Thursday, February 8, 2024

Torah Commentary on Mishpatim: The Rules/Laws, Code of Hammurabi, and the Relevance of Religion

To me, this parashah is probably one of the most complex parts of Torah to relate to in modern times. I also think it's what drives a lot of people away from religion  it's outdated, right!?

It's all the regulations about slaves and stuff that seems inhumane and absurd in modern times. Many argue that the Torah is unjust in even creating regulations regarding "slaves" because of what the Jews went through in Egypt. Likewise, our modern construct of slavery is one of abuse, neglect, and racism. The interesting thing about Torah slavery, though, is that it is entirely unlike the slavery of Egypt and the U.S. South.

Slavery in the Torah is often an individual selling their services to repay a debt or to work off bankruptcy. It isn't buying and selling individuals off a butcher's block on a dock somewhere. This is important to note. Torah begins this parashah, following the Decalogue, with the stipulations of slavery for an important  and modern applicable — reason. Having just gotten out of slavery, it's necessary to create rules and regulations for keeping slaves to ensure that the treatment of Egypt is never touched again. It's like a "do unto others as you would have liked to have been done unto you" setup. Anyhow, this is applicable in modern times as a reflection of not wishing ill upon those in a situation which you have presently experienced, I think.

Does Eye for an Eye Really Mean an Eye for an Eye?

Let me be (not) the first to say I love Hammurabi and his codes. Love may not be the right word, but the concept is brilliant, and for those who get all sauced up over history, it's absolutely tickling. The Codes of Hammurabi shaped much of the law in those early years based on the talion, or the basic "eye for an eye" principle. A lot of people come back to this Biblical principle when discussing the death penalty or other punishment. In essence, it seems to make some kind of sense. Why shouldn't the person feel the same pain/anguish that their murderer felt? But luckily, there was wising up, and (most) people realized that in no way does it equate to the original crime. Oftentimes, murderers are conscienceless and will never be able to feel that pain or sorrow.

The Sages agree that people deeply misunderstand "eye for an eye," for the very reason just mentioned. Maimonides said, 
"There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses ... who ruled, based on 'eye for an eye,' that he who blinds another should himself be blinded." 
Instead, the principle is a graphic way of explaining that punishment should not be too lenient or harsh, but should fit the crime. Torah has ways with words, it's a beautifully written manuscript and oftentimes says a lot of things it does not necessarily literally intend to say.

I find myself distraught at times over the literal nature of which things are interpreted. Yes, I preach that poetry should not be overly interpreted and that accessibility in writing is one of the most profound problems of writers who must flaunt some earth-shattering style. But Torah was composed so very, very long ago. Words change. Etymology is the key to understanding evolution in texts, darn't. Euphemism and analogy should not be taken for granted or go unused when understanding Torah.

Jews Control All the World's Money ... Right?

Say hello to Ex. 22:24, aka the laws of usury! I take particular interest in this topic, because I once wrote extensively about it for one of my classes, though I forget which. Interestingly, in most Christian texts, this is typically cited as Ex. 22:25. Bizarre, yes? I haven't run into any discrepancies as such before.

My interest in this passage relates to the whole (mistaken) idea that Jews are in control of all the world's finances. Most are unaware that Jews were essentially forced into money lending in the Middle Ages after the Catholic Church outlawed money lending because of this very passage.

 The catch, of course, was that the text says that you shouldn't charge interest to "my people" or sometimes translates as "to your brethren." That, you see, is how the Church figured that it was okay for the Jews to take on the task ... so Catholics were still allowed to borrow, and it wasn't against the law, because Jews were NOT their "brethren." It was a loophole that the Church was well aware of, and in a way it set up the Israelites for years of victimization. Additionally, it became one of the few things Jews were allowed to do at the time, because so many professions and trades were outlawed for them.

So every time someone makes a snide remark about how Jews are incredibly wealthy or run the world's finances, I bring up the fact that it was the Catholic Church who opened this gateway for the Jews. Don't blame the Jews!

Are Religions Like Judaism Still Relevant in 2024?

I read somewhere that many of Torah's laws are like an onion -- there are many layers to the meaning. As time passes, a layer peels away and we must return to the law to seek out it's spiritual meaning so that we do not simply discard it as outdated and irrelevant. Here's an article over at that discusses the different ways we interpret Torah, especially in relation to this parshah.

I'm a firm believer that every rule and law in Torah is completely applicable today, if not from a literal standpoint then from a metaphorical and spiritual standpoint. I highly doubt G-d would reach down and throw out a bunch of essential rules for life, only to have them become outdated in a couple thousand years. Adaptation is, perhaps, a test of faith, intelligence, understanding, and acceptance.

Another great article, "Is Religion Still Relevant?" by Yossy Goldman, is pretty high-quality. It runs with the idea that "everything has changed, but it's stayed the same."
The very same issues dealt with in the Bible -- sibling rivalry, jealous partners, and even murder -- are still the stuff of newspaper headlines today. So what else is new? Has anything changed? Yes, today we have astronauts and space stations and laser beams and laptops, but the basic issues and choices human beings must face remain identical. Once upon a time the question was do I hit him with my club or slice him up with my sword. Today the question is do I call up the nuclear submarines or send in the guided missiles? ...

... Torah is truth and truth is eternal. Scenarios come and go. Lifestyles change with the geography. The storylines are different but the gut level issues are all too familiar. If we ever needed religion -- or in our language, Torah -- we need it equally today and maybe more so. May we continue to find moral guidance and clarity in the eternal truths of our holy and eternal Torah. Amen.
So whenever you think back to the mitzvot or Torah and think, "Psshaw, oxen and slaves are so old school" take another look. Read the commentaries, explore the Torah, examine the Sages, talk to Rashi and Maimonides because there is definitely more to "an eye for an eye" than meets the eye.

(Sorry, had to end like that. It made me giggly silently, hah!)

Editor's note: This was published in February 2007 and has been updated for accuracy and relevance. 

Monday, January 1, 2024

Ask Chaviva Anything: How Can I Get a Heter To Stop Having Kids in Judaism?

I received an interesting Ask Chaviva Anything submission in September that has been on my mind since it popped into my inbox. I've been tossing around how to answer it for ages and I'm still not 100% positive that I know how to answer it but I feel like I have to try. 

Here's the question:

How did you manage to get a heter (Rabbinic permission) to stop having children after only 3? I'm a convert to orthodox Judaism too and even after 6 kids I can't get a break. Sorry if it's too personal a question, you obviously don't have to answer.

So, before I can answer this question, let's talk a bit about the commandment (mitzvah) to have children in Judaism. The origin of this mitzvah comes from two verses in Torah:

"And G‑d created man in His image; in the image of G‑d He created him; male and female He created them. And G‑d blessed them, and G‑d said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth." (Bereishit/Genesis 1:27-28) 
Later on, after the flood when everyone leaves the Ark, the Torah says:

“And you, be fruitful and multiply (known as periya u-rviya); swarm upon the earth and multiply thereon.” (Bereishit/Genesis 9:7)

There are many discussions around why this mitzvah is repeated, but we won't get into that here. In the Talmud, there are deep discussions around the age of marriage and when the mitzvah to procreate should be fulfilled, but we also won't get into that here. Interestingly, the commandment to bear children only applies to men, not to women, but without a woman, it's a bit of a non-starter so we also won't get into that here. 

Let's look at the requirements around the volume of children a Jew is obligated to have according to the Talmud. 

In the Mishnah (aka the Oral Torah), there are two opinions coming from the houses of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Those who are familiar will note that we typically hold by the rulings of Beit Hillel, but not always. In this discussion in Mishnah Yevamot 61b, Beit Shammai says that one is required to bear two male children, and Beit Hillel says one is required to bear one male child and one female child.

In Shulchan Aruch Even Hoezer 1:5, Beit Hillel's approach wins the day. If you've had one male and one female child, you've fulfilled the Biblical command to procreate. Mazal tov!

So why are there people who don't stop at two or have a dozen kids of all genders anyway? This originates in rabbinic texts and understandings, particularly la-erev, which means to continue having kids even after you've hit your Biblical requirement. It originates in this verse
“In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening [la-erev] do not desist.” (Ecclesiastes 11:6)
Although some rabbinic authorities say that la-erev is obligatory, others do not see it as a strict requirement. 

Ultimately, although Jewish law strongly encourages large families, contraception is permitted! In fact, it's even required in certain situations. There are many instances in which birth control is permitted. The founding rabbinic adviser of Nishmat, for example, ruled the following:
Rav Henkin z”l generally permitted a couple that had already fulfilled the mitzvah of piryah v’rivyah (the Torah commandment to be fruitful and multiply) and had compelling reasons not to have more children (e.g., concerns about the woman’s health, finances, or shalom bayit), to practice contraception indefinitely. (B’nei Banim II:38)
So, it's important to do two things:
  • Study the halachot (laws) with your spouse so you know what the reality is
  • Speak with a rabbi you trust who understands you, your family dynamic, and your needs
Obviously, you can't shop around for a rabbi who will tell you what you want, but not all rabbis are deeply knowledgeable on every single aspect of the laws of family and family planning. It's crucial to find a rabbi who knows the laws inside and out and that will truly listen to your needs. 

If the problem is with your spouse (i.e., you want to stop having kids for whatever reason and your spouse refuses), then you need to have some very hard conversations with a rabbi and perhaps a therapist you trust to work through those. 

Thus we arrive back at the original question. My answer? I didn't get a heter to stop having kids. I had a boy and then a girl and my third child was the bonus! You don't need to get a heter to stop having kids. Ultimately the decision is between you, your spouse, and HaShem. For us, it was an issue of shalom bayit and finances. 

I'm sorry you're feeling trapped and like you have to keep having kids despite being done having children. You can gain guidance and advice from your rabbi, but if you're being told you must keep having kids, then I advise you to seek guidance from someone you trust or to reach out to Nishmat for help. 

Do you have a question for me about Judaism? Life in Israel? Something else? Submit it to Ask Chaviva Anything! Also, don't forget to follow me on Instagram, where I am much more active these days!

Sunday, December 31, 2023

What Would Happen If We All Just Felt More Feelings?

Throughout my life the most stressful and inspiring moments have thrust pen to paper. These moments made it easy for me to sit and write without pause until every single feeling and experience had bled onto the page, leaving me feeling relieved, relaxed, and accomplished. 

Yet, for years, I’ve struggled to get it all out. The pull, the need, is always there, but it’s become impossible to sit down and actually get everything out. I open the document, I sit, I wait, and nothing comes. The thoughts and feelings are there, but the words to express them are lost and hidden away. 

We moved back to Israel in late June 2022, and life has been good since then. The kids made friends, adjusted to school, and picked up Hebrew faster than I could have possibly hoped for or imagined. Work for me hasn’t changed much, and Tuvia got a job working for a company he loves. 

All in all, life is good. We’re okay, we’re doing well, we’re settled. 

Then, October 7, 2023, rolled around like any other Shabbat/Simchat Torah/my 40th birthday ... but it wasn't. 

And that’s where my brain fogs and my fingers glitch on the keyboard. There has been so much in the past few months that I have felt, said, and experienced. By and large, I’ve taken them all and balled them up and shoved them down as far as I possibly can because my focus has been on the well-being — physical and mental and emotional — of my kids, my husband, my mother back in the USA. 

Tuvia volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and spent two weeks in training getting the basics before being assigned Sunday through Thursday to an Air Force base near Rishon Leziyon. He's repairing bombs or missiles or whatever it is that we use to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah and preserve the only democracy in the Middle East. 

I'm at home with the kids, working and trying not to feel too much like I'm living someone else's life. 

I think about pre-October 7 and how I was moving in a direction of self-discovery and healing. Or, at least, I was trying. I was going to therapy weekly, I was starting a workbook on self-love, I was prepared to figure out why I'm so sad and angry all the time. Now I just feel numb and tired all the time. 

Also angry. I'm still so angry. 

I miss writing. I miss feeling like I know how to express myself and how to take all of the big feels and anger and push them out onto the screen and not deep down into my gut where they just bubble up into my chest and sit like a scream that won't release. 

My therapist asked me last week: "What would happen if you let yourself feel?" 

And I don't know how to answer the question. I've been thinking on it constantly since our Thursday meeting and I'm blank. Feelings mean vulnerability and weakness for me. Vulnerability and being weak are two things I absolutely abhor in myself. From a pretty young age feelings were something to be locked away and not felt, not addressed, not acknowledged. If you don't acknowledge them, then they'll go away. Right?

The funny thing is, I don't parent or respond to my spouse with this approach. Feelings are good! Feel the feelings! Let them out! Let them out into the universe so you can breathe! Don't be afraid to cry! Don't be afraid to feel!

And, of course, because of that, I have pretty well-adjusted kids who are open about how they feel and what they're going through and we work through everything together as best we can. I would never silence my children or spouse and tell them that vulnerability is bad or that emotions and feelings make you weak. 

So what would happen if I let myself feel?

What would happen, indeed. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Nishmat Kol Chai with Printable Chart

So I did a thing. There's this beautiful prayer of thanks called Nishmat Kol Chai (the soul of every living thing) that many women take upon themselves to say every day for 40 days. Here's a little more about it from the woman who popularized this, Charlene Aminoff:

Rebbetzin Kanievsky, a’h, taught us that Nishmat Kol Chai ... is a Tefila (prayer) of immense #Gratitude to Hashem. And when we express immense gratitude to Hashem in the form of this extraordinarily powerful prayer for 40 consecutive days, MIRACLES CAN HAPPEN!! .
Nishmat Kol Chai has become known as a TREMENDOUS SEGULAH ... Whether you’re in need of a Shidduch, Pregnancy, Refuah ... Parnassa, increased Mazal, Simchat Hachaim ... ANYTHING AT ALL, saying Nishmat Kol Chai for 40 consecutive days (preferably before sundown) has been proven to be MIRACULOUS!!

So I decided to make a beautiful printable to help women who take this upon themselves to keep track of their 40 days of progress.  

Download the 40-Day Nishmat Kol Chai Printable Chart (PDF)

Download the Nishmat Kol Chai Prayer

May you merit to have your prayers of thanks answered completely and quickly!

Friday, August 26, 2022

We're Back: Ask Chaviva Anything!

It's been awhile and I honestly don't even know if anyone is interested in this series, but I wanted to bring back the Ask Chaviva Anything series because I'm trying to spend more time here on the blog! Ready? Ask away!

Parashat Re'eh: Worshipping Gods You Didn't Know vs. Just Not Worshipping Other Gods

Boker tov and chodesh tov and Shabbat shalom. It's me, again, with another look at the weekly Torah portion from my favorite place in Jerusalem: the shuk!

This week's parashah is Re'eh (Devarim 11:26-16:17), and it's chock full of blessings and curses we've all heard before. But one thing I've noticed though is the repetition of a phrase: 

(singular you) אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתָּ

 (plural you) אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם

Gods who you didn't know/haven't experienced

This phrase is used again and again in requests to not listen to others who try and pull you into worshipping "gods you didn't know." The dangers around worshiping "gods you didn't know" or "gods you didn't experience before." All usages are past tense, as well. 

This line appears in Devarim 11:28, 13:3, 13:7, and 13:14.

My immediate thought here is ... does this mean we can worship gods that are new to us? So no idols of Avraham's father but yes to all the others?

Why not just say clearly and definitively, "Don't worship other gods"? Period. Full stop. 

Why the "lo yadata" and "lo yadatem" ... that you didn't know? 

Let's say that the idea here is that the Israelites are supposed to focus on the Gd they do know rather than gods they didn't or don't know. This may be the point of the language because the whole of Sefer Devarim is one big reminder of all the things HaShem did for the Israelites. There is one Gd, HaShem, and He's the end-all, be-all. 

I took you out of Egypt! 

I fed you manna!

I kept you! 

I'm giving you this land!

I promised you'd be numerous as the stars in the sky! 

Look at all I did for you! 

You know me. You didn't know them. You don't know them


It still doesn't sit well with me. There's something uncomfortable about this line that I just don't like or love. Something uncertain and unnecessary. 

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, August 19, 2022

Parashat Eikev: Are Jews really better than everyone else?

Happy Friday! I am happy to say these words are coming to you from the comfort of Machane Yehuda, aka the shuk, in Jerusalem, Israel, Planet Earth. Let's dive in. 

This week's Torah portion (aka parashah) is Eikev, which I've written about quite a few times before (including here and here). There are so many compelling events in this week's portion! This portion comprises Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 and includes Moshe's final words to the Israelites and retells the infamous story of the Golden Calf. 

Are the Jews better than everyone else? 

It also includes a verse often cited as troublesome for how the world thinks Jews understand themselves in the expanse of humanity. In Deut. 7:14, the Torah says

ברוך תהיה מכל העמים

Baruch t'hiyeh m'kol ha'amim. 

This often translates as "You will be blessed above all people." This is just one of the places where the antiSemitic trope that Jews believe they're better than everyone else comes from. But that's a mistranslation. There is so much nuance with translation, and this translation misses the mark. The Hebrew uses a mem (מ), which means "from" not "above." Mem is a comparative preposition, and when you compare two things, you're setting them apart from one another. 

The better translation here is "You will be blessed when compared to all people." It's an indicator of a different status of blessing, not a status of being above or better than others. And it makes sense. Jews are viewed by the world as distinct, separate from. Even the most non-religious Jews are still considered as different and separate. This was the blessing from HaShem. 

You can embrace that blessing of difference and celebrate it or view it as a negative and something to fight or battle against. 

What's the deal with the different versions of the Golden Calf story?

Later, the parashah retells the sin of the Golden Calf but changes up a major portion of the story, which makes me wonder. If you recall, the scene here is that Moshe went up on the mount to get the Torah from HaShem. He was gone "too long" for the people, so they panicked and fell back on their old "we need an intermediary to check in with HaShem and see what's doing with Moshe" ways. Thus, they built a calf (not to worship, but to serve as an intermediary to their Gd). 

In Deut. 9:21, Moshe says:

"As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain."

But in the original incident in Exodus 32:20, it says:

"He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it."

What's missing? The people drinking the water, of course. Why isn't this brought up in this week's portion? 

Ramban says it's because Moshe didn't want to humiliate them, but that doesn't seem to track. This entire portion is an extensive reminder of how the Israelites screwed up. Ramban also says he doesn't want to tell the people because he doesn't want them to know that he did to them what is done to wives accused of adultery. After all, Israel did cheat on HaShem, right? Sort of, anyway.

Okay, stop. Wait. What? Yes, when a woman is accused of adultery, she's forced to let down her hair and drink some sketchy water. In Numbers 5:17:

"And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water."

So is what Moshe did in Exodus and what happened to an accused adulteress the same thing? The former involves burning something and putting the ashes into water. The latter involves some dust from the floor, which could be some ash mixed in with general dirt. The Hebrew word is the same in Deuteronomy and Numbers, but the version in Exodus doesn't use the word for dust/dirt or ash. But the two don't appear to be the same. Even if the ash on the tabernacle floor was from a sacrifice, those sacrifices are out of holiness. The burning of the calf has nothing to do with anything holy. 

All of that to say I don't buy the Ramban's perspective here. But when something in one place in the Torah doesn't match something in another place in the Torah, we have to explain it, right? 

The reality here is that the drinking that is explicitly called out in Exodus is merely implied in Deuteronomy. One can safely assume that there was a single source of water where the Israelites were camped. When Moshe says, "I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain" the implication is that the people were drinking out of this brook whether they wanted to or not. 

And that concludes this week's thoughts on Eikev. There are a bunch of other interesting sections in this portion, including gobs of talk about conquering and possessing the land, but I've covered that in previous years pretty thoroughly. Until next week ... Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, August 15, 2022

Fun Puns and Alliterations for Celebrating Sukkot in 2022

Yes, Sukkot has come and gone this year, but after many years of creating alliterative names for the nightly meals in the Sukkah, I thought it might be fun to compile a ton so that when next year rolls around and we're hopefully gathering with friends and family ... you can have some fun, alliterative meals!

For those not in the know, a sukkah is a temporary structure that is also called a booth or a hut or a tabernacle (the latter most often outside of Jewish circles). With that, I give you the alliterative options:

In the sukkah ...

  • Sushi in the sukkah (served with sake in the sukkah)
  • Spaghetti in the sukkah
  • Make-your-own-salad in the sukkah
  • Make-your-own-sandwich in the sukkah
  • Sabich in the sukkah
  • Sausages in the sukkah
  • Smoothies in the sukkah
  • Subs in the sukkah (as in, sub sandwiches)
  • Sambusak in the sukkah (think: middle eastern samosas)
In the shack ...
These could also be used for "in the sukkah."
  • Shakshukah in the shack
  • Schnitzel in the shack
  • Shakes in the shack
  • Shepherd’s pie in the shack
In the booth ...
  • Beers in the booth
  • Brews in the booth
  • Burgers in the booth
  • Bagels in the booth
  • Banana splits in the booth
  • Bibimbap in the booth
  • Blintzes in the booth
  • Burritos in the booth
  • Bourekas in the booth
  • Hummus v'basar in the booth

In the hut ...
  • Hot dogs in the hut
  • Pizza in the hut (this is not alliterative, but a nod to Pizza Hut!)
  • Hamburgers in the hut
  • Hot pot in the hut
  • Herring in the hut
  • Heroes in the hut (as in sub sandwiches)
  • Hamin in the hut (hamin is similar to cholant)
  • Huevos rancheros in the hut
  • Hummus in the hut
In the tabernacle ...
  • Tacos in the tabernacle
  • Tequila in the tabernacle
  • Turkey in the tabernacle
  • Make-your-own-toast in the tabernacle
  • Tajine in the tabernacle
And a few more:
  • Pancakes in the palapa
  • Pancakes in the payag 

Another one that I came up with was cholent or chile en la choza (chili in the hut), but I was told that choza in Spanish is actually more of a hovel than a hut. If you speak Spanish and can let me know, I'd love to hear it in the comments!

Want to share one I didn't think of? Post in the comments and I'll add it to the list!

Friday, August 12, 2022

Chaviva on the Parashat Ve'etchanan: Aliyah, Changing the Law, Prayer, and more

Many moons ago, I sat down and studied the weekly Torah portion (parashah). I started this when I was living in Washington D.C. right after college. I'd finish my shift at the Washington Post, head to a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, and dig into the portion to figure out "What's bothering Chavi?"

It's been a long time since I had the mental or physical space to do this. Being a full-time working parent means my week is filled with living on other people's timelines and managing other people's problems and needs. Now that we're living in Israel, I have Fridays off (for the most part), which means I'm trying to reclaim Friday mornings as my own. 

Sometimes, that will mean heading into Jerusalem to the shuk and sometimes, that will mean staying local and bumming it at an Aroma. Sometimes I'll drive around looking for plaques to understand what occurred in the lands around me and sometimes that will mean going to museums, and sometimes that will mean reading the weekly Torah portion to try and reclaim a me of a bygone era ... a me who learned voraciously. 

This week, it means the latter. This week's Torah portion is chock full of so many thought-provoking verses, but I'm going to try and stick to a few that sing to me at this moment. 

Devarim 4:1 Possessing the Land of Israel

וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל־הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֣עַן תִּֽחְי֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

Now therefore hearken, O Yisra᾽el, to the statutes and to the judgments, which I teach you, to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you (Devarim 4:1).

Here I am, living in Israel, re-fulfilling a dream I had a decade ago. This life is, without a doubt, filled with struggles and challenges and incomprehensible stumbling blocks. And yet, I'm also fulfilling what the Ramban considers one of the 613 commandments.

There is a positive, biblical commandment to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, as it says, "You shall possess it and dwell in it" (Devarim 17:14, 26:1). (Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvot Asei HaTeluyot B'Eretz Israel, chap. I, sec 15.) 

Chazal (חז"ל acronym for Chachameinu Zichronam Livracha, or “Our sages, may their memory be blessed”) say that the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Sifrei, Re'eh 28). 

I suppose, then, that it makes sense that it's so hard. If one mitzvah can be equal to all the mitzvot, then surely there must be challenges and feats to overcome. Imagine taking 613 steps versus taking just one. Imagine answering a test with 613 questions versus just one. 

(The truth is that the Land of Israel is easy. It's the State of Israel that is the challenge.)

The sun rises over Neve Shamir in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Devarim 4:2 Waiting for Revelation, Not Change

 לֹ֣א תֹסִ֗פוּ עַל־הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ לִשְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶֽם׃ 

You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (Devarim 4:2).

When I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, I had a fantastic mentor and teacher named Stuart Miller. He was an Orthodox Jew who was also a professor, striking a challenging balance between "this is what I believe" and "this is what the facts tell me." And he was so good and managing that balance without the friction so many academics suffer while knowing what the historical and cultural record says and what the Torah says. 

This week's parashah is V'etchanan in which the pasuk (verse) above says the laws of the Torah are set in stone and must remain as they are literally written, period, full stop. The challenge here, obviously, is that time changes people, technology advances, and the world has become a different place. 

So how do we reconcile and balance the seemingly archaic and outdated laws of Torah with the way we live our modern lives?

What I learned from Professor Miller was that we cannot change the law if we are living Torah-observant lives. 

The Torah doesn't bend to us; we bend to the Torah. Over time, aspects of the law are revealed to us and re-revealed to the point where we can apply Torah to our daily lives in this modern world. The Torah doesn't have to change; we have to look harder and understand better. 

This is where the gedolim ha'dor (the big rabbis or thinkers of each generation) play a vital role. They see how the law applies to modern situations and advise accordingly. It's why there are Shabbat elevators and Shabbat lamps and why we can use timers and hot plates and other things that rabbis of generations gone by would have scoffed at, surely. 

Instead of saying "We live in a new world, the laws of the Torah don't fit with this modern world," we say, "How do these laws apply in our modern world?" 

Obviously, not all streams of Judaism or all flavors of Jews hold by this. In the Liberal world, much of the law has become optional and in the Orthodox world, some groups have taken the law and changed it to be more oppressive and hateful. Neither are what this pasuk says.  

Devarim 4:7 Waiting for Answers That Never Come

כִּ֚י מִי־ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ בְּכׇל־קׇרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו׃ 

For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him (Devarim 4:7)?

When I was a little kid, I used to pray every night. I'd beg Gd to help me love myself more, for people to like me more, to not feel so sad, to not feel so alone, to be thinner, to be smarter, to be different, to be better. I never asked Gd for things. I was never the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good for the next week if you convince my parents to buy me x, y, z. I was the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good forever if you promise to convince more people to like me."

I was a depressed and sad kid. I was fat and unhappy and my journals from childhood are incredibly upsetting to read. Even as I continue to struggle with so many of these same issues today, I wish I had been kinder to myself. I was just a kid!

The hardest part of those prayers and being that kid was that I was never answered. Gd never responded to me. At least, that's what I thought and felt. There was no booming voice from the sky saying I was going to be okay or asking me to do something different to make my asks come true. As a kid who knew the stories of Gd talking to the prophets and Moshe, I thought maybe, just maybe, I'd hear an answer. 

At some point over the past 10 years, I learned that we always get answers to our prayers; they're just not the answer format we expect, need, or want. They don't come in the timeline we demand either. I spent my childhood asking for self-love and it wasn't until I was a fully grown adult human woman that I started understanding what it means to love myself.  It took until I was in my late 30s to learn that starving myself wasn't the way to happiness and health. I'm still working on it, and not doing a super-great job all the time, but I'm working on it.

So this pasuk (verse): Is Gd close whenever we call upon Him? Does he answer when we call upon Him? The truth is the verse says that He's close, but not that he answers. What does "close" mean? It means that HaShem neither slumbers nor sleeps and is always available to hear our prayers, our cries, our requests. 

The beautiful thing about Judaism is that the revelation at Mount Sinai/Horeb happened before all the Israelites. Everyone saw and experienced those moments. It wasn't a private revelation to one person. It wasn't a setup that said you have to rely on a specific person or persons as a channel to Gd. In Judaism, we all have access. Constant access. Because HaShem is close at all times and, as this pasuk says, aren't we lucky? 

And, indeed, in this parashah, the next several verses talk about that moment when HaShem appeared before the people and what they saw and experienced to serve as a reminder of this very fact. 

What did you see in this week's Torah portion? Do you have any thoughts about anything in this post? Share with me in the comments! 

And if you're curious what my TaNaKh of choice is, it's the Koren's Magerman Edition. I love all of the extra goodies in the back, the easy tabs, the two bookmarks to keep tabs on the weekly Torah portion and the haftarah, and more. Get yours here!

Thursday, July 28, 2022

One Month in Israel: Aliyah Without Aliyah

I thought I'd feel something ... something more. More deep, more powerful, more. Just more. 

When I made aliyah in 2012, I felt it all. I felt the air differently, the mornings differently. Every experience was like I was growing into a new and more meaningful life. I saw everything through new eyes, and those eyes felt and experienced things differently. Everything was shiny and new. 

I was a new Chaviva. A better Chaviva. A Chaviva more deeply in touch with her spirit, soul, and emotions. 

Moving back, I've realized I'm not that Chaviva anymore. I'm eight years, three kids, and so many life experiences (both challenging and rewarding) later. 

And I'm struggling with not feeling that ... feeling everything "more."

When we landed, Tuvia was on an energetic high. Every sight and sound was big and special and like coming home to him. I was in awe of him. I envied him. At the same time, I didn't understand why he was able to feel that way when I just felt like everything was dulled. The sights, the sounds appeared as if the shine and shimmer had been buffed clean off. 

Over the several weeks we've been here I've been waiting for that more, that shimmer to return. To look around and marvel. I've had a few moments when I step out on the balcony at sunset and the view sucks me into a world of quiet and light. But it's fleeting. It's so fleeting I don't even know how to describe the speed to you. It's shorter than the blink of an eye. 

You know when you live someplace a long time and it becomes comfortable? There's two types of comfortable you can feel: the type where it's easy and relaxing and always like coming home or the type where it's too familiar and thus uncomfortable. Somehow, that's how Israel feels to me right now. 

I know I should say I'm lucky to be here, and I am. I feel lucky and blessed and so happy to finally be home. But I want it to feel like it used to. I want to feel something about it. Anything really. It feels too familiar, too normal, too run-of-the-mill, too dull. 

I have a feeling it's because I'm working, and the kids are home, and it just feels like summer back in Denver in many ways. But I'm holding out for the moment, the feeling, the shimmer. I know it'll come back to me. 

I need to start learning again and find an outlet that is more than kids and work and marriage. Kids and work and marriage have been all I've had for so long now. I have nothing that's mine or for me. I have to find that something, and I have to find it soon. 

Anyone out there know the feeling that I'm feeling? Drop a line in the comments, please.