogue on Shabbos was a magical affair: I would stare at the ornate ceiling and marble pillars of the Ben Ezra synagogue. My father would bid for the honor of placing the silver pomegranates on top of the Torah scroll before it was returned to the Holy Ark.
“My dearest childhood memories center on Passover – the fragrance of the crates of dates mingling with that of the freshly-painted walls; the hustle and bustle as the extended family moved in for the holiday.”
It was an idyllic childhood spent in an affluent and influential society, under the benign rulership of King Farouk II. Farouk was a hedonist, and to the large Arab population, a travesty, a betrayal to the people. A military coup dethroned Farouk in 1952, followed by a stormy transition period, after which Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. The country paused for breath, as Nasser's domestic and foreign policies increasingly clashed with the French and British colonial interests. When Nasser announced his plan to nationalize, and thereby control the Suez Canal – which, as the only land bridge between Africa and Asia was strategically and economically vital to Britain and France – a crisis ensued.
Door Wide Open
"One afternoon came a knock at the door. Three soldiers stood there, and ordered us to follow them to the police station. Their swarthy faces and black eyes frightened me. I clutched my mother's hand tight as we wordlessly followed them to a huge, imposing building. At the station, the chief brusquely informed us that my father's business had been appropriated by the government, that our bank account and all assets had been frozen, and that we had seven days to leave the country. We were allowed to take clothes and $40 dollars cash.
"Our world was shattered in an instant, as if one of the exquisite crystal glasses that graced our Seder table splintered on the stone floor.
“The Egyptian Jews had been of the highest echelons of society, established, prominent, prosperous. In the blink of an eye, they were reduced to beggars.
"My father visited all his contacts: members of the royal family, political figures, the wealthiest businessmen. No one could help. The decree came directly from Nasser. As for our assets, people threw up their arms helplessly. 'Be grateful that you have your family,' they said.
"What followed was a paralysis of sorts. My mother would walk around our home, touching the furniture, stroking her candlesticks, as if to etch it into her mind. In the meantime, our Arab neighbors, with whom we had always lived side-by-side in peace, were greedily despoiling our home. They would walk in, look around, and point to whatever item they wanted, whether a painting on the wall or my mother's huge diamond engagement ring.
"As we were allowed to take clothes along, my mother took us to a department store and bought a plentiful supply of skirts, tops, trousers and undershirts. In the confusion, she forgot that we would soon grow out of our present sizes. For years we wore clothing that was too small. Then we sold it to buy food.
"My father booked us passage on a ship leaving from Alexandria. Then we stepped over the threshold for the last time: me and my brother, my parents, my aunt, uncle and cousins. We left the front door wide open behind us."
Freedom of the Spirit
In 1957, when she was 10 years old, my mother-in-law and her family boarded a boat to Marseilles, France. There, they were taken to a concentration-cum-DP camp, handed threadbare blankets, and assigned beds.
"We arrived in France in the middle of winter, and the cold penetrated my bones. In the blazing heat of Egypt, we had siesta every afternoon between one and three o’clock, because the heat was so intense. Now, the cold settled on me and I couldn't shake it away. My father, by that time well into his 50s, would go to a nearby forest and chop firewood so that at least we could huddle around the ovens.
"I would go into the shower room and stare and stare. The shower heads, which now gushed with hot water, just a few years before had delivered Zyklon B. I was washing myself in a room where thousands of my fellow Jews had met their deaths. If anything gave us perspective on our loss, it was that shower room."
My mother-in-law plays with a long string of pearls and sits, contemplating. "Even after I married and had a family, and lived in a nice house in Stamford Hill, England, experiences like that don't go away. I fear change, and have a deep sense of insecurity. On the positive side, having suffered myself, I am able to empathize with others who have suffered. It's also much easier for me to keep my priorities straight: We lost everything, but retained our lives and our health.
“I watch people running after the good life, and I know that in a flash, everything can be taken away. Wealth can disappear, status can dissolve. All that's left is who you are and what you make of what's left. That's what true freedom – freedom of the spirit – is all about."
Editor's note: This is an old Jewish story/joke/metaphor. Versions abound. My favorite is Tuvia Bolton's rendition:
There were once two beggars who used to go around begging together. One was Jewish and the other a gentile. As the night of Passover approached, the Jewish beggar offered to help his non-Jewish friend get invited to a seder (the festive Passover meal accompanied by many commandments and rituals) and get a good meal. "Just put on some Jewish clothes and come with me to the synagogue. Everyone brings home poor guests for the seder. It's easy, you'll see."
The non-Jewish beggar happily agreed. On the first night of Passover they went to the synagogue, and sure enough, both got invited to different homes for the festive ceremony.
Hours later they met in a predetermined place in the local park. But to the amazement of the Jewish beggar, his friend was blazing mad.
"What did you do to me?" He shouted. "You call that a meal? It was torture!! It was hell! I'll pay you back for this--you'll see..."
"What do you mean? What happened?" the Jew asked.
"What happened? As if you didn't know! You Jews are crazy--that's what happened! First we drank a glass of wine. I like wine, but on an empty stomach... My head started spinning a bit but I figured that any second we would begin the meal. The smell of the food from the kitchen was great. Then we ate a bit of parsley. Then they started talking, and talking, and talking. In Hebrew. All the time I'm smiling and nodding my head as if I understand what they're saying--like you told me to--but my head is really swimming and hurting from the wine and I'm dying of hunger.
"The smell of the food from the kitchen is making me insane, but they don't bring it out. For two hours they don't bring anything out! Just talking, and more talking. Then, just what I needed.... another cup of wine! Then we get up, wash hands, sit back down and eat this big wafer called matzah that tastes like newspaper, leaning to the left (don't ask me why...). I started choking, almost threw up. And then finally they give me this lettuce, I took a big bite and wham! My mouth was on fire. My throat! There was horseradish inside! Nothing to eat but horseradish! You guys are crazy....
"Well, I just got up and left. Enough is enough!"
"Ah, I should have told you." replied the Jew. "What a shame! After the bitter herbs is a glorious meal. You suffered so long; you should have just held out for a few more minutes...!"
The editor again: Jewish history is a seder. We've had our appetite teased with small moments of triumph. But mostly we've had "bread of faith" that our palates can't really appreciate. And generous helpings of bitter herbs.
The lesson? Two thoughts come to mind. You need patience to be a Jew. And since we've swallowed the maror already, we might as well hold out one minute longer and get the feast...
The most famous golden rule of life is found in the second of this week's Torah readings. Love thy fellow as thyself (Leviticus 19:18), is not only famous, it also sounds like an injunction that is virtually impossible to fulfill. Can one ever hope to reach such an exalted level of saintliness to love anyone else as much as we love ourselves? Is the Torah not being naïve and utterly unrealistic?
Indeed, the classical commentaries grapple with this issue. Some suggest that we are being taught to act as if we love the other fellow. If we behave in such a way, the actual emotion may well follow in time.
The Chassidic classic Tanya (Chapter 32) teaches that if one is able to put physical considerations aside and focus on the spiritual, it may actually be within the realm of the possible to achieve true love of another. Indeed, our petty likes and dislikes are all based on physical preferences. We either approve or disapprove of the way others look, talk, dress, behave etc. But those are all material concerns. If we would only remember that these are but superficial, external, and of little consequence, we wouldn't take them at all seriously.
What matters most is the spiritual. The real person is not the body but the soul. The essence of every individual is not his nose but his neshama. So what if he's ugly and his mother dresses him funny? His soul is pure and untainted. Who knows if the other fellow's soul is not greater, holier and more pristine than mine? No one can say his soul is better than the next person's.
By focusing on the inner identity of a person we can avoid getting irritated by their outer idiosyncrasies. We might think someone weird but would we ever accuse him or her of having a weird soul? So if we can rise above the superficial and concentrate on the spirit rather than the body, on the essence rather than on the external we do have a chance of observing this fundamental mitzvah in the literal sense.
How easy it is to fall into the trap of labeling people, of categorizing them and writing them off. Him? A meshuggener! Her? Rotten to the core! That family? They are impossible!
Many years ago I was trying to help a man organize a get (Jewish religious divorce) for his estranged and already civilly divorced wife. The problem was that she refused to cooperate. (Usually, the problem is the reverse.) So I engaged an attorney friend of mine to help with the case. The next day he called me to say it was all sorted out. I couldn't believe my ears. "How did you do it?" I asked incredulously. He answered with such genuine directness that I was completely taken aback. "I called her up and said, 'I believe you are not an ogre.' Immediately, I received a favorable response and the deal was done."
Nobody is really an ogre. (Even Shrek was a nice ogre.) If we can learn to give people the benefit of the doubt we might be surprised at how friendly and cooperative they really can be. Individuals with the most notorious reputations aren't half as bad as they are made out to be when we get to know them. Human monsters are rare indeed. The spark of humanity needs but to be aroused and the G‑dly soul is stirred and revealed.
So let's try and be more generous, a little more patient and forgiving. We may well be surprised at how lovable some people can be
Does the Torah contain factual inaccuracies? Filmmaker Warner Herzog was once accused of not being a true "documentary filmmaker" because he took liberties. "There's a book for people like you" he answered, "it's called the phone book. Everything in it is accurate." Truth is deeper than fact. The Torah is true.
Hitpallel, the Hebrew word for prayer, means to reflect on or judge oneself. Our quarrel with others, taught the poet Yeats, makes rhetoric; our quarrel with ourselves makes poetry. Real prayer is a struggle with oneself. It is soul-wrestling, seeking to be better, hoping for wholeness, yearning for God. It is poetry. http://www.facebook.com/RabbiWolpe?sk=wall
Tzara'at, the skin discoloration mistranslated for millennia as "leprosy," is a curious disease. It is not contagious—it was only acquired by virtue of speaking badly of other people. It was a physical skin discoloration caused by a spiritual defect. The "metzora," the sufferer with tzara'at, had to stay outside the city and inform all that he or she was spiritually impure.
The Talmud tells us that the penalty of the metzora is imposed "measure for measure": his gossip and slander build walls of mistrust and bad feeling between people and isolated them from each other, so he, too, is isolated from society.
The cedar reminds that arrogance brought us to tzara'at in the first placeThe Talmud also discusses the reason why the purification ritual for the healed metzora includes a wand of cedar wood, the tallest species of tree, by far, in the Levant: The cedar wood reminds us that arrogance brought us to tzara'at in the first place.
This statement does not contradict the idea of slander as the cause of tzara'at, but adds texture and depth to the theme.
It teaches us that the root cause of tzara'at is arrogance, a sense of being superior to other people. This causes one to look down on others as inferior and therefore to pass judgment on them. Once those judgments fill the mind, the person then shares them with others.
It seems to me that the isolation aspect of the metzora's "sentence" is not just to sense the distance from other people caused by the gossip, but also to see how foolish a sense of superiority is. When alone you discover that all the abilities you pride yourself on as making you superior are meaningless.
Are you wise? Who learns from you if you are alone?
Are you articulate and persuasive? Whom do you persuade if you are alone?
Are you a leader? Whom do you lead if you are alone?
Are you an artist? Who will be inspired by your vision if you are alone?
In isolation, the metzora learns that all his superiority really comes from those whom he hitherto looked down upon because they received from him.
It is the need in others that we fill that makes our abilities significant. We all are givers and we all are receivers and together we form a stable living community.
We are never greater than another; we are made greater by each otherWe are never greater than another; we are made greater by each other.
In Torah, all taharah, purity, is related to life. All tum'ah, impurity, is related to death. Arrogance tears us from our garden of life; a system that we give life into and receive life from, and turns us into a dry dead specimen that only dully hints of what it was when it was green and alive.
Fortunately, this death is reversible through honest introspection; the metzora is then cleansed and welcomed back to his/her community.
By Shlomo Yaffe More articles... | Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, a frequent contributor of articles and media to chabad.org, is Permanent Scholar-in-Residence to Chabad at Harvard, and Dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York, NY. Rabbi Yaffe has lectured and led seminars throughout North America, as well as in Europe and South Africa.
I appreciate my time on this forum I received exponetionally more from it than I gave. I am sort of returning to the board but I will probably only be posting interesting articles mos in the power of the word thread. I apologize in advance but I probably won't be posting much my own writing. This is because of my time constraints not because I am angry or upset. Even if I became Glenn Beck's Number One Fan I won't have a lot of time to post on the forum. I have a new job (again) that is keeping me very busy.
I m not going pretend that I didn't get upset and leave because that is what happened. However, I had been thinking about quitting the board for a while because of the time commitment.
I want to clarify a few things ---I'm sorry I am not particularly interested in discussing it further. If you believe that is because I am incapable of defending my thoughts--- the evidence certainly fits. Please feel free to have the last word.
I don't like either Glenn Beck or George Soros. I think Glenn Beck has a better record on Israel than George Soros. I don't think Glenn Beck is an anti-Semite. However I found Glenn Beck's comment on George Soros's Holocaust activities very upsetting and insulting to all Holocaust victims. I can see that not making any sense to some and I am lacking the ability to explain it.
I have no tolerance at all for Democrats or Republicans who use Holocaust analogies to make other unrelated political points or those who criticize those who were murdered and therefore are unable to defend themselves. To be clear I generally think any Holocaust analogy is an insult to Holocaust victims because it trivializes their suffering. My thinking it obviously doesn't make it true and not all Jews agree with me but don't expect me to respond well if you make a Holocaust analogy.
In this week's Torah reading we have the description of afflictions which may beset man, the examinations by the Kohen, and the laws of the quarantine, if necessary. The Talmud teaches that "All afflictions one sees, except his own." No man examines his own afflictions; another must do this. The Torah describes physical disease, but the physical meaning does not exhaust the implications of these laws. The Mishna is especially apt.
Afflictions, moral shortcomings, are obvious and readily condemned in another. We are sensitive to the grossness of another's poor manners, repelled by arrogance, shocked by niggardliness, dismayed by that No fault escapes detection and forthright denunciation. "All afflictions man sees..." fellow's insufferable complacency. We are struck with the full force of the repulsiveness of his poor character traits and moral deficiencies. Our clarity of vision, our objectivity, our courage and candor in denouncing shortcomings "right to his face" is a source of considerable pride to many of us. No fault escapes detection and forthright denunciation. "All afflictions man sees..."
But must we carry the burden of constantly correcting everyone's failings on our shoulders? Will we be forgiven if we ignore others' afflictions for a while as we examine our own? May our spiritual ministrations be directed toward ourselves, just for a while? This selfishness may be exercised with impunity. Let's be selfless, if we must, in more mundane affairs.